"Every living person has their own Ox Head Woods.”
The Red House is about cancerous guilt. While it presumes to be about a mysterious abandoned house and of the potential evil that resides within, what The Red House is really about is guilt—unburied, unforgotten, and insurmountable.
Meg (the adorable Allene Roberts) lives on an isolated farm with the Morgans, Pete (Edward G. Robinson) and his sister, Ellen (Judith Anderson). The Morgans long ago adopted Meg after her parents had decided to pack up and move north. The circumstances as to why Meg never accompanied her parents, or how the Morgans came to adopt her, is never made clear, but Meg seems legitimately happy, so beyond her recognition of the adoption having taken place, she doesn’t feel the need to ask any questions. It is what it is.
One day a boy from her school named Nath (Lonnie McAllister) approaches her about possibly getting a job on the Morgan farm. Meg introduces him to Pete, who lost the use of one leg after taking a nasty fall in Ox Head Woods, and the agreement is forged: Nath is to come every day after school, do whatever needs to be done in the fields, and then walk the hour back home. One night, after it’s gotten a bit late, Nath off-handedly mentions that he’ll cut through Ox Head Woods to save time on his way home. Pete immediately begins to warn the boy of the woods, and of its reputation, and of the screams reputedly heard coming from what’s known as the red house. Nath waves off these claims and takes the short cut anyway…and hears the screams for himself. Terrified, he rushes back to the Morgan farm and tells them what he has heard.
And from there the mystery begins to grow. Just what is with the red house of Ox Head Woods? Why does Pete Morgan seem so terrified of it? And who is that man lurking in the woods with a rifle, trying to scare off anyone who gets too close to the red house? (Played by Rory Calhoun, who has the greatest hair I’ve ever seen.)
When most people hear the words “film noir,” they think of Sam Spade sitting behind a desk, or Orson Welles fleeing from his captors through city sewers. They think of directors like Fritz Lang or Howard Hawks. They think of fedoras and dark alleys and light filtering in through window blinds. And while I love classic noir, I love non-traditional noir even more—when it’s lifted and placed in a not-so-usual setting. And I love when the heart of noir lies in darkness verging on horror.
The Red House was not a movie with which I was previously familiar, or even aware. But Edward G. Robinson remains one of the truly great character actors, most well known for his countless roles as crooked monsters during Warner Bros’ heyday of gangster pictures (perhaps the most famous being Little Caesar). Robinson’s depiction of any number of ruthless thugs gave birth to the classic “you dirty rat” line used in so many mafia parodies (even though he never once used that line). And sitting down to watch him portray not a gangster or thug, but a broken-down, paranoid, and terrified man, I have to say it was an interesting experience. It always is when the requisite tough guy gets to shed some tears and show off his broken side.
The “twist” ending, which is a term I lament using as it makes the resolution sound gimmicky and cornball, is pretty much perfect. It unmasks the villain, so to speak, and the mystery of the red house is finally unearthed. So, what on earth dwells within Ox Head Woods that scares Pete so much? Is it a wailing ghost? A mutated monster? Any one of those would have been disappointing to some degree, but for those who enjoy real, human drama, they will find the ending as satisfying as it is heartbreaking.
The Red House is a film that movie fans love to analyze, as they do with all noir, and some of the theories can get pretty...out there. (The Morgan brother and sister are having an incestuous affair! The red house represents the vagina!) Even Martin Scorsese has discussed the film in a past AFI program, but while I haven't seen this for myself, I can't imagine the "v" word ever comes into his assessment.
The direction by Delmer Daves, who is also responsible for the Humphrey Bogart-starring Dark Passage as well as the original 3:10 to Yuma (yes, the Bale/Crowe version was a remake), is quite beautiful. Despite being shot in black and white, he captures the beauty of the Morgan farm and the nearby town, full of swaying tree branches and lush foliage. Small-town, picturesque Americana is effortlessly captured, and if it were not for the dark secret metastasizing in the hearts of a few, it would seem like the ideal place to live. And alternately, Ox Head Woods is made to look ominous with only patches of darkness and the sounds of wind through those same lush trees...
The recent DVD/Blu-Ray combo release by Film Chest (who previously brought you ZAAT! for some reason) is the definitive version of the film to own. Plagued for years by second-rate releases by companies specializing in public domain titles, the picture has never looked better. The fuzz is gone and replaced with incredibly smooth images—at some points even a little too smooth, giving the younger members of the cast almost doll-like appearances. A restoration comparison can be found among the special features, which showcases just how much work was done on this minor classic.
A commentary track by film author William Hare endeavors to be interesting and passionate, but too often falls into the trap of merely repeating what’s occurring on screen…and I’m not sure if this was just a fault of my person screener copy, but at times there seemed to be anywhere between a 5-10 second delay when Mr. Hare’s comments didn’t exactly match up with the on-screen action. However, Mr. Hare specializes in film noir from Hollywood’s golden age, so the commentary track contains some interesting information, if you can deal with some occasional “now the character is walking through the woods”-type comments.
A trailer for the film caps off the features.
Fans of film noir and Edward G. Robinson would be adding a gem to their collection with this pretty stellar release. Forget all those previous cheap and colorized versions. Film Chest has the last word here.
* Images courtesy of DVDBeaver.