by Paul Batters
“Have some gin. It’s my only weakness.”– Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger)
A howling storm, the terror of the night and a decrepit and eerie mansion hiding in the shadows, with who knows what inside its ancient walls. Such is the stuff of nightmares, dark fairy tales and one of the silver screen’s most fascinating films from the classic horror cycle of the early 1930s. Based on J. B. Priestley’s 1927 novel ‘Benighted’, The Old Dark House, directed by the legendary James Whales in 1932, remains a fascinating and interesting film, not only because it’s a ‘classic horror’ film but particularly due to its eccentricities, dark humour and very talented and exceptional cast.
Whilst not exactly ‘lost’, The Old Dark House would disappear for some years and be somewhat forgotten, with other films from the Universal canon of classic horror given greater attention and accolades. The film had mixed reviews upon its initial release and Universal saw no advantage in pushing it further. Indeed, the copyright would lapse with William Castle initiating a remake. Like other lost films, particularly in the horror genre, The Old Dark House did find itself elevated to near-legendary status as a lost classic and sought after by aficionados and cinephiles. The proliferation of monster magazines, the rediscovery of classic film on television in the 1950s and 1960s and the interest in Karloff himself certainly helped to raise interest. However, it took the work of James Whale protégé, Curtis Harrington, to rediscover the negative and have it printed. As a result, this gothic horror classic flickered on the screen once more.
However, The Old Dark House is also an eccentricity from start to finish. It is a film where Whale’s unconventional sense of humour prevails (and this has been discussed at length ad nauseum). Yet it is worth nothing that it does not meet the expectations of a run-of-the-mill ‘horror film’. It traverses a range of themes and ideas, which one would not normally associate with horror. The audience discovers this from the opening scenes with a wild storm occurring in the Welsh hills. Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey) and his wife, Margaret (Gloria Stuart) argue over the direction they are supposed to be taking as they drive through the howling darkness. In the back seat, seemingly unperturbed is the suave and debonair Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) whose humour and lack of concern seems to bother Margaret particularly. Behind Penderel’s quips, wit and relaxed demeanour, however, is a cynical ‘forgotten man’ from that ‘lost generation’ who returned from World War One. Whilst Penderel verbally parries and fences playfully with his friends, his disillusionment and cynicism is often revealed, at times by his own admission. Douglas is quite apt at giving layers to Penderel and such disillusionment would have been quite understood and familiar to audiences of the day – perhaps all too familiar with the ‘forgotten man’. Penderel is correct in describing himself as the ‘man with the twisted smile’.
Of course, the story shifts into the bizarre when the storm-soaked threesome seek shelter in the Femm house. The large, looming house in the shadows of the storm seems gruesome enough but they are greeted at the door by a scarred and spine-chilling face, who turns out to be the butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff). The slow reveal of Morgan’s face is chilling and is suggestive of what is to come. The leering, brutish and grunting Morgan is strange enough until the travellers are greeted by Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) whose skittish nervousness is coupled with a strange fondness for his ‘guests’. Far stranger is Horace’s God-fearing and salty sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), whose piercing cries of ‘they can’t have beds’ firmly suggests her attitude towards these interlopers.
That our shelter-seeking travellers are in a strange and conflicted house becomes evident. The audience discovers early that the house is one deeply entrenched with religious fervour on the one hand and atheism on the other. Horace is terrified that the storm will wash away the house and his fears are mocked and condemned by Rebecca for his disbelief in God and blasphemies. Rebecca evidently is unafraid as the house is ‘built on rock’ and she has her unaffected faith in God. Rebecca is not an old and slightly deaf woman – she’s also a religious fanatic who is unhinged and holds great power. When Horace orders Morgan to attend to the fire, he defers to Rebecca who gives him a quiet nod. Later when Horace mocks Rebecca’s giving thanks ‘to her gods’ before dinner, she silences him and he meekly sits with bowed head. Indeed, Horace himself introduces Rebecca as the head of the house. This God-fearing woman seems assured in her strength, exhibiting a silent power in the household.
However, Rebecca’s religious fervour is underpinned by a complexity of layers. Rebecca’s frustration and deep running envies are revealed when she tells of her beautiful yet ‘godless’ sister who was chased by men and revelled in sin. Twisted and distorted images of Rebecca leave the audience even more uncomfortable yet they also reveal that the other side of Rebecca’s disapproval is a deeply hidden obsession. As Margaret strips off her wet clothes, Rebecca comments on her ‘fine stuff’ which will ‘rot too, in time’. There is a bitterness that Rebecca’s own long-repressed sexuality has also been long dead and re-defined by condemning those who enjoy sex. Margaret’s slim, white body re-awakens Rebecca’s own desires, and provides fuel for her religious fanaticism and frustrations at the same time.
Yet this repression is evident in a house gone rotten with madness and it finds expression in bizarre and indeed criminal ways. Morgan’s intentions for Margaret are quite clear which later emerge when he is ‘quite drunk’. His attempts to rape her are only thwarted, firstly by the intervention of her husband and finally by the tragedy unfolding in the film’s climax. The Femm household is one barely held together and seems to be constantly at odds with itself. Yet as Rebecca and later the feeble Sir Roderic Femm (played interestingly by ‘John Dudgeon’ aka Elspeth Dudgeon) declare, the house was one previously charged with sex and activity. It will also be Sir John who reveals that there is another Femm in the household who is the maddest and most dangerous of all, so much so that they need to lock him up which is why the Femms keep Morgan. The introduction of the eldest son, Saul (Brember Wills) will eventually shift the story into something more terrifying, as all we wants to do is destroy and kill. Saul, too, will use biblical allusions and his very name speaks volumes about his character as well.
Class, status and the challenges to both thematically emerge in the film; all of which are looked at in great depth in Priestley’s book. The Femm household itself is from landed gentry but one fallen into decrepit near-collapse – perhaps a symbol of the old world of landowners and nobility finally seeing its demise. In its place has emerged a new, modern world born out of the industrial revolution and run by a new, ambitious business class. The loud, boisterous Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) has bought his title, yet does not (nor cannot) hide his origins nor his bitterness towards the upper class who still look down their noses at him. He cannot hide his thick Yorkshire accent nor does he have the manners and upbringing to match his bought title. Likewise Gladys (Lillian Bond) is a chorus girl, who as Sir William’s ‘companion’ is obviously with him for survival not for love. Horace Femm sniffs at the irony of her comments on taste and Rebecca Femm casts an equally dismal eye on Gladys. Yet she is honest and without airs, which Penderel admires and which will eventually see him fall for her. The middle-class Wavertons are also in this mix, which in total makes for a film with great focus on character.
All are caught in this strange and dismal house with far darker secrets existing upstairs; so dark that Horace does not want to venture upstairs. He finds all manner of excuses to avoid getting a lamp when the lights go out. He ends up locking himself in his room, leaving all the guests to their own fate. Even Rebecca fears what is upstairs, which is why they keep Morgan there as protection. Yet Morgan becomes as much a danger when he gets drunk and therefore out of control – and Rebecca cannot control him in his drunken state. Like her brother Horace, Rebecca locks herself in her room, after the warning she gives to the women goes unheeded. Without any of the Femms present and Morgan drunk and out of control, the house has become a dangerous place. Morgan will go even further and unlock the door at the top of the last flight of stairs, releasing the eldest brother, Saul. Saul’s arrival in the plot arrives after a slow build up of tension and from this point the suspense starts to take hold and the secrets of the old, dark house are revealed.
As previously mentioned, The Old Dark House is an odd film for a ‘horror film’. It certainly has all the hallmarks of a Gothic horror film, with a wild storm, a strange household steeped in madness and a chilling figure in the shape of Morgan. One feels the slow-burn while watching the first half of the film, and even amused at the dinner scene, where the audience experiences more of the aforementioned eccentricities of Whale’s humour. Indeed, the after dinner gathering around the fireplace allows the audience to discover more about the characters as well. As Kevin Maher points out, it feels like a drawing room farce. But despite all this, there are still plenty of frights for the guests in the benighted household and even some fairly shocking violence such as Phillips Waverton’s use of a lamp to stop Morgan assaulting his wife. The film drifts into the bizarre with the strange meeting with the terribly old Sir John in his bed and of course the climax of the film which sees Saul let loose on the guests.
The film is well-shot and Arthur Edeson’s camera work helps create the spooky atmosphere. The clever use of light and shadow, as well as distorted images and strange cross-cutting induces the fear and confusion of being in such a strange house. It’s not strictly a ‘haunted old house’ story but there are one or two stylistic throwbacks to Universal’s The Cat And The Canary (1927) such as the long corridor with open windows and billowing curtains or even the plot device of a lunatic let loose in the house. The use of diegetic sound such as the howling wind, the thunder and the rain is also effective in adding to the spooky atmosphere. The casting works and the contrast between the Femms and their guests is quite marked. Whale’s choice for a near-full British cast is interesting and according to Gloria Stuart saw some preferential treatment from Whale towards the British expats. Stuart stated that Whale always provided tea and crumpets for morning and afternoon tea but only the British cast was invited. Stuart and Melvyn Douglas were left to themselves but it did mean a friendship was born out of their isolation.
Karloff’s casting came soon after his legendary and career-breaking role as It is well-known that Whale was cold towards Karloff and this was evident on the set of The Old Dark House according to Stuart who reported Whale calling him an ‘old truck-driver’. Karloff, of course, was always kind and courteous and gave his best in his strange role as the silent, lumbering butler. Karloff’s particularly emotional moment after the climax is particularly poignant, if not in complete contrast to the rest of his performance. It uncannily harkens to Ilya Repin’s 1851 painting of Ivan The Terrible And His Son with great effect. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian feels that the film is delivered with tremendous gusto and theatrical dash, and this review couldn’t agree more.
Despite an unevenness in the story, The Old Dark House is still worth watching and works as a chiller. It has suffered from some poor prints but the digital clean-up finally offers a superior opportunity to enjoy the film. There are quite a number of ‘old dark house’ films out there from the minor and Poverty Row studios which seek to mimic what happens in Whale’s film but they remain distant and forgettable in comparison. The Old Dark House remains worthy of the canon of film from the 1931 – 1935 golden age of classic horror. It has none of the supernatural elements that are present in Dracula, Frankenstein or The Mummy. Nor does it have the shape-shifting characteristics of The Invisible Man or Dr. Jekyll And Mr Hyde. However, it combines Gothic tropes with the eccentricity, humour and originality of James Whale, as well as a beautifully shot film with performances from a top notch cast. It’s thoroughly enjoyable and you’ll find yourself caught in the same predicament as the wary travellers stuck with a family of mad people in an old, dark house on a wild, stormy night.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.