Review: Tower of Terror (dir. Lawrence Huntington, 1941)

Tower of Terror

Tower of Terror
UK, 1941
Director: Lawrence Huntington
Writers: John Argyle and John Reinhardt

Review by N Emmett.

A young woman named Marie (Movita Castaneda) is on the run from the authorities in Nazi Germany. She escapes her pursuers by jumping from a harbour into the sea, and is pulled ashore by a hook-handed lighthouse keeper named Kristan (Wilfred Lawson).

It turns out that Kristan is mentally unstable, and rescued Marie because he believes her to be his dead wife. She is safe from the Nazis, for now – but for how long will she be safe from Kristan?

Tower of Terror’s utterly generic title belies the fact that the film plays with multiple genres. The British film industry did not pursue horror in earnest until the late fifties; before that point, however, horror motifs often bled into films of other types – creating entertaining oddities such as this one.

The first act of Tower of Terror has its roots in gothic fiction. The lighthouse is a surrogate for the crumbling old castles beloved of Walpole, and as per tradition it plays host to a pursued lady an a trtr3dangerous man. As if to emphasise the fantastic overtones, Kristan has Marie don a puffy-shouldered dress straight out of a fairy tale.

Kristan himself is a figure derived from horror fiction. He is given only token motivations: in an early scene we are told that he lost his wife in a storm and lost his arm in an explosion, the latter incident also damaging his mind. His hook-hand has a very small role to play in the story, and was presumably included to play on the age-old superstition that equates physical deformities with evil.

It is easy to imagine Boris Karloff in the role, but actor Wilfred Lawson does a good job. He recognises that his character is a fairy-tale fiend, not a psychological case study, and delivers a ripe performance that contrasts splendidly with the stiff upper lips of the other thespians involved.

trtr2After this stretch of modern gothic, the film suddenly begins to make use of its wartime setting. Marie turns out to have escaped from a concentration camp, and a second lighthouse keeper (Michael Rennie) who turns up to aid Kristan is revealed to be an English spy attempting to smuggle information out of the country.

Comedy also has a place in Tower of Terror, although this aspect has not aged well. The film portrays the Nazi authorities as humorously ineffectual bunglers, an approach that was understandable in the context of the era – belittling the enemy has always boosted morale – but now seems curiously coy. There is no sense that the protagonists are going up against a totalitarian dictatorship, not when Hitler’s regime is represented by a few benighted bureaucrats who could have stepped out of a sixties sitcom.

The story reaches an action-packed climax worthy of a swashbuckler. The lighthouse falls under trtr1attack by the cannons of a German vessel, while Rennie’s dashing hero puts up a last stand against the villainous Kristan (Marie faints in the corner, as film heroines were wont to do at the time). The film also returns to gothic imagery: the lighthouse turns out to have its very own dungeon, with a terrible secret buried within…

Tower of Terror is a great chunk of 1940s screen melodrama. Well worth a look from anybody who likes their genre films old-school – and who has an appetite for a bit of mix-and-match on the side.