Greeted with an animal-like grunt by the mansion’s hideously scarred butler, three disoriented voyagers find themselves in the unwelcoming company of the psychotic Femm family, whose members include a religious fanatic obsessed with mortality and other matter of the sinful flesh, her browbeaten brother, and a scripture-quoting homicidal pyromaniac…all watched over by their androgynous, 102-year-old father. Relieving the story’s overwhelming weirdness are Charles Laughton and a young Gloria Stuart as two confused visitors to the strange estate.
eyelights: the cast. the production.
eyesores: the simplistic plot. the facile and unrealistic romantic subplot.
“There’s someone outside.”
‘The Old Dark House’ is a suspense film by James Whale, of ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ and ‘The Invisible Man’ fame. Based on the novel ‘Benighted’, by J.B. Priestly, this 1932 production is one of the few Universal horror films of the era to have been largely ignored by the studio since its release – no doubt because of its limited box office success in the United States.
In fact, until the late 1960s, when it was found buried deep in the Universal vaults, it was widely considered lost.
It’s a good thing that the picture was found and restored because it not only boasts performances by screen legends Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey and Charles Laughton, but it’s also a perfect example of Gothic atmosphere, steeped as it is in shadows. Granted, it’s also a case of style over substance, thin as the script is, but it nonetheless makes quite an impression.
‘The Old Dark House’ tells the story of a couple and their friend driving through the countryside in heavy torrential rain and finding refuge for the night in a remote mansion. Although they are welcomed by its occupants, the Femm family, it isn’t without a certain amount of suspicion. Further fueling the trio’s discomfort is their hosts’ peculiar behaviour, leaving them worried about their safety.
From the onset, I was impressed the look of the piece. While the initial dialogues were insubstantial, the country ride boasted some incredible effects for the time, including floods and a landslide that nearly bowled our protagonists’ car over. The Femms’ mansion was also interesting because it looked like it was made of large blocks of concrete; it was plain, somewhat expressionistic.
The characters were also designed to leave their mark:
- Ernest Thesiger played Horace Femm, host to our protagonists, and his unusual features (pointy nose, deep cavernous eyes, sharp chin) made him look like a caricature of a mortician. I don’t know if there were prosthetics or makeup involved to exaggerate his face, but he was unforgettable.
- Boris Karloff was equally remarkable: with the use of make up, he transformed himself into a brutish, ogre-like butler. Heavily bearded, scarred, mute and with a crazed look in his eyes, there was cause for concern with him around.
Interestingly, the film opened with a producers’ note stating that this is in fact the same Karloff as in ‘Frankenstein’ – suggesting that his performance is so good that we wouldn’t be able to tell. What’s unfortunate is that they didn’t keep that note until after the movie, to surprise the audience. Clearly, they promoted his involvement to piggy-back on his success. A shame.
- Eva Moore plays Rebecca Femm, Horace’s nearly deaf sister. She looks like an old crone and consistently rambles on incoherently about all sorts of things; she just doesn’t appear stable at all, either due to senility or some horrid experiences in the Femm house.
And then there are the mysterious occupants of the upper rooms, one of which cackles madly, eerily. Brrr…
Our three protagonists are later joined by a wealthy widow and the chorus girl whom he paid to spend the weekend with him. They add an element of humour, him in particular, but their biggest contribution is in separating the group as the couple’s friend sneaks off with the chorus girl (the downside of this, unfortunately, is that we’re treated to a risibly simplistic love story).
Come to think of it, ‘The Old Dark House’ delves into some basic tropes of the horror genre: separating the group in order to put them in peril, having couples hook up, showing girls in sexy attire (notably the lovely and delicious Gloria Stuart), indulging in jump scares, and letting loose a monstrous and/or mad villain. I’m not sure if it’s an early example of this, but it’s effective even now.
The film is thin on script and, thus, it doesn’t overstay its welcome: at a little over an hour, one barely has the time to get annoyed with its lack of substance. It’s easy to see why it wasn’t especially popular with critics, but it’s nonetheless a great ride as far as old horror films go. It’s not surprising, thus, that it has developed an eager following over the years and was even remade in 1962.
‘The Old Dark House’ is well worth a look.
Date of viewing: October 27, 2015