Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)

Of course it's a dark and stormy night when Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, and Melvyn Douglas stumble into a strange old house whose occupants are even more menacing than the raging floods outside, and director James Whale milks the atmosphere for all it's worth in this delightfully dire horror comedy. The Old Dark House (1932) delivers on all points, with thrills and giggles in equal measure thanks to the performers who make up the cast, including Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton, and Eva Moore.

Massey and Stuart play married couple Philip and Margaret Waverton, who, along with their traveling companion, Penderel (Douglas), literally wash up at the old dark house during a massive storm. They're not exactly welcomed in by the occupants, a strange brother and sister whose other family members haunt the upper floors of the gloomy mansion, but they settle in to stay the night and are soon joined by fellow refugees Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and Gladys (Lilian Bond). Things take a turn for the worse when the looming, mute butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff), gets drunk and releases the house's most dangerous resident, a pyromaniac murderer called Saul (Brember Wills).

If you're already familiar with Whale's sense of humor from Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), you'll appreciate more of the same in The Old Dark House (1932), especially with the crusty, deaf Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) and her brother, the fey, nervous Horace (Ernest Thesiger). The brief appearance of their father, Sir Roderick, turns out to be a treat, too; the whole family is mad as hatters, which keeps the reluctant house guests in a constant state of confusion. Karloff's shambling Morgan is a scarier version of Lurch from The Addams Family; he spends a lot of time trying to molest Margaret, who has inexplicably changed out of her wet traveling clothes into the least practical evening dress one could possibly wear in a cold, damp lunatic asylum pretending to be a family home. The sense of impending doom is also lightened by the whirlwind romance of Penderel and Gladys, with Penderel seeming to nurse something of a foot fetish where his new love interest is concerned.

The atmosphere and cinematography also make this film a lot of fun, with fabulous camera shots lingering on Morgan's scarred face in closeup or building terrible suspense with just Saul's hand at the top of the stairs appearing in the frame. There's plenty of striking storm scenery, too, especially as the Wavertons wend their hazardous way through the deluge. Flickering candles and uncertain electrical lights add to the sense of dread; nobody wants the lights to go out in this house. The Gothic ambience and focus on crumbling heaps recall Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" but also Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, and Whale shares Walpole's characteristic mingling of the ludicrous and the sublime. The joke of the title reveals the film's keen awareness of its place in relationship to earlier Gothic horror; the "old dark house" motif was a cliche of the genre long before 1932, but Whale's direction is always winking at us about the familiarity of it all.

Whale, Karloff, and Thesiger reunited for Bride of Frankenstein, while Gloria Stuart also stars in Whale's adaptation of The Invisible Man. Melvyn Douglas is not generally remembered for his horror films, but you'll also find him in The Vampire Bat (1933), and, much later, The Changeling (1980) and Ghost Story (1981). While Charles Laughton plays a solid fellow in this film, he really gets to work the horror vein in Island of Lost Souls (1932) and The Strange Door (1951). Don't miss Raymond Massey doing his own Karloff inspired turn in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). William Castle made his own version of The Old Dark House in 1963, so you could make a double feature of it by watching both adaptations of the novel by J.B. Priestley.

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