"Fine stuff, but it'll rot. Finer stuff still, but it'll rot, too."
--Rebecca, feeling Margaret's gown, and then her skin.
You've seen this movie, right? A car of innocents (or, at least, people innocent to the horror they're about to uncover) winds its way down an old country road during a thunderous storm. Trouble forces the character to seek shelter in a spooky old house, unaware that its walls contain secrets-- very dangerous, troubling, frightening secrets.
Creepy old houses and unintended guests were hardly new to horror, even in 1932, but The Old Dark House may be one of the first films to use this particular plot, and the first time car trouble brought the heroes and victims to the site of the horror. Based on J.B. Priestly's bizarre 1927 novel Benighted, it established a foundation on which horror movies have been building ever since. Despite the many derivations and a poorly-received William Castle remake1 The Old Dark House remains unique, largely due to the home's residents, the dysfunctional Femms. The Addams Family are neither as creepy nor as kooky as this benighted clan. Frank N. Furter and his associates are, by comparison, welcoming and hospitable. The family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are perhaps more dangerous, but they provide fewer laughs. And while Norman Bates and his mother may be burdened with issues as profound, their warped psychology makes some kind of (equally warped) sense. Compare that to the Femm described by the others as "the most dangerous of us all." What on earth is that character on about?
Of course, the Femms guard an old, dark secret. Actually, they guard several, but who's counting?
The first third of the movie works very well, establishing a farcical mood that still admits horrors. Several people arrive at the remote Welsh home, including some late-jazz age party girls, Gladys (Lilian Bond) and Margaret (Gloria Stuart, better known now as old Rose from Titanic), wisecracking Roger (Melvyn Douglas who responds to Karloff's grunting by opining "even Welsh ought not to sound like that") and wealthy Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton). They, along with Margaret's supposed husband, Philip (Raymond Massey), have weathered many challenges, but nothing that can prepare them for the Femms.
Ernest Thesiger shines as the bizarre and effeminate Horace Femm, a predecessor of sorts to Dr. Pretorius, the character he would play in The Bride of Frankenstein. It takes talent to draw the humour from a line like, "Have a potato." Eva Moore gives a hilariously disturbed performance as fanatical Rebecca, while elderly Elspeth Dudgeon plays the family's decaying male patriarch2. Boris Karloff (who, the credits assure us, is the same Karloff who starred in Universal Studios' recent hit, Frankenstein) portrays Morgan, a monstrous, inarticulate butler. Scary from his first appearance, he becomes, we are warned, very dangerous when he drinks. As the film progresses, he drinks quite a lot. Morgan exerts a powerful sense of menace without entirely losing our sympathy.
The actors use a broader style than twenty-first century audiences generally encounter, but the brilliant cast were trained for the stage and the theatrical approach suits the script. The opening two thirds are less a horror movie and more a comedy of manners-- in which half the characters are deranged. The Old Dark House becomes a comparatively conventional horror in the final act, losing some of its old dark charm.
The only effects consist of a passable but obviously studio rainstorm and some great lighting. Universal by then knew how to use light and shadow to effect. James Whale, one of the most successful directors of the gothic in Hollywood's Golden Age, understood how to manage a film on a comparatively low budget. He also had to act within the constraints of the era. Two years later, the Hays Code would have prevented this film from being made at all. Time has tamed audience reactions, but The Old Dark House still stands, and aspects of it continue to bewilder and beguile.3
Director: James Whale
Writers: J.B. Priestly (novel) and Benn W. Levy.
Boris Karloff as Morgan
Melvyn Douglas as Roger Penderel
Ernest Thesiger as Horace Femm
Eva Moore as Rebecca Femm
Raymond Massey as Philip Waverton
Gloria Stuart as Margaret Waverton
Charles Laughton as Sir William Porterhouse
Lilian Bond as Gladys Perkins
Elspeth Dudgeon as Sir Roderick Femm
Brember Willis as Saul
1. Castle's remake plays the story mainly for campy laughs, and it does manage a few. It turns the story into something fairly conventional, however, and its very different Femm family hide a more typical movie secret. The film also grows increasingly silly as it progresses. Charles Addams provided artwork for the title sequence.
2. For this film, Elspeth was billed under a male name, John Dudgeon. Her other great contribution to movie horror occurs in the disastrous and little-seen Sh! The Octopus, where her transformation from grandmotherly servant to monstrous hag, performed live on camera, provides the only worthwhile scene in the film. She also appears briefly, uncredited, in The Bride of Frankenstein.
3. The original was believed lost for many years. The negative was rediscovered in the late 1960s, and the film was restored.