The Door With Seven Locks: Hell Toupee

In Pathe Films’ adaptation of Edgar Wallace’s novel, the titular door is locked when the old Lord Selford dies, sealing in his bequest to his successor. Years pass, and the new tenant of Selford Hall, the scheming Dr. Manetta, and the embittered staff of the Selford household acquire six of the seven keys required to retrieve the legacy. The seventh is sent to June Lansdowne. June joins forces with ex-policeman Richard Martin as they struggle to stay ahead of Manetta and solve the riddle of The Door With Seven Locks…

If all that sounds a bit OTT, it is. The first words that sprang to mind as the dying Lord Selford chewed his last piece of scenery and explained the plot in minute detail were ‘eye-rolling camp’. The Door With Seven Locks is huge fun: a ‘spooky country house-family curse-evil servants’ B-movie, played with the right amount of knowing by a cast of both recognisable and lesser known faces of the time, including Leslie Banks, Lilli Palmer and the wonderfully-named Romilly Lunge. The plot is frequently recapped, significant events are clearly signposted and you just know Dr. Manetta’s collection of torture instruments will figure large towards the end of the film- so much so that the film was renamed Chamber of Horrors for its release in the USA. It’s a very understanding host or landlord that lets their tenants set that lot up around the house. We must mention the butler’s wig, which is a horror in its own right.

Director Norman Lee and scriptwriter Gilbert Gunn have delivered the goods here- in lesser hands this could have ended up as ‘quota quickie’ fodder for the likes of Twickenham Films. Lee handles the action well, notably the climactic ‘sword versus chair’ tussle in the chamber of horrors, and also the humour. Romilly Lunge (had to say it…) makes a solid lead man and has good chemistry with Lilli Palmer, who shows great naturalism while all around ham it up unrepentantly, notably Leslie Banks as Manetta. Gilbert Gunn’s script boasts lines like: ‘Girls are like tiger cubs- they ought to be caged at 16 and shot at 20’, and fans of childish humour will love the bit about ‘Lord Selford’s family jewels… being locked away until they can be given to Sir John’s bride on her wedding night’.

If there’s a gripe, it’s the quality of the print held by the BFI, shown on Talking Pictures, which looks like it was cobbled together from the salvageable bits of several copies of varying quality. There are noticeable cuts, often mid-sentence, doubtless made by the censors at the time, and rejoined with all the subtlety of the butler’s hairpiece. Given the choice between this and nothing, it’s obvious which is the preferred option, but when you’re partaking of a film like this, you want to see it in its frothiest, zingiest pomp. Maybe a pristine print exists somewhere, held by a private collector and kept behind a special door…