ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Old Dark House (1932) Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka!)
Sinister shelter in a storm
This semi-comedic gothic chiller begins as squabbling husband and wife Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) travel by car through the Welsh countryside during a violent rainstorm, with their companion Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) taking up the back seat.
When they are narrowly missed by a landslide caused by the raging elements, they decide to take a break from their journey and seek shelter at a nearby mansion. When they knock on the door, it is answered by Morgan (Boris Karloff) - the creepy, mute butler of the Femm family who resides there. The trio are introduced to two of its members: the gaunt Horace (Ernest Thesiger) and his half-deaf sister Rebecca (Eva Moore). While the latter is rather cranky about their impromptu visit, they agree to let them have supper and shelter for the night in front of the fire. However, when Rebecca regales them with a number of sinister warnings about both Morgan’s drinking habits and the mysterious other members of this strange family, Margaret starts to get nervous.
Two other travellers - Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his partner Gladys (Lilian Bond) - soon arrive at the front door, also seeking shelter. When they are invited in and settle down, it soon becomes clear that the charming Penderel has an attraction for Gladys, resulting in the pair eloping in the stables. Meanwhile, Philip and Margaret hear some high-pitched chucking noises from upstairs and decide to investigate…
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An overlooked James Whale gem
The Old Dark House is an adaptation of a 1927 novel by J. B. Priestley called Benighted. It was released between two of James Whale’s other Universal horror films: Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933). However, while the aforementioned two have gone down in history as quintessential genre classics, The Old Dark House has remained a somewhat overlooked gem. For one thing, it was a critical and commercial disappointment on its release. For another, it had become a “lost film” for many years after Universal’s rights to the original story expired in 1957 and were picked up by Columbia for a William Castle remake in 1963. Ironically, while Curtis Harrington had the original negative of the 1932 version restored during the late 1960s, it wasn’t shown on TV for decades due to it being tied up in rights issues.
In terms of genre and tone, it’s a somewhat complex and ambiguous beast. As we can see from the dark opening sequence, involving a car negotiating a perilously water-sodden country road, the film’s atmosphere falls squarely into the classical horror realm. However, the dialogue between the couple bickering on the front seat is deliciously barbed and sarcastic, tipping things over into black comedy. Likewise, the sinister nature of various family members is used throughout the second and third acts to tease us with various prototypical jump scares and what’s-around-the-corner? moments of astutely-orchestrated tension. On the other hand, the climactic revelations both underwhelm us in terms of coming up with terrifying monstrosities and beguile us in terms of the rich seams of melodrama which come tumbling out of the closet. Whatever genre it falls into, it’s a very entertaining movie if you just go with it and take in its various stylistic shifts.
Whale packs the film with inventive little visual doodles: a shot from behind the lapping flames of a fireplace, a lumpen mirror which hideously distorts the facial features of Rebecca as she regales Margaret with a bone-chilling story, and a playful shock involving silhouettes on the dining room wall. These touches help to amplify the feeling that he’s purposing the film into a kind of fairground “House of Horrors” attraction, an affair which is intended to scare you out of your wits but always in a way which is pure high-spirited fun.
The game cast also adds a lot. Boris Karloff provides another of those wordlessly creepy cinematic bogeymen which would become a mainstay of his career, from the monster in Whale’s own version of Frankenstein to The Wurdulak in the second segment of Mario Bava’s anthology film Black Sabbath (1963). Melvyn Douglas is dashingly charming as the de-facto romantic hero of the piece. Charles Laughton chews the scenery hilariously as the Northern English factory boss who suddenly pops up, with girlfriend Gladys (Lilian Bond) in tow, partway through. Bond herself is charming and button-cute as Douglas’s female counterpart. However, the strangest and most interesting piece of casting is that of actress Elspeth Dudgeon playing a male character: Sir Roderick Femm, an old family patriarch who is ailing so heavily that he appears to be crumbling before the viewer’s very eyes. While Dudgeon was credited here with the male first name John, the fact that this character’s voice is so clearly female adds a certain note of chilling discomfort which makes the unorthodox casting choice work well.
The other notable element here is the occasional flourish of decidedly innuendo-laden pre-Motion Picture Production Code era dialogue. There are even references to “getting wet” which have an undeniable secondary connotation, regardless of the fact that the character in question has just been out in the pouring rain! Okay, so it’s mild stuff by today’s standards, but it’s something that the filmmakers would never have gotten away with just a couple of years later after Joseph I. Breen was appointed as head of the Production Code Administration (1934).
The Old Dark House is an exquisitely atmospheric piece of movie history and well worth seeing by film buffs of any stripe - and especially by those who stubbornly hold the belief that productions from the early years of cinema history don’t hold up well today.
Runtime: 72 mins
Dir: James Whale
Script: Benn W. Levy, from a novel by J. B. Priestley
Starring: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Elspeth Dudgeon, Brember Wills
Eureka! supplied the DVD version for review. The print looks and sounds terrific, especially considering the age of the source material (86 years). Contrast and detail are spot-on, as are sound effects; I almost felt myself shiver during the opening rainstorm!
There are three commentaries on the disc: one with critic Kim Newman & author Stephen Jones, one with Gloria Stuart and another with James Whale biographer James Curtis. For the purposes of this review, I opted for the Newman/Jones commentary. It was clearly recorded for a previous release, judging by the fact that they mention that the film has never been restored properly (whereas this release is a brand new 4K restoration). Nonetheless, they provide an enjoyable double act as they cover the usual bases of the cast’s wider careers, the genre that the film sits within (the “Old Dark House” genre funnily enough) and the differences between the novel and the screen adaptation.
Their discussions on pieces of dialogue and mild suggestive material which would have been cut had the film been released during the Production Code era provide some of the most interesting moments in the commentary. For instance, references to William giving his girlfriend Gladys money were snipped during its re-release due to the (possibly accidental) implication that he is paying her for sex.
They also touch upon the various rights issues which have dogged the film over the years. For instance, in contrast to Universal’s other old horror films (such as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy), it is no longer promoted as one of the studio’s classic cycle.
Meet the Femms
David Cairns’ soothing, almost poetic narration elevates this impressively-assembled video essay to the status of being an absolutely essential watch. Along with clips from the film, various passages from the novel are read out, revealing depths to the characters which are barely touched upon in the film. For instance, while the character Penderel’s background is kept rather vague in the film, he is portrayed as a war-damaged veteran in the book. The essay is also interspersed with various pieces of artwork (depicting the industrial town of Dudley where director James Whale grew up) and photographic stills (such as one of Eva Moore as a real-life suffragette). His insights into Whale’s own background as a prisoner of war are especially revealing.
Daughter of Frankenstein
Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara is interviewed by Dean Otto, curator of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. She talks about her father’s heyday in horror. The most interesting part of the interview is when she describes the arduous process he had to go through when having makeup applied (by regular Jack Pierce) for his most iconic parts. In those days, since movie prosthetics didn’t exist, everything had to be redone manually and replicated exactly the same way each day. Being turned into The Mummy involved being wrapped in layers of wet gauze, which were dried via hairdryer. When the day’s shoot was finished, Boris would collapse from dehydration as the gauze absorbed his own bodily fluids.
Curtis Harrington Saves The Old Dark House
Harrington, a horror film director and longtime fan and friend of James Whale, discusses his 1968 mission to save The Old Dark House from being lost forever. The original negative was stored in a Universal vault in New York and the first reel had already deteriorated to the point where a duplicate had to be created. Unfortunately, since the studio no longer had the rights to the original novel upon which it was based, they had no interest or incentive to pay to restore it. After some phoning around, however, James Card of Eastman House agreed to pick up the costs.
A 2018 re-release trailer and stills gallery round out the extras.
The Old Dark House is a truly underrated horror classic. The engrossing and entertaining extras are also well worth devoting some time towards.