Director: James Whale
Screenplay: Benn W. Levy
Based on a Story by: J.B. Priestley
Starring: Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Boris Karloff
Running Time: 72 min
BBFC Certificate: U
James Whale was one of Hollywood’s earliest and greatest masters of horror. Within the space of 4 years he directed three cast iron classics of the genre, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein. These helped kick start the Universal Monsters brand alongside Dracula and The Mummy, which were released around the same time. He directed another great horror film in-between this famous collection though, one that also featured the great Boris Karloff, 1932’s The Old Dark House. Based on the J.B. Priestley novel ‘Benighted’, the film performed badly in the US (although it fared better in the UK) and, due to Universal losing the rights to the story in the 50s, the film was considered lost. In the late 60s though, Whale's fellow director and friend Curtis Harrington doggedly harassed Universal to find a negative and finally found a print in the vaults. He then approached George Eastman House to help restore the film which was in a bad state. It’s since gained a better reputation, although it’s still not as well known as Whale’s ‘big 3’. Hoping to give The Old Dark House more recognition though is Eureka, who recently brought the newly remastered film to selected cinemas in the UK and is now releasing it on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD under their celebrated Masters of Cinema series.
The Old Dark House opens in classic horror movie fashion with the Wavertons (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their friend Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) lost in a terrible storm as they attempt to drive to Shrewsbury. When they’ve just about given up, they come across the titular building and knock on the door, asking for shelter for the night. They’re not given the best of welcomes, with the heavily scarred butler Morgan (Boris Karloff) giving them a fright and owners Horace and Rebecca Femm (Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore) seeming rather reluctant to let them stay. Horace even seems frightened to be trapped in his own house during the bad weather. The weary travellers talk them into letting them stay though and they all sit down for supper before another couple appear, Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his friend Gladys (Lilian Bond), later revealed to be called Perkins.
The group get to know each other whilst keeping warm by the fire, but as some of them separate (always a mistake in a horror film), the Femms’ fears about Morgan causing trouble begin to come true. After a while though, we realise the Femms are hiding something and we wonder if Morgan is actually the one we should be most worried about.
I adored The Old Dark House. I’ve always been partial to haunted house movies, so was keen to see this when it was offered up, but was surprised to find it wasn’t actually from that sub-genre of horror. There are no ghosts here, instead the fears come from human sources and the film is more of what we might call a psychological thriller these days. More than that though, as with much of Whale’s other work (particularly Bride of Frankenstein) the film is infused with humour and could be called a comedy of manners as much as a horror film. Although Priestley’s commentary on the British class system has been toned down in this film form (from what I’ve heard), it is still evident in the mix of characters portrayed. You’ve got ’new money’ in the form of Sir Porterhouse, with his thick Yorkshire accent (an exaggeration of Laughton’s native Scarborough twang) making clear he wasn’t born into his dubious title. Then you’ve got the more openly working class Perkins, who the film suggests was a former prostitute. The Femms belong to the old upper class, the Wavertons somewhere in the middle and Penderel is a bit of a lost soul, who is struggling to find his place after the Great War.
The interactions between this motley crew provide the meat of the film, which is much more talky than you might expect for a horror film. This isn’t a bad thing by any means though. The dialogue is quite sharp and the performances hugely enjoyable, so it’s a pleasure to watch the group bicker. Standing out above all the rest is Thesiger, who is a sheer joy to behold and provides much of the film’s humour through his acidic put downs and nervous fear of just about everything. He makes the most simple lines hilarious, such as his repeated offer of “have a potato”, which had me in stitches every time. Eva Moore, playing his sister, matches him at times too, particularly with her quotable cries of “no beds!” Karloff’s role is surprisingly slim, but he is suitably frightening and gets to demonstrate his sympathetic side briefly at the end.
As funny as I found the film, that’s not to say the horror is lacking. Coming from the early 30s it’s never going to be as shocking as some of the films we get now, but I did find some sequences genuinely creepy and tense. In the latter half of the film in particular, the horror really kicks into gear, leading to a big dramatic finale featuring the missing piece of the Femms' jigsaw.
In general the film is always amped up to 11, with thunder claps and heavy rain ever present on the soundtrack adding to the big performances. Whale and his crew craft a wonderfully grim looking set and moodily light it too. The camera swoops around gracefully through the dingy rooms and hallways, aiding the gothic atmosphere and making for a beautifully shot film.
If I were to make one criticism, I’d say the happy ending feels a bit tacked on (indeed it wasn’t in the book). However, a 30s Hollywood film would never end as bleakly as it seems it might at one point. Plus, Thesiger helps end proceedings on a hilarious high note when he cheerfully comes down the stairs in the morning, acting like nothing has happened.
All in all it’s an immensely entertaining chiller from a true master of horror. Mixing dark humour with genuine scares, it’s still a real thrill ride 86 years later and deserves a place alongside Whale’s most famous work. Blending grand gothic style with a more grounded, realistic threat, it’s quite unique for its time too. It’s a crime the film isn’t better known. Lets hope this release helps boost its recognition.
The Old Dark House is out on 21st May on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The transfer looks and sounds absolutely stunning, especially considering the age of the film and how it was once considered lost.
You get a tonne of special features too:
- An exclusive video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns - Feature length audio commentary by critic & author Kim Newman and Stephen Jones - Feature length audio commentary by Gloria Stuart - Feature length audio commentary by James Whale biographer James Curtis - Daughter of Frankenstein: A Conversation with Sara Karloff - Curtis Harrington Saves The Old Dark House - an archival interview with director Curtis Harrington about his efforts to save The Old Dark House at a time when it was considered a lost film - Eureka! trailer for the 2018 theatrical release of The Old Dark House - A collector’s booklet featuring new essay by critic Philip Kemp, as well as an abundant selection of archival imagery and ephemera.
It’s a treasure trove of material. My favourite feature is the Newman and Jones commentary as they’re a lively and enthusiastic pair who both have a great knowledge of the film and genre. Curtis’ track is a bit more dry, but is still worth a listen. The interviews are decent too and Eureka’s booklet is as indispensable as ever.