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The Old Dark House Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    The Old Dark House Review
    Last year, I began a series of reviews of vintage horror and sci-fi films, loosely bundled together under the banner of the Retrofest. There was no real rhyme or reason for it, other than just my sheer love for these movies. They all, however, had two things in common - they each broke new ground, thematically, or cinematically, and the influence they each possessed was far-reaching and is still ongoing. High marks, as I stated last year, are practically obligatory. They may not all be masterpieces, but they stand the test of time, have much to offer and more than make up for what some may define as primitive special effects with tremendous mood and atmosphere. And, hey, without them, I wouldn't be a film-fan. Over the coming weeks you can expect a glorious trip through the fogbound sets of the Universal monster-mashes - featuring the big-hitters of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolfman amongst others - a re-acquaintance with the sci-fi classics of the 50's, and a tip of the hat to our own home-grown trendsetters from Hammer's illustrious early years.

    But, firstly, I am pleased to shed some light on a little-seen gem from 1932, now released on UK DVD for the first time ... James Whale's brilliant The Old Dark House.

    “The fact is, Morgan is an uncivilised brute. Sometimes he drinks heavily. A night like this will set him going, and once he's drunk he's rather dangerous.”

    Missing, presumed lost for many years, James Whale's first genre movie after his seminal Frankenstein from 1931, The Old Dark House (released the following year) fell victim to many misinterpretations, lapses of viewer memory and just plain fallacies as horror writers penned tomes about the early years of chiller cinema. Having collected many horror movie compendiums as a child - the good ones are truly indispensable even today - it now becomes clear that too many reviewers clearly hadn't even seen the film and were basing their critiques upon hand-me-down recollections from people who had, no doubt, gotten images from Boris Karloff's first British-set movie irreconcilably enmeshed with others from amongst his formidable gothic canon. Then again, this is hardly surprising when you consider that the movie sank without a trace after its initial theatrical run, eliciting collectors and historians to commence a worldwide hunt for any surviving print. When opportunity and good fortune finally shone, a battered and degraded copy was tracked down and discovered in the studio vaults by filmmaker Curtis Harrington in 1968, and Whale's lost legacy was dusted down, aired and re-evaluated by a much more cynical and harder-to-please audience who, at the start, seemed content only to de-mythologise it and to pick fault.

    Those expecting an out-and-out fright-fest were bound to have been disappointed by what they saw, for in adapting J.B. Priestley's novel Benighted, about class differences taken to the utmost extremes, James Whale pursued something more in the manner of a mood-piece wrapped around some bizarre character studies. The setting and the scenario is pure horror, though. When a truly ferocious storm lashes the isolated Welsh countryside, two disparate groups of people are forced to take shelter in the one place of sanctuary on offer ... the titular Old Dark House. Arriving first, after a landslide almost buries them, are bickering upper-class married couple Philip and Margaret Waverton and their easygoing, affable friend Penderel. Discovering the barmy Femm Family who reside in the rather dilapidated old mansion, the reluctant guests begin what amounts to a battle of wills and etiquette between their world of high society and the wild eccentricities of the decidedly odd, and equally reluctant, hosts. Things only get worse when two more unfortunates contrive to end up at this last, ominous stop-over somewhere between the prissy and the psychotic - the salt-of-the-earth made-good of Sir William Porterhouse and his fanciful, footloose floozy Gladys. It's going to be a long night of dark deeds and insane revelations.

    Essaying the Wavertons are a young Raymond Massey, who would go on to play an infinite number of variations of the same role, and the absolutely gorgeous Gloria Stuart. Massey is largely underused as it is Hollywood actor Melvyn Douglas, as Penderel, who assumes the part of our notional hero. It is quite clear that Penderel has had some sort of relationship with Margaret, though only vague, and somewhat forlorn, hints are dropped during their often sparkly and acerbically written dialogue. That he will come to strike up a truly whirlwind romance with new-arrival Gloria, played with brash enthusiasm by Lillian Bond, makes for some intriguing three-way camera-frame-ups that place him in the middle of the two young ladies. His love-rival being none-other than the cinematic giant of Charles Laughton, only very young here, as Sir William, adds a frisson that, had it been filmed a few years later, would have become the psychological thrust of the film as opposed to any lurking threat from the shadows. Instead, via some witty and incisive (for the times, anyway) banter between the classes, Sir William becomes considerably less of an ogre than Laughton would have typically assumed. Let's not forget that this is the man who portrayed The Hunchback Of Notre Dame wit distinction, won an Oscar for his performance as Henry VIII in The Private Life Of Henry VIII and became the definitive Captain Bligh in Mutiny On The Bounty. In fact, Laughton, who quite incredibly resembles comedian Peter Kay - even sounding like him too, as this is one of the rare films in which he retains his genuine Northern accent - plays Sir William as eminently likeable, a man who has literally built himself up from nothing, but forgotten none of his basic principles nor his humble beginnings in the process. Also alluded to is his somewhat dubious relationship with good-time-gal Gloria. It is certainly quite heavily implied that he may be paying for her company.

    But the difficulties and confusions of the normal folk are nothing when compared to the practically complete weirdness of the Femms who, thanks to extraordinary casting and wickedly memorable performances, have helped create the template for reclusive, odd-ball families throughout the many gothic horror/thriller dramas that have since followed. Headed up by the expert of bundled reproach and relished put-down, Ernest Thesiger (who would star opposite Karloff again in The Bride Of Frankenstein and The Ghoul), the Femms are obviously concealing a great deal in their ramshackle ancestral home. As Horace Femm, Thesiger brings a clutching, willowy, bird-like bag of twitches and neurotic ticks to a part that is, at once, vaguely sinister and breathlessly frightened. He, above all of the others, is the one most terrified of the horrors that the night may bring. But he is not above sneering at his unwanted houseguests, turning practically every sentence he utters in their direction into a thinly veiled barb, or a narrow-lipped sniping of miserly contempt. It is a terrific creation, and one that deserves a further viewing so much does he bring to his terrified and distrusting character. The curt and self-righteous flinging of a bouquet of flowers into the fire and the injection of venom he places in the comically immortal line “Have a potato,” are just two of the marvellous examples of his cowardly sly nature. His crumbling charade when confronted by the need for a lantern from “upstairs” is another, yet, I feel this prolonged exchange of whimpering terror may just go a little too far, perhaps inevitably diluting some of the tension that a shorter preamble would have maintained. This is only a minor caveat, though.

    Eva Moore, as Horace's sister, Rebecca, is similarly skewed and an absolute delight, scene-stealing with as much voracious ease as that exhibited when she devours the most unpleasant evening meal that Mad Morgan prepares. Supposedly hard of hearing she, nevertheless, seems to enjoy the pounding of poor Margaret's heart when she accompanies the young wife as she retires to slip into something more comfortable. Enhanced by Whale's surreal use of a distorted mirror, her vitriol at the ways of modern womanhood is brought explicitly to life when she suddenly paws disturbingly at Margaret's bare chest, the allure of such creamy, young skin proving too much for her to contain. It is worth remembering that The Old Dark House was released before the Hays Code had been introduced and that a scene such as this, and several other sexually charged moments appearing later on, would have surely bitten the dust on the censor's floor. It should be stated also, that Gloria Stuart stripping down to her silk slip and stockings is an eye-opening scene in its own right, without the skin-crawling addition of the elder Femm's dangerous lust to corrupt it. Moore, a familiar actress with a string of minor roles to her credit, had only gone to Hollywood a year before making the film, accompanying her daughter and son-in-law - the son-in-law being one Laurence Olivier. Here, she supplies a wealth of sinister undertones, letting slip a number of crucial facts about the set-up with a macabre intermingling of bully-boy tactics, misplaced pride and her own sense of dread at some of the Femm family secrets leaking out. There are indeed more members of the family residing in the upper reaches of the estate, one of them in particular being a serious cause for concern, with his history of pyromania and violence. I won't talk too much about their casting as it would, ultimately, spoil some of the later shocks. But, it is clear that Whale, if you will pardon the pun, had a whale of time finding people for these roles. Brember Wills especially, as Saul Femm, is splendidly off-kilter and just the type of black sheep you would expect to have been locked away in the attic.

    But, of course, The Old Dark House is, arguably, more memorable for the presence of Universal's greatest horror icon. Even though he exists here in what is, at best, just the role of a bogeyman.

    Boris Karloff, however, is superb as the brutish butler, Morgan. Here, he is at his most physically intimidating. Never mind the sympathetic menace of Frankenstein's monster, the tragically sinister aura of Prince Im-Ho-Tep in The Mummy, or the slyly devious manipulations of cabman/grave-robber Gray in The Body Snatcher, this is Karloff as a purely human, though terrifically imposing, threat - and all the more unnerving because of it. When we are informed that he is apt to be dangerous after a few drinks, we just know that he wants nothing more than to reach for the bottle, to fuel the murderous impulses that can clearly be seen already bubbling just beneath the surface of his hairy, cleaved face. Then, when the wildly eccentric Miss Femm declares that he has been in the kitchen drinking for sometime, there is a delicious sense of fear and imminent jeopardy provoked; such is the looming unpredictability he exudes. With the build of an ogre, a craggy scarred face as cruel and unforgiving as an anvil and a scratchy beard, Morgan is the last thing you want to see opening the door to you on a dark and stormy night. The fact that he cannot speak more than just a few throaty grunts further pushes him away from any pretence of hospitality. And just check out those deep, satanic eyes leering malevolently out from beneath his bushy black brows. Jorge Grau's superior zombie gut-muncher, The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (1974) seems to have recaptured this unkempt and macabre look for the walking corpse known as Guthrie The Loon with equal menace. Although in later years, Karloff actually tended to dismiss his role in the film, it does show a deeper level of bravura performing than he often treated audiences to, a truly unapologetic fiend who seems to have stumbled in, quite literally, from someone's street-thug nightmare. Watch particularly for his early treatment of Margaret, leaning in much too close to her, his eyes virtually raping her with every lingering stare and setting the tone for his impulsive wickedness to come. Morgan is a far more realistic monster than films of the era had ever attempted to depict, the use of the fantastic, or the supernatural a much safer and more convenient foil to convey the evil of the times. But the mad butler brought so vividly to life by Karloff has no need of such paraphernalia; his animalistic impulses and savage countenance are enough to give him the weight of a gaggle of demons. In many of his chillers he looks more like a kindly old uncle, and that's even when he's under a ton of Jack Pierce's celebrated makeup. Pierce actually created the makeup here, as well. But The Old Dark House ensures that he can lay claim to at least one truly repugnant and malicious character in his repertoire, without that familiar twinge of sympathy, for there is an innate - and possibly inbred - primal rage festering in his blood even before he reaches for the bottle.

    Directing with a steady and confident air, James Whale delivers the thrills and the chills with his customary aplomb, served with finesse by his regular cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who keeps the camera moving despite a deceptively simple roster of sets. There is a terrific moment when Philip and Margaret open a bedroom door and Whale and Edeson then take us, and them, on a grand entrance into a vast, chambered boudoir, the lens travelling with the two characters as they move through it. The film is also beautifully lit, with every scene filled with scintillating gothic compositions of light and shadow - now sadly blighted by a degree of unavoidable damage to the print, but still very rewarding to behold. Look at the way that the fireplace, or any glow of illumination for that matter, becomes a small bastion of comfort when all else around the screen seems to encroach with a sly, insinuating darkness. The sets are elaborate, and very typical of Whale's visual aesthetic. Never has an old dark house looked so desperately grubby, or so gloomy. It's a far cry from the spiralling beauty of Castle Frankenstein, but no less steeped in atmosphere, or foreboding. Staircases weave a geometry of intimidation, the upstairs hall that Margaret runs along providing an image as dreamy as any fashioned by Cocteau or even Argento. Even the use of miniatures to depict the exterior of the house is wisely kept to a minimum, never allowing us a look at the full size and scale of the retreat - just a lengthy wall, rain-lashed and decrepit. We never even see how far up it goes, the house becoming a mystery of brick and stone, flickering flame and shadow, just a façade to a maze of madness held within. But, despite all this visual dexterity, the film can often feel restricted by its theme of captivity, the raw theatricality of the stage-bound pervading much of the action. Even the brief exterior sequences - the frightful drive along the dangerous storm-engulfed roads and the initial approach to the house - may be effective, but they are few and far-between, thus reinforcing a sense of claustrophobia and isolation. Of course, having the cast perfect the rigid entrances and exits stage left or right of a play, serves this style no end, as well.

    But this approach to the movie does not detract from it one iota. Instead, it is clearly one of its strengths. When the action comes, it is wilfully in-your-face, direct and viciously matter-of-fact. Morgan crashing through a heavy wooden door, or suddenly overturning a dinner table, for instance. Or the violent struggles up and down the precarious stairs. Whale handles the brutality of the piece with an unblinking eye, cleverly turning the sometimes tongue-in-cheek attitude right on its head. One great shock is Karloff's groping hand smashing through a window - an element discussed with authenticity by Kim Newman in his commentary with Stephen Jones as being the first of what became a genre cliché. And, on the subject of clichés, it is fair to note that The Old Dark House is the film that created most such formula tricks of the scare-trade, truly ushering in the whole sub-genre of spooky houses and secrets-in-the-attic, much more so than, say, The Cat And The Canary (1927). I love this movie, folks. Its set-up is simple, its plot almost casual, but the excellent performances and the clever manipulation of character make for a refreshing journey into madness. For its time, The Old Dark House is surprisingly dark and menacing, the sexual aggression and the incestuous hints surrounding the Femm family pretty groundbreaking for viewers who think that vintage horror is all nice and cosy. Whale's trademark wit was never more prevalent and his eye for the uncanny just as poignant - surely there was no other director of the era who could juggle a shock cut with a comical rebuff, yet still keep the horror hard and serious and, thereby, ensure that his audience was forever being caught off-guard.

    James Whale went on to even greater things within the horror field with his adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man with Claude Rains the following year and, even more so, with The Bride Of Frankenstein, the sequel that Universal had been pestering him to add to his original mega-hit. Karloff, of course, just went on and on within the genre that had made him a star, his persona towering over the illustrious Horror Halls of Fame like a Titan. And, rest assured, I will be covering more of his classics in the coming weeks - particularly The Ghoul, The Mummy, The Black Cat and the films he made with Val Lewton. But, for now, I can only finish by saying how much I recommend The Old Dark House. Don't bother with the lousy remake that William Castle and Hammer Films attempted in 1963 - it doesn't even come close.