The Old Dark House (1932)
Director: James Whale
Screenwriter: Benn W Levy
Starring: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart
It’s a crying shame that The Old Dark House, through a combination of an intellectual property rights mismanagement and studio blinkers, isn’t better known outside the die hard Gothic horror fan base. It’s comfortably James Whale’s best film – even better than his two Frankenstein installments – and today it stands out as the scariest Universal Horror. That’s an achievement in itself; released at the beginning of the studio’s lucrative horror film cycle but with enough that is novel and groundbreaking for the early 1930s about it to remain genuinely disturbing at 88 years young.
Taking shelter during a ferocious storm, an unlikely collection of travelers are hosted by the dysfunctional and devious Femm family in their isolated mansion in the Welsh mountains. But what dark family secrets are hidden in this shadowy residence, and what demons do the travelers bring with them?
With a premise as old as storytelling – a mismatched group has to spend the night under the same undesirable roof – it takes classic tropes and runs with them, but still has a few surprises in store. Drawing its fair share from Gothic literature (rich, eccentric shut-ins, infirm relatives kept in the attic and plenty of melodrama) there also can’t be much pre-ODH on film that influenced its aesthetic. Yes, Universal Horror was indebted to the German Expressionism of the previous decade, but the ways in which Whale uses shadow(play) and candlelight is completely his own.
Whale was a hugely imaginative, inventive auteur who stood out next to his jobbing contemporaries who worked on the other Universal Horror films. His camera is mobile as it follows characters ill at ease in a creepy setting, his lighting and camera angles bold and expressionistic as domestic horrors are revealed. In one particularly striking early scene, an already unsettling conversation between hostile hostess and grudging guest becomes far more disturbing in the way characters’ faces are warped in cracked mirrors as their dialogue becomes more hostile.
Isn’t it nice to have Wales (by way of California) as the setting for your Gothic story? Scotland and Northern England are severely over-represented in the genre, storytellers should give another country in the UK a go now and again. There is not even a hint of a Valleys accent on anybody though, so maybe they thought the ceaseless rain was enough to sell it.
The characters are exaggerated to almost pantomime degrees in their performances, but they’re all funny and tragic and fascinating in their own way. “Have a po-ta-to”. How could you fail to love the deliciously camp Ernest Thesiger? He brings his every scene to flamboyant life and has some wonderfully, comically precisely enunciated line-delivery. Thesiger became best-known as the flamboyant Dr Praetorius in Whale’s own Bride of Frankenstein, and there really is no better over-actor in the business in this period. Thesiger’s Horace is paired perfectly with Eva Moore as his hearing-impaired crone sister Rebecca. Charles Laughton also makes an impression as a brash Yorkshire man of means, as does Lilian Bond as his chorus girl companion.
Horace, Rebecca and their ancient infirm father are not the only members of the Femm household, there is another older brother secreted away in their attic and he is said to be quite mad. The Femms have even hired Karloff’s hulking, drunk and violent butler Morgan to control their dangerous brother: “Saul is why we have to keep Morgan”. The double fake-out when Saul is finally revealed is an all-timer, a nearly film-long buildup to a great rug-pull.
Yes, the film’s depiction of mental illness is simplistic, but it matches the stylistic exaggeration elsewhere. Karloff going from pitiable, childlike Monster to the shambling, rapey butler Morgan is a feat, a feat that apparently required the studio to clarify in pre-titles statement they they were really the same man. Cute.
The Old Dark House is a Gothic horror treat full of lasting imagery, camp and black comic humour and a pervasive sense of menace. Where the more colourful characters easily outshine the conventional Hollywood heroes and heroines, nothing overshadows the way this deliciously dark tale is told.