by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff as their joint follow-up to Frankenstein the year before, The Old Dark House is a magnificent movie, not especially frightening but full of Whale’s dry-wit comic touches and playing against cliché. Interestingly, an opening credit attached to the film assured audiences that the Karloff who played the mad, (almost) mute butler Morgan in this film was indeed the same actor who had played the Frankenstein monster in the earlier film — just in case you couldn’t recognize him through the heavy (and completely different) makeup, which made him look like a cross between a particularly hirsute longshoreman and an ape.
While Karloff didn’t get much chance to do pathos in this film — except towards the end, when he’s seen cradling the dead body of his one friend, the pyromaniac brother Saul Femm (Brember Wills) — Whale assembled probably the greatest all-star cast ever put together in a horror film, with Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey and Charles Laughton as the three men stranded at the titular “old dark house” overnight (there are also two women involved — Gloria Stuart as Massey’s wife and Lillian Bond as a chorus girl who transfers her affections from Laughton to Douglas during the evening) and Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore and Wills as the Femms (the craziest, most anti-social family ever created by a fiction writer — in this case J. B. Priestley, whose source novel for this film was called Benighted — since Edgar Allan Poe made up the Ushers).
Thesiger plays Horace Femm (we meet his father, Roderick Femm, whose nomenclatory similarity to Poe’s Roderick Usher is probably no coincidence, later in the film), a withdrawn aesthete. Thesiger was one of the great horror actors; when he says, “Have a potato,” it sounds as sinister as most actors do when they say, “I’m going to kill you.” Moore is his sister, Rebecca Femm, a religious fanatic (the constant gibes at Christianity throughout this film are probably no coincidence, either, given that the director was Gay) who points to Gloria Stuart’s filmy white dress — and then at her even filmier white skin — and tells her that age and sin will ruin them in time.
Even though all the Femms are senior citizens, their father is still alive; Roderick Femm, Sr. is 100 years old, bedridden — and, in an interesting streak of Whale casting, is actually played by a 102-year-old woman, Elspeth Dudgeon, whom Whale found in Britain and brought here especially for the role (although, to preserve her apparent maleness on screen, Whale credited the performance to “John Dudgeon”). It’s the father who explains to us that the brutish butler Morgan is on staff because his strength is needed to protect the house and its inhabitants against the even stronger evil brother Saul (the only Femm, it seems, who had a first name beginning with a letter other than “R”) — who turns out (surprise!) to be a seemingly harmless old man, who in fact (double surprise!) turns out to be a maniac who corners Douglas in his cell-like room (he’d been kept locked up for years, but on the night our guests arrived Morgan got drunk and, frustrated when his attempt to rape Gloria Stuart was foiled, let Saul out), quotes him the passage in the Bible about the original Saul’s murder attempt on David, throws a knife at him and sets fire to the top story of the house. Eventually the fire goes out (apparently put out by the driving rainstorm that led our heroes to seek shelter at Chez Femm in the first place), everybody finally falls asleep out of sheer exhaustion (except Saul, who is killed in a fight with Douglas, who is injured) and they all wake up in the morning to a bright, sunny English day.
The Old Dark House is one of Whale’s four horror masterpieces of the early 1930’s, and — at least in England — it was as popular as the other three (General Films, Universal’s British distributor, made it a regular Sunday night feature at theatres throughout Britain from 1932 to 1945). Somehow, it mysteriously disappeared, only to resurface in 1970 — I saw it for the first time at the San Francisco Film Festival of that year, at 1 a.m. in a darkened theatre (this is one movie that really should be seen at night in a theatre — it loses some of its nervous, nervy appeal on TV), and again in the late 1970’s at the UC Theatre in Berkeley (the northernmost outpost of the Landmark chain). It turned out to be one of those films whose copyright was grabbed by Raymond Rohauer, who did film buffs a great service by rescuing from oblivion some of the greatest movies of all time (including Buster Keaton’s silent masterpieces and Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr), but who also locked his treasures away from the world for years with the manic intensity of a Femm — only recently have the Keatons Rohauer controlled finally made it to home video, and one suspects it will be a while before The Old Dark House likewise surfaces on cassette. [In the mid-2000’s Kino on Video made The Old Dark House available on DVD. — M.G.C., 10/25/08]
A remake I’ve never seen from 1963 — which starred Tom Poston, and whose director, William Castle, offered Karloff a chance to repeat his original role, which Karloff turned down because the script was terrible and too far removed from the original — circulated on TV for years. MCA's unwillingness or inability to release The Old Dark House on video was a real pity, given how comprehensively they had been restoring so many of the Universal horror classics to well-deserved video circulation (including such oddities as the Spanish-language Dracula) — especially given the historical importance of The Old Dark House as Charles Laughton’s first American film (and Raymond Massey’s second, and first in the U.S. — its only predecessor was the 1931 British film The Speckled Band, in which he played Sherlock Holmes), though Laughton is almost unrecognizable with a full shock of dark hair and a thick Welsh accent! — 5/15/95
I called Charles, made some pancakes and — as a Hallowe’en celebration — went over to see Charles with two of the quirkier horror films ever made by Hollywood, The Old Dark House (virtually a British picture in exile since the director, writer and most of the cast were British and it took place in the British countryside) and The Seventh Victim. Charles liked both movies, though he was a little put off by their abrupt endings — certainly James Whale’s spoof of all the old-house movies to that time (and, for that matter, since) and Val Lewton’s doom-laden tale of Satanism in contemporary New York hardly count as typical “horror movies” then or now (and one wonders what 1932 audiences made of The Old Dark House after being lured in to see it by ads stressing the participation of the star and director of Frankenstein!). — 11/1/96
Charles and I finally got to watch a movie, and I reached back to the early years of Universal’s talking horror films again and ran The Old Dark House, an unsung masterpiece James Whale made in 1932 that, since it doesn’t really have much of a plot, offers far more of a showcase for Whale’s quirky wit than just about any of his other films (though The Bride of Frankenstein remains his masterpiece in the genre). There’s really not much more story to it than a motley group of five travelers, in two cars — first Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas, second-billed); then self-made man Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton, in his first American film) and his (platonic) companion Gladys Duquesne, nèe Perkins (Lillian Bond) — are driving through the back country of Wales when a ferocious rainstorm forces them to stop for the night at the home of the sinister Femm family: brother Horace (Ernest Thesiger coming off as what Truman Capote would have been like if he’d made it to his 80’s), his religious-fanatic sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), their father Roderick (played by an actor who was billed as John Dudgeon but was really the centenarian British actress Elspeth Dudgeon, given outrageously phony whiskers and a male first name to pass herself off as a man) and their older brother Saul (Brember Wills), whom they keep locked up.
In order to make sure Saul doesn’t get out, they need to have a fierce-looking butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff, top-billed but still under the title), who like the Frankenstein monster (at least in the first Universal Frankenstein) is mute except for inchoate grunts and moans. (When Penderel and the Wavertons arrive at the Femm manse and Morgan greets them at the door with such noises, Penderel says, “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that!”) About all that happens during the evening is that Morgan gets the hots for Margaret Waverton and tries to rape her, but Philip fortunately saves his wife by throwing an elaborate lantern at the butler; and later on Morgan lets Saul out of the locked room — and he turns out (surprise!) to be a mild-mannered little old man who’s really (double surprise!) a pyromaniac who attempts to set the Femm home on fire by lighting some of the heavy wall curtains with a log from the fireplace. (He tried to do this once before but this time around is stopped well short of causing any danger for the other people in the film.) Eventually one of the guests kills Saul in self-defense, Morgan gets a sad scene when he’s shown cradling his dead friend Saul in his arms (the one best bit of acting Karloff did in a film that otherwise really didn’t challenge him all that much), day breaks, the travelers leave — in the meantime Gladys has transferred her affections from Porterhouse to Penderel, and leaves with him — and the Femms go back to being the Mother of All Dysfunctional Families.
I can’t separate my feelings about The Old Dark House from the context in which I first saw it: at the end of a long day at the 1970 San Francisco Film Festival — I’d sneaked in and sat in the theatre as they ran movie after movie, culminating with this and Mystery of the Wax Museum. Both were recent rediscoveries at the time and hadn’t been seen publicly in decades — Mystery not since its initial release in 1933 and Old Dark House not since 1945, when Universal’s British distributor, General Film, withdrew it because all the prints had worn out — and I was sitting there in the Palace of Fine Arts theatre wondering how the hell I was going to get home since the last buses back to Marin County had long stopped running by the time the film ended. (I walked home about halfway across the Golden Gate Bridge and was apprehended by a police officer, who took me the rest of the way home and said he’d been inclined to let me go but I’d said something that made him feel like I was mocking him — that early in my life my tongue was already getting me into trouble with authority figures!)
It struck me then as the scariest film I’d ever seen, albeit in a low-keyed, un-obvious way — there aren’t any real horror sequences in it but it’s spooky as all get-out thanks to Whale’s superb direction, a marvelous script by Benn W. Levy (and an uncredited R. C. Sherriff) that leaves us almost totally at sea as to what’s going to happen next, wonderfully atmospheric cinematography by Arthur Edeson, almost Caligari-ish sets (Universal’s art department head, Charles D. Hall, is the only name credited) and an overall combination of spookiness and cheekiness that works surprisingly well. About the only disappointment in The Old Dark House is how little Boris Karloff has to do: he has surprisingly little screen time, the heavy hairpiece and beard he wears in character as Morgan gives him little room for facial expressiveness, he doesn’t get a chance to use his voice and a couple of his scenes — a quick succession of three ever-closer shots of his face and the attempted rape of Margaret — are all too obviously rehashes of his work in Frankenstein (there’s even a written prologue to the film explaining that the mad butler in this movie and the “mechanical monster” — sic; he was actually electrical — in Frankenstein were indeed played by the same actor), but the rest of the film is so good and the cast is probably the most stellar ever assembled for a horror film (Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey and Charles Laughton! Only The Ghoul, with Karloff, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Ernest Thesiger, even comes close). The Old Dark House is a first-rate film, easily on a par with Whale’s three better-known Universal horrors (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein) and worth being better known than it is. — 10/25/08