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The Old Dark House (1932)
Directed by: James Whale
Starring: Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Melvyn Douglas
Running Time: 1 h 12 m
TMM Score: 4 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Writing, Cinematography, Atmosphere, Story
WEAKNESSES: Some Acting, Character Motivation
A torrential storm washes out the road, causing five travelers to take shelter at a strange old home.
Having recently watched a slew of the Universal Monster movies, I grew interested in the films of James Whale (director of Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man). Out of all the films I’d watched of the Universal Monsters, I found his films to be the most consistently entertaining, inventive, and best written. Whale seemed to know what he wanted and how he’d go about doing it, and I haven’t yet been disappointed by one of his movies. This film came highly recommended by the hive mind of the Internet, and so I decided that this would be a fine place to continue my journey through the films of James Whale. I was not disappointed.
“Sins of the father! Sins of the father!”
From the very beginning, Whale and Benn W. Levy (the screenwriter) set the slightly humorous tone of this movie by starting with a bickering married couple, the Waverton’s. Phillip (Raymond Massey, Arsenic and Old Lace) and Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart, The Invisible Man) take harmless jabs at each other with rather hilarious dialogue for almost a full minute, before it’s revealed that there is another passenger, Penderel (Melvyn Douglas, Being There) sitting in the back, witness to their quarrels. The reveal itself is quite funny, and from there the dialogue continues to be rather humorous and witty. That is, until the road washes out and our three heroes are forced to take shelter at the titular Old Dark House. After knocking on the door, the butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff, Frankenstein) opens the door and after a moment, allows them inside. There, the heroes meet Horace (Ernest Thesiger, Doctor Pretorius from The Bride of Frankenstein) and Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore, Scotland Yard Investigator), the owners of the house. After a bit of convincing, the Femm’s agree to allow the Wavertons and Penderel stay the night. Soon however, as the storm rages outside, another two people are driven from the road to the home; a wealthy businessman, Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton, Witness for the Prosecution) and his friend, Gladys (Lillian Bond, China Seas). As the five travelers take refuge, strange things begin to happen in the home.
As with many of Whale’s films, one of the first things I noticed was the technical prowess he displayed with cinematography. In this film in particular, Whale does some amazing things with light and shadow. He shrouds rooms in blackness, illuminating only the places where he really wants to show, and as a result, the house often feels incredibly eerie, even if the topic of conversation is rather light and humorous. He also plays a lot with light that looks like firelight on the walls, making it look like the house is always alight with a ghostly flame; it’s a really cool effect, and at times it make the house feel quite hellish. Whale also manages to always keep the house looking interesting- this is a movie where almost the entirety of the film is set in one location, and that can be rather boring if you’ve a boring cinematographer. Luckily, Whale makes this location look as dynamic as possible.
Another thing I really liked about this film was it’s snappy, slightly sardonic dialogue that permeates throughout the whole of the film. Even when the film has some rather darker things happening, by and large the writing has at least a few little quips woven in through the scene. The writing certainly helped with the pacing, as the film seemed to move consistently, never really slowing down, even though this movie isn’t nearly as chocked full of monsters and thrills many of the other Universal Monster movies. This is a very simple story, with a few twists and turns, yet it manages to be wholly entertaining because of the way characters speak and interact with each other. We get to know character relationships and back stories without too much expositional dialogue (there is some dialogue that is quite on the nose, however- including a scene where Porterhouse simply monologues about his dead wife for a while).
I guess my biggest issue with the film is the shoehorned love story between Gladys and Penderel. (I suppose spoilers in the rest of this paragraph) The subplot arises suddenly, and feels incredibly awkward. Gladys came to the house with Porterhouse, but when she meets Penderel, they go out to his car for a drink. Within a few minutes of knowing Penderel, Gladys professes that she doesn’t really love Porterhouse and they aren’t really together. Porterhouse still isn’t over his dead wife, but he’s lonely so he pays Gladys to keep him company- it’s made abundantly clear that they are not having extramarital sex (no doubt to pass the censors). After Gladys tells Penderel that she doesn’t love Porterhouse, they instantly profess their love for one another. Now I don’t know about you, but that storyline feels a little needless and farfetched to me.
This is a fun little horror comedy flick. I wouldn’t say it’s as much fun as The Invisible Man, nor is it as spellbinding as The Bride of Frankenstein, but it’s certainly an entertaining movie. For those who have an interest in film history, for those who love the Universal Monster movies, for those who want to see Karloff in another role, I absolutely recommend this movie. It’s only an hour and twelve minutes long, and I was totally entertained throughout. It’s a simple, yet funny and thrilling story, with some great black and white cinematography and some wonderful atmosphere.
Note: the version I saw was poorly restored, but Masters of Cinema have recently released a 4K transfer. There’s never been a better time to watch this movie!
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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