The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House (1932) Director: James Whale

James Whale was the successful horror film director of great repute in the 1930s, directing films like Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). His production, The Old Dark House (1932) was based on J.B. Priestly’s 1927 novel Benighted and it starred the great Boris Karloff, among others. It is a loopy cult-classic, and an early example of the haunted house genre complete with a lightning storm, strange whistling noises, and relatives locked in the attic.

Lovers, Philip and Morgan, are on a trip in the Welsh countryside with their friend Roger when they get trapped in a storm and seek shelter at an old house. The encounter two strange caretakers, one played by Boris Karloff whose portrayal inspired the later character of Lurch in The Addams Family, and an odd werewolf-looking groundskeeper named Morgan. They learn about the sinful Femm family that lived in the house. The 102-year old elder patriarch of the family, obviously played by an older woman, lives upstairs in the house. Two strangers arrive and Morgan gets drunk as the storm rages and the electric power goes out so they must venture upward in the house to look for a lamp, but Philip discovers the room of the elder Femm family patriarch who reveals the secret of his son, Saul, who has been locked in the attic for trying to burn down the house. He reveals that Saul is dangerous. When they leave the room they all find that Morgan has released Saul from the attic and the house descends into chaos as Saul attempts to burn the house down again. However they fight which prevents Saul from burning down the house. The next morning the storm has receded and they depart. The film closes as Roger proposes marriage to one of the other travelers who arrived.

The film is a clash between metropolitan high-minded values, and simpleton rural country-folk and their varying superstitions. Unlike other horror films, this movie is a silly romp through gothic story tropes, poking fun at everything from Jane Eyre and Edgar Allen Poe to Dracula and German folklore.

The film was a flop at the box office, with unsurprisingly poor reviews, and was shelved and forgotten at Universal, until in 1968 James Whale’s protege convinced the studio executives to locate the film and he took it to Kodak who returned the original negative to a watchable movie again. In attempting to answer the question of why the elder patriarch was played by a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon billed as “John” Dudgeon in the film credits, no one seems to remember.

Review

★★★☆☆

The Old Dark House was made prior to the age of sarcastic cliches regarding the horror film genre, and thus it is unfair to criticize it based on latter stereotypes, however it is an odd and, at times, awkward film with a strange kind of tension that builds throughout the movie without ever fully realizing its true potential for horror. Nevertheless it has become a cult-classic.

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