James Whale, 1932
Starring: Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton
Based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestly, The first time I saw James Whale’s horror-comedy hybrid The Old Dark House I didn’t have a very high opinion of it. The bootleg print I watched was blurry with constant sound drop outs and fuzzy audio, often making it difficult to really understand what was going on. Plus I had seen a number of other “old dark house” films first, such as Vincent Price movies like House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Bat (1959), and the Agatha Christie-adaptation And Then There Were None (1945), all of which have long been favorites of mine. The title The Old Dark House is a reference to this sort of plot (strangers gathered in an old dark house where violence or murder is afoot), which became popular in the theater and then in silent films of the ‘20s, such as the original versions of The Bat and The Cat and the Canary. I’m glad I recently re-watched The Old Dark House, because (assuming you watch find a coherent print) it is one of James Whale’s most delightful horror films.
The Wavertons, a married couple, and their friend are forced to seek shelter in a dilapidated Welsh mansion (why does Universal keep using Wales?) during a violent rain storm. The owners of the house, the grumpy Horace Femm and his paranoid, religious sister Rebecca, are reluctant to let them stay, but don’t have much of a choice as parts of the road have washed away. During supper another couple arrive, a portly business man and his chorus girl “friend,” also seeking shelter. Things get out of hand when the mute butler, Morgan, gets drunk and violent. After leering at Mrs. Waverton the entire night, he attacks and nearly rapes her. And then he releases Saul, the Femms’ insane, pyromaniac brother who proceeds to set the house on fire.
First and foremost, the film benefits from an excellent cast. Though it usually pains me to see Boris Karloff relegated to side roles (no one puts Karloff in the corner), Whale uses him well here as the mute butler and he becomes an increasingly menacing presence. Melvyn Douglas (Ninotchka) is good as the war veteran friend of the Wavertons, and Raymond Massey (Arsenic and Old Lace) and James Whale’s regular leading lady Gloria Stuart are likable as the Wavertons. Stuart is particularly good as Margaret and the almost constant physical threats posed to her help give the film a real sense of danger and menace.
Actor Charles Laughton, also director of Night of the Hunter and husband of Bride of Frankenstein’s Elsa Lanchester, is excellent as Sir William, the surprisingly complex businessman. Lilian Bond (The Picture of Dorian Gray) is a little obnoxious as the chorus girl, but this is simply part of her role. The real star of the film is Ernest Thesiger. While he was gleefully demented and over the top in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein as Dr. Pretorius, here he is responsible for almost 90% of the black comedy and his delivery is dead on for nearly every line. A classic example is his obvious dislike of Sir William, to whom he says, “Have a potato,” in a voice dripping with malice.
Horror fans nervous about the talkie feel of many early Universal horror films should not be afraid to check this one out, as much of the dialogue is either witty or contains oddly topical conversation that feel modern and not very dated. Characters bring up such issues as the traumas of WWI, sex, money, mortality, and, surprisingly, discuss atheism in a positive light. One of the craziest characters in the film, Rebecca Femm, is the only truly religious person and it is suggested that her conservative morality is not only a symptom of her mania, but is a product of abuse at the hands of her father and brothers. Many of Whale’s films work to subvert the hetero-normative family structure and this is no different. The film’s primary family is obviously twisted, perverted, and insane, but the seemingly normal married couple is used for little other than to show how quickly Gloria Stuart’s body can be used as an object of derision (from Rebecca) or abuse (Morgan). Whale also seems to mock her on occasion and there is the implication that she brought some of this behavior on herself by oddly choosing to change out of her wet traveling clothes and into a revealing evening gown. She changes into the dress after Horace explicitly warns her that Morgan will probably get drunk and violent and that he is seriously concerned for her safety.
Though The Old Dark House didn’t do particularly well in the U.S. box office, it was popular in England and his since become a beloved cult film. The movie was believed to be lost up until almost 1970, when a print was discovered in Universal’s vaults and restored. The film comes highly recommended and is available in a lovely DVD release from Kino, which includes a commentary from Gloria Stuart, a second track from James Curtis, Whale’s biographer, and some other special features. There is also a remake of the film from William Castle in 1963, though this version is completely different.