James Whales "The Old Dark House" (1932) is a rousing, high energy ride. It puts on one Hell of a show.
Recently I reviewed the F.W. Murnau film "The Haunted Castle" (1921) and was surprised by Murnau's lack of innovation. It too was one of those "haunted house" stories but that film lacked atmosphere. It had no fun with the genre. It played everything too serious. You can't say the same about "The Old Dark House". This film is drenched in atmosphere and Whales seems to be having a blast pulling all the strings. This film does everything Murnau didn't do with "Haunted Castle".
Some modern, cynical eyes will look at "The Old Dark House" and say the film feels mechanical. It is too routine. On the surface they are right. Whales is concerned with the big picture not the small details. The film has certain objectives it must meet and isn't terribly concerned how it reaches these goals just as long as it does.
Arbitrary events happen merely because the plot demands it. But, in the film's defense I think both Whales and screenwriter Benn W. Levy are perfectly aware of this and merely see "The Old Dark House" as an exercise in the genre. As a result the film pretty much gives us everything we require from these type of films.
It is a dark and stormy night. Roads are being blocked off due to mudslides. You can't see your hand in front of your face. It is impossible to drive. The only shelter to be found is a creepy old dark house.
At this point in the story we understand the film's goals. It must get the characters inside the house. We meet the Waverton's; Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margaret (Gloria Stuart). Where are they going? It doesn't matter just get them in that house. Who are they? It doesn't matter, just get them in that house. Where are they coming from? Doesn't matter. Just get them in that house. They are traveling with Penderel (Melvyn Douglas). Who is he? It doesn't matter. Just get him in that house. He is one more body needed. Why is he traveling with the Waverton's? Who cares. Because of the weather Philip is lost and decides they should all take a rest and start again in the morning, when hopefully the weather will clear. The only place in sight is the old dark house.
Now that we are in the house the next objective is to make the house look creepy and to make the characters living there seem bizarre and dangerous. The first character we meet is Morgan (Boris Karloff) a disfigured, mute butler. Why is he mute? What happened to him? This isn't important. He is mysterious and strange. That is all that matters. The masters of the house are Horace Femm (Ernst Thesiger), who reveals he is wanted by the police for killing a man. Nothing ever more is said about the incident. Why? No need to. We just need to know he is dangerous. Living with Horace is his sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore), she is more masculine than Horace and is slightly deaf. She becomes the sinister old woman and because of her deafness at times provides comic relief.
Now the wheels are starting to spin in motion. But Whales throws one more ingredient our way. Two more strangers come in the night. Their car has been smashed by a mudslide. They are William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his friend Perkins (Lillian Bonds). Once again, who they are, or where they were going or coming from is not important. We just need to fill up this old dark house with bodies so the possibility of a high death count is certain. Now everything is complete. And the fun starts.
As readers can tell everything goes according to plan like clockwork. We have the dark house, the damsels in distress, the menacing brute, the sound of rain hitting against the house, the burning candles, and whispers of dark family secrets which might get revealed by the end of the picture. As I said it is a formula picture but Whales is having too much fun playing around with convention that we take part in his delight.
I was surprised by the terrific cast the film has. All of these people were in the beginning stages of their careers and hadn't quite become household names yet. Boris Karloff gets top billing. He had just appeared in "Frankenstein" (1931) and clearly this film was an attempt to cash in on that film's success by having Karloff play a character with a similar appearance. Karloff doesn't speak in this movie and walks around like a hulk with cement in his shoes dragging his body from one room of the house to another.
Melvyn Douglas gets second billing, this is one of his first movies. In time he would come to play smart alec wise-cracking characters. Usually something like the funny uncle or comedic relief best friend. Watch him in the absolutely charming "Third Finger, Left Hand" (1940) with Myrna Loy, or "Ninotchka" (1939) or "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" (1948). Here he has some of those same characteristics. He gets in a few good one-liners.
Laughton was known in Britain, but this was his American film debut. He would become best known for his roles in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1939) and the "Best Picture" Oscar winner "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935).
Of the remaining cast Raymond Massey is the best known, especially to Powell and Pressburger fans for his performances in the "49th Parallel" (1941) and "A Matter of Life & Death" (1946), which I have reviewed. Gloria Stuart achieved her greatest fame for her role in "Titanic" (1997). Ernest Thesiger played the mad scientist in "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) also directed by Whales and reviewed already by me.
Whales had directed "Frankenstein" and would seem like an obvious choice for this film. He would also direct "The Invisible Man" (1933) with Claude Rains. So horror films became a speciality of his. Whales was also a homosexual, his life was the subject for the bio-pic "Gods & Monsters" (1998) and has been accused of putting in homosexual undertones to his films. Many have found examples of this in "Bride of Frankenstein" and they can be found here too. Thesiger is clearly a homosexual, and if not, I apologize, but clearly his character is suppose to be. He is presented as a "sissy man" who takes orders from his sister and is afraid at the first sign of danger leaving the other characters to contend with it. Also, a character called Saul (Brember Wills) is a homosexual telling Penderel at one point he loves him. I don't know what this really adds to the story but Whales found it amusing or interesting to put in these touches.
The only downside to the film is it doesn't really try to expand the medium in any way. I can't think of any startling shots. The cinematography is fairly conventional. It does what it needs to however. But "The Old Dark House" didn't pioneer any new film techniques. And perhaps that isn't a fair criticism. I don't think Whales intended the film to, its just that with "Frankenstein" clearly he was inspired by German expressionism, what was he inspired by here?
I don't know if this film will honestly scare anyone today but it is creepy in a certain way. It is a very good example of a classic Hollywood horror film. It's no "The Cat & the Canary" (1927) but it puts one one wild show. It is a very entertaining film from beginning to end. Movie lovers should hunt it down.