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With: Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Gloria Stuart, Lillian Bond, Brember Wills
Written by: Benn W. Levy, R.C. Sherriff, based on a novel by J.B. Priestley
Directed by: James Whale
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 71
Date: 10/19/1932

The Old Dark House (1932)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Mad Pad

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Universal studios recently re-released a collection of their greatest horror films from the '30s and '40s, including director James Whale's four classics, Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride ofFrankenstein (1935), and The Old Dark House (1932). By a wonderful coincidence, Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters, a fictional biopic about James Whale, is opening around the same time. I think Gods andMonsters is one of the best movies of the year, and it inspired me to checkout more Whale films. I watched The Old Dark House again in the midst of my Whale furor, and it's even more amazing a second time.

Three travelers, played by Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, and Raymond Massey, are lost in the countryside when their old-fashioned car gets caught in a horrible rainstorm. They're nearly crushed in a landslide, and they stop at the title house for shelter. The door is opened, and a grotesque face appears and grunts at them. (The next line of dialogue is, "even Welsh ought not to sound like that."). The face belongs to Boris Karloff, completely disguised from his role as Frankenstein's monster, now playing the mute and scarred butler Morgan. (There's a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie, explaining that Karloff is playing the butler, so as to settle any disputes, and that this is a tribute to Karloff's great versatility.)

The owners of the creepy house are: Ernest Thesiger, with the great name Horace Femm, and his religious fanatic sister, Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore). The Femms don't want to let anyone in, ("no beds! -- They can't have any beds!"), but they relent, as the storm is getting worse. Horace is frail and craven, and Rebecca is nearly deaf. They sit down to eat. Thesiger delivers the line, "have a potato" in such a way as to silence all conversation. Soon, more travelers (Charles Laughton and Lillian Bond) show up. All the captives of the house talk for a while. Then Douglas and Bond go to the garage to get some whiskey out of the car, and stay and talk. Gloria Stuart goes to change her dress in Rebecca's room, but she gets frightened by Rebecca's maniacal "sinner" talk, and sees images of Morgan in the mirror. Massey goes upstairs to get a lamp and discovers more occupants in the house. Morgan starts drinking and becomes unstable. Things grow ever stranger.

Whale was probably more at home with The Old Dark House than any of the other horror films, due to the sophisticated characters, witty dialogue, and the wonderful old house set. He's very good at providing chills that aren't as campy as in his monster movies, but are still slightly corny and funny. During the dinner scene, Whale tracks his camera over the plates of the guests; someone is picking at their food, someone is scraping some object off a potato, and Rebecca Femm, at the end of the table, has chopped her food into bits, and its eating it so fast that you can't imagine where it's going. That's like a moment out of an Ernst Lubitsch comedy. Later, Stuart and Massey find the patriarch of the house, a 102-year old bed-ridden man, played in drag by a woman (Elspeth Dudgeon, credited as 'John Dudgeon') so that the high-pitched voice comes off as eerie. The man warns them of Saul, the insane, pyromaniac brother. When we first see Saul, we see a hand on the stairway railing. Then we see Karloff's face. Then Karloff begins to move down the stairs, while the hand stays where it is. This effect is funny, but slightly disarming, as now we are left wondering who Saul is and what he looks like.

I have to give Whale credit for shooting the movie on a single set, but avoiding staginess or play readings. He made an example of a real moving picture. The screenwriter, Ben Levy, must also be credited for some of the brilliant dialogue, as Whale was able to obtain the best and wittiest of them for his horror movies. (The movie was adapted from a novel by J.B. Priestley.) It's the ultimate haunted-house movie, and the ultimate spoof of them at the same time. The Old Dark House is my favorite James Whale movie, and it's essential Halloween viewing.

I had seen The Old Dark House once before on a magnificent laserdisc by Kino Video. The disc includes a brilliant new print of the movie, commentary from star Gloria Stuart (now famous again for Titanic), stills from the movie, and a short documentary by Curtis Harrington, who rescued the film from obscurity. (Harrington also helped Condon get started making Gods and Monsters.)

Kino's 1998 DVD release includes all the extras from the laserdisc: a Gloria Stuart commentary track (right at the height of her Titanic comeback), a second track by Whale biographer James Curtis, an interview with filmmaker Curtis Harrington, and a photo & poster gallery. The picture and sound are only just OK, but that's because this film was rescued from oblivion and restored using the best possible elements. Still, there are no subtitles to help clarify fuzzy audio.

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