Beware of Birds: Crow Hollow (1952)

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Actress Natasha Parry, star of Crow Hollow (1952)

Crow Hollow (1952) is a little seen low-budget British B-movie typically categorized as Film Noir in the few books where I’ve seen it mentioned. After catching up with it recently I discovered that it had much more in common with Gothic mysteries, Gaslight (1940) inspired thrillers and classic “Old Dark House” movies. Directed economically by Michael McCarthy, who excelled in television and made a number of suspenseful WW2 dramas such as The Accursed (1957) and Operation Amsterdam (1959), the film lacks the stylish flourishes and sophisticated set pieces that the material cries out for. But it is held together by some sharp performances and a twisty plot based on a book by Dorothy Eden and it’s Eden’s involvement that drove me to watch Crow Hollow.

crowhbookI discovered Dorothy Eden’s work last year after coming across a beat up old paperback of her 1967 novel Winterwood, a Jane Eyre knockoff involving a young woman who becomes a governess and falls in love with her charge’s father. Eden was a popular fiction author who wrote a number of atmospheric Gothic romances beginning in 1940 with The Singing Shadows. Her work was aimed at a female audience and relied on typical tropes that were common of the genre including humble but spunky heroines who ‘married up’ and found themselves living in sprawling estates or ancient castles with men they loved passionately but barely knew. And much like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the heroines of these novels repeatedly found themselves in serious danger. Despite the familiarity of her storylines, Dorothy Eden benefited from being able to generate genuine suspense and her devoted readers thrilled to her tales of marriage, mystery and murder. Winterwood wasn’t a challenging or particularly memorable book but it was a whole lot of fun so I decided to Google the author’s name. Much to my surprise, I discovered that Dorothy Eden had her own page on IMDB.com that contained a single credit for the film adaptation of her 1950 novel Crow Hollow so I decided to track the movie down.

The premise is rather simple and involves a brunette beauty named Ann (Natasha Parry) who has recently married a doctor (Donald Houston) following a whirlwind romance. The newlyweds plan to take up residence at the doctor’s family home, an isolated country estate known as Crow Hollow. It derived its name from the unusual number of crows that once nested there and were reportedly omens of “ill luck.” The crows have left but the doctor still lives there accompanied by his three spinster aunts. Before arriving at her curious new home, Ann visits a hospital where one of her husband’s dying patients warns her, “Don’t let them take you to Crow Hollow! It’s no good for either of you.”

This dire warning proves fateful once the couple arrives at Crow Hollow, a large shambling Tudor style estate that has belonged to the doctor’s family for centuries. There she meets her husband’s three aunts; Judith (Esma Cannon), a self-proclaimed ‘naturalist’ who collects poisonous plants and deadly spiders; Opal (Nora Nicholson), a motherly type in charge of domestic duties; and Hester (Susan Richmond), who enjoys cooking and making soup for their neighbors. The aunts resemble three old crones from mythology or the infamous witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth whose likeness can be found in countless other tales and films. They aren’t particularly welcoming to their nephew’s new wife, who just wants to ‘fit in’ and spend time with her husband but he’s too busy taking care of his sick patients so their informal honeymoon quickly comes to an end. Soon afterward a series of unfortunate events involving Aunt Judith’s venomous spider and some lethal mushrooms suggest that someone wants to kill Ann or at the very least, send the doctor’s new bride bolting from Crow Hollow. To make matters worse, the “ill luck” crows have returned to the estate and seem to be an omen of misfortune for the newlyweds.

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So who is trying to get rid of Ann? Is it the husband she barely knows? One of his unwelcoming aunts? The pretty blond maid who insists on borrowing her clothing without permission? The kindly gardener who seems to know everything about Crow Hollow? Or maybe it’s the doctor’s old flame who is still carrying a torch for him? The red herrings are plentiful but the film kept me guessing until the very end.

Crow Hollow is not exactly a forgotten masterpiece and if I didn’t know better I would assume the movie was made ten years earlier due to its outdated look but as I mentioned previously, it benefits from some solid performances. Natasha Parry (Midnight Lace; 1960, Romeo and Juliet; 1968, Oh! What a Lovely War; 1969, etc.) is particularly good as Ann, the “humble but spunky” heroine of the piece and Esma Cannon (The Spy in Black; 1939, Sailor Beware!; 1956, The Flesh and the Fiends; 1960, etc.) is wonderfully eccentric as the nature loving Aunt Judith. Melissa Stribling (Horror of Dracula; 1958, The League of Gentlemen; 1960, Crucible of Terror; 1971) is serviceable as the doctor’s previous love interest and keep an eye out for Patricia Owens (Ghost Ship; 1952, Sayonara; 1957, The Fly; 1958, etc.), as the sassy maid who slinks around like a prowling cat or seductive snake and gives poor Ann a run for her money.

At its heart, Crow Hollow is a suspenseful ‘woman’s picture’ and in turn, women have the best roles in the film. However, it should appeal to anyone who appreciates old-fashioned Gothic romances that take place in decaying mansions surrounded by rotting cemeteries and accompanied by a strange cast of offbeat characters. Although the production is constrained by its low-budget and limited to a brisk 70-minute running time, it still manages to establish a sense of place and a stifling atmosphere laden with dread thanks to the use of crows and their insistent cawing. As the film builds to its surprising climax, the crows multiply and the sound of the bird’s cries escalate with each plot twist and turn. I suspect Alfred Hitchcock may have been a fan and it could be one of many inspirations for his own highly regarded study of fowl induced fear, The Birds (1963), based on another dark tale by Daphne Du Muir.

Crow Hollow is only available on PAL DVD from Simply Media in the U.K. but it is currently accessible on Youtube although I can’t vouch for its legality or the quality of the print.

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3 Responses Beware of Birds: Crow Hollow (1952)
Posted By Max : March 11, 2016 1:29 pm

Nice post! I’m looking forward to tracking down the movie and Dorothy Eden. When I was young–around nine, ten years old–I was always drawn to these Gothic romances because of the covers even though they were nearly indistinguishable from each other. But because of these covers I was inadvertently introduced to a lot of classics by way of their 1960s women-in-nightgowns-in-peril reissues, and better-than-decent novels like Blanche Fury and Hangover Square.

Posted By Jonathan Barnett : March 11, 2016 4:36 pm

If one likes this kind of movie, a combination of noir, Gothic, Old Dark House and Woman-in-Peril picture, than the place to start is Gainsborough Pictures. Directors like Hitchcock and Michael Powell got there start there. As well as players like Margaret Lockwood,
Phyllis Calvert, Stewart Granger and James Mason. Lots of secrets and turmoil.

On the American Front this stuff leans more to the noir with the likes of THE RED HOUSE.

Posted By swac44 : March 12, 2016 8:20 pm

Had a quick look at the YouTube version, probably uploaded from a compressed version of the PAL DVD (which is actually a double feature with the no-star 1948 thriller Castle Sinister, combining a gothic setting with a Second World War spy plot). Serviceable on a small screen, but probably not worth blowing up bigger than the size of a portable device or computer monitor.

(Actually, I’ll correct myself, when I streamed YouTube through my blu-ray player’s YT interface, it looked acceptable, the device seems to smooth out the pixels, but the image seemed to fluctuate between black and white and a kind of sepia tone. Not too distracting, but not ideal either.)

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