As time goes by, I’ve become more and more convinced that James Whale’s contribution to horror cinema was more the result of pure coincidence rather than a real interest for the genre itself. Although his name will be forever associated with it, especially having directed the most famous version of Frankenstein (1931), his subsequent incursions give the impression of a filmmaker who prefers to explore a rather macabre sense of humour rather than terrify the audience. This would certainly explain the approach he took to other prominent works of his, such as The Invisible Man (1933) – with a Claude Rains that’s much more deranged than terrifying – or Bride of Frankenstein (1935), famous for its peculiar combination of scenes that are alternately scary and amusing. The same could be said for The Old Dark House (1932) which, despite fitting into the gloomy gothic mansion category, occasionally gives us that sensation that its author isn’t all that interested in frightening us. After all, let’s not forget Whale had just been meddling in romantic drama with Waterloo Bridge the previous year, an earlier and lesser-known version of Mervyn LeRoy’s 1940 remake of the same name.
The Old Dark House was produced in the aftermath of Frankenstein’s tremendous success, which made Universal Pictures look with rather favourable eyes upon a reunion of its director and lead character in another horror piece. The screenplay itself was meant to convert the original novel (Benighted by J. B. Priestley, 1927) into a much lighter adaptation which didn’t take itself too seriously. Whale, no doubt pleased with this approach, ended up delivering an eccentric combination of terror and dark comedy.
The premise isn’t unheard of…in 2018. Now picture the following scenario 86 years ago: a group of travellers, surprised by a terrible storm while driving in some remote corner of the Welsh countryside, find a desolate old mansion in which to seek shelter. Of course, such bleak accommodation has to be inhabited by complete creeps – two elderly siblings, their bedridden centenarian father and a mute/alcoholic butler. As the night progresses, a fourth resident emerges from the shadows, another brother who enjoys playing with fire a little too much – literally – and is conveniently locked up in a room somewhere in the house…or is he?
When watched in this day and age, The Old Dark House presents us with two main attractions, of which the most obvious and undeniable is its dazzling cast: Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton in his first Hollywood role, Melvyn Douglas as the suave hero and Boris Karloff at the peak of his career, as the creepy-looking butler. Ironically, although one would expect Karloff to be the main protagonist, his role ends up being quite secondary, though at the beginning of the film a borderline risible message is displayed, emphasising that the butler is portrayed by the same actor who played Frankenstein’s monster, just in case it wasn’t clear enough that Laemmle Jr. wanted to exploit the previous film’s success.
Even just leaving these great actors to do their job would have produced a good movie in itself. We can enjoy Laughton in a more relaxed and somewhat humorous role, Douglas’s seamless transition from an essentially comic character into final-stretch hero, Karloff being… Karloff (need I say more?), or even lesser-known actors such as Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore as the homeowners. The Old Dark House also showcases Gloria Stuart – it always strikes me as odd that she never did become a big Hollywood star (PS: if you’re still scratching your head as to who this is, that’s the elderly version of Kate in Titanic). Lastly, and perhaps delivering the most brilliant interpretation, is actress Elspeth Dudgeon who, under the pseudonym of John Dudgeon, portrays the 102-year-old Sir Roderick, a brilliant exercise in transformation at a time when make-up wasn’t as perfect as it is today, thus relying on body language and plenty of diabolical laughter to achieve the materialisation of unleashed madness.
The other key feature is, of course, James Whale’s direction, which takes the resources already displayed in Frankenstein and explores them to new heights, doing so particularly well in giving the mansion that chilling gothic appearance, making it, in fact, the final uncredited character. Indeed, it’s this mise-en-scène that brings The Old Dark House into the horror realm, as in an alternative context, its content would play out more along the lines of comedy: a love triangle, an eerie house, its bizarre owners… Regardless of whether the audience is able to accept this combination, it’s worth remembering that it’s a rather bold and daring one: this film premiered in 1932, and while the horror genre was reformulating itself with the use of recorded sound, Whale was already a few steps ahead and turning it on its head. The result – one of Universal Pictures’ best films during their famous horror movie cycle (1920s to 1950s), which also included Tod Browning’s Dracula and Karl Freund’s The Mummy (also featuring Karloff).
However, it’s not all roses for The Old Dark House. It does a great job of combining relaxed comedy and claustrophobic terror, the setting is perfect, the cast is great, but when the plot finally begins to properly unfold…the movie’s over. In a way, this ends up coming across as somewhat of a waste of the cast and crew’s (plentiful) talent, a waste of script and climax – and ultimately, to a certain extent, the audience’s time too.
Despite its redeeming features – and there are many of them, The Old Dark House was met with mixed reviews in the US. Scroll forwards a few years, and Universal Pictures loses the rights to the original story in the 1950s – a remake would be released by William Castle in 1963. For several years, the original version was considered to be lost – until a print of the film was retrieved in 1968 by Curtis Harrington. The film was eventually restored and is now considered one of the cornerstones of gothic horror. Whale himself was posthumously recognised as one of Universal Pictures’ classic era’s most talented directors.
(For real now. This picture gives me the creeps.)
All in all, don’t pick The Old Dark House expecting to watch a classic stereotypical horror, but instead see it as a playful fusion, in which Whale explored his abilities as a director capable of creating a suitably dark environment while still displaying his peculiar sense of humour.
Dir: James Whale
Scr: J. B. Priestley (novel), R. C. Sherriff
Cast: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey
Prd: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
DOP: Arthur Edeson
Music: David Broekman
Runtime: 72 minutes
The Old Dark House is being released, following a stunning 4K restoration, as part of The Masters of Cinema Series, on the 21st May 2018, in Blu-ray and DVD, with a number of special features.
The first pressing only includes a limited-edition O-card featuring artwork by Graham Humphreys created especially for the 2018 UK theatrical release.