Released 2 October 1922, One Exciting Night, directed by D.W. Griffith, is one of the earliest old dark house films, a horror subgenre set in, well, an old dark house, with a lot of strangers gathered/stuck there as they try to solve a mystery. The house isn’t complete without hidden passageways, and it’s always a dark and stormy night. There’s also always a criminal, nutcase, or creature on the loose.
Griffith was inspired to write the script because of the successful plays The Bat (1920) and The Cat and the Canary (1922), both of which were later adapted into several screen versions. The preview audiences were underwhelmed, which compelled Griffith back to the studio to shoot a much more dramatic ending. He knew people had come to expect edge-of-your-seat, spectacular, drama-dripping conclusions to his films.
Stuart Bruce-Douglas and a woman taking care of his ill sister-in-law are on their way to join his brother in Africa, along with a devoted servant of the brother (referred to as the racist slur Kaffir). When news arrives of the brother’s death, his wife expires of shock and heartache. Stuart decides to claim the family inheritance by sending his sister-in-law’s companion away with his baby niece, the real heiress.
Sixteen years later, in Louisville, Kentucky, Agnes Harrington (Carol Dempster) has every material comfort she could want, but longs for the love of her supposed mother (Margaret Dale). Mrs. Harrington does nothing but scold her for every little thing.
J. Wilson Rockmaine (Morgan Wallace) then arrives for a visit. Mr. Rockmaine, in his early forties, believes the joys of youth will return to him with a young girl’s love. (Like so many other Griffith heroines, she’s made to act much younger than her age.)
Meanwhile, in an office far away, a confession from Stuart crosses a lawyer’s desk. If this matter isn’t taken care of before 16 May, the estate will revert to other heirs.
A year later, we shift to the Fairfax estate on Louisville’s outskirts, long unoccupied since the young heir, John, has been studying abroad. Unoccupied, that is, except by the old caretaker, who’s motivated by greed. His real estate business partner, Clary Johnson (Herbert Sutch), has become a bootlegger, and is using the estate for storage. When word of John’s return reaches them, a new place has to be found.
Parker, the butler, has heard strange stories about ghosts in the house since returning with John (Henry Hull). John dismisses the rumors, suggesting the ghosts were tramps squatting in the house.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Harrington has lost her fortune through bad business investments, and schemes to marry Agnes off to Mr. Rockmaine to regain the family money and position. After an unsuccessful meeting between Agnes and Mr. Rockmaine, Mrs. Harrington confesses that Mr. Rockmaine saw her stealing a watch from another woman, but decided not to expose her for Agnes’s sake. If Agnes marries him, it’ll guarantee his continued silence. For the first time, Mrs. Harrington shows Agnes physical affection.
Agnes decides to sacrifice herself to this dude who’s over twice her age, though she’s not happy in this sham engagement.
At a lawn party, John spies Agnes and begs his aunt to introduce them. When they’re alone, he shows her a picture of Agnes he cut out of her college paper. John is quite clearly smitten, and Agnes is charmed, but she believes nothing can come of this attraction on account of her unwanted betrothal.
Back at the party, John invites a group of people to his estate for a fishing party. Shortly afterwards, the bootleggers resurface and attack John. They also have scores to settle among themselves and money to hide. And then there’s a murder in the house, which John is wrongly accused of.
Since Griffith loved his long films, he spends about 90 minutes on mere setup before the old dark house aspect finally comes to the fore. But even then, things like shadows and hands grabbing people from behind a bookcase don’t feel particularly creepy, and we don’t get anything like cobwebs or windows being blown open. It’s also pretty obvious whodunnit. In good old dark house films, the audience never knows for sure until the big reveal.
And did I mention there are three white actors playing African–Americans, all acting like racist caricatures?
Griffith was out of his element making a mystery and horror film. This massive length would’ve worked much better for one of his dramas (though even they could’ve benefitted from some editing). At least the storm at the end is exciting.