OLD DARK HOUSE, THE
(director: James Whale; screenwriters: Benn W. Levy/R.C. Sherriff/based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley; cinematographer: Arthur Edeson; editor: Clarence Kolster; cast: Boris Karloff (Morgan, the mad butler), Melvyn Douglas (Roger Penderel), Charles Laughton (Sir William Porterhouse), Gloria Stuart (Margaret Waverton), Lilian Bond (Gladys DuCane/Perkins), Ernest Thesiger (Horace Femm), Eva Moore (Rebecca Femm), Raymond Massey (Philip Waverton), Brember Wills (Saul Femm), Elspeth Dudgeon (Sir Roderick Femm), Boris Karloff (Morgan); Runtime: 74; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.; Universal; 1932)
“It’s a classic horror tale, the apotheosis of all “Old House” spooky films.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
James Whale (“Frankenstein”/”The Invisible Man”/”Bride of Frankenstein”) directs this odd, creepy tale about five stranded travelers caught in a heavy rainstorm in Wales and are forced to stay overnight in a rundown old dark house of the eccentric Femm family. It’s a classic horror tale, the apotheosis of all “Old House” spooky films, with a rich mixture of spellbinding suspense, a menacing mood and with strains of offbeat black comedy. Based on the uneven book Benighted by J. B. Priestly, a novel meant as an allegory about the tenuous posturing of a post-war England filled with a sense of disillusionment. It’s wonderfully scripted by Benn W. Levy and R.C. Sherriff (uncredited).
Married upper-class couple Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart) and their back seat guest Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) trade witty banter while driving around lost in the Welsh countryside during a severe rainstorm that causes them to be stuck in a mudslide. They seek shelter in an old mansion belonging to the Femm family. The door is opened by the grunting, scary brutish mute butler named Morgan (Boris Karloff), who is adorned with a scraggly beard. In the house they are reluctantly welcomed by the eccentric elderly family patriarch Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger). He’s civilized in the manners of the old wealthy class, but is a nervous man who seems haughty, pathetic and hateful (his unnerving portrayal steals the film from the better known stars). Horace’s sister is Rebecca (Eva Moore), who owns the house and is somewhat deaf, overbearingly religious and is deeply embittered. Brother and sister despise each other.
At the dinner table, Rebecca says grace and Horace sarcastically mocks her. Horace carves up some roast beef, but only serves the guests a potato each and some vinegar and pickled onions while he and Rebecca devour the roast beef. I found that scene deliciously amusing. During dinner another couple are also stranded, Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton, his first American film) and his lady friend, chorus girl Gladys Perkins (Lilian Bond), whose stage name is DuCane. William is a wealthy industrialist who became obsessed with making a fortune after his wife Lucy died of a broken heart when society cold shouldered them for not having money. Gladys uses him as her sugar daddy, and feels sorry for the lonesome soul who just craves her company on weekends and to put up an appearance that all’s cheerful. Gladys maintains they are just good friends and he demands nothing else from her.
Meanwhile the house owners worry that their place will be swept away by a flood. There’s no electricity, so they sit in the dark with only some lit candles. We soon learn that Morgan is dangerous when he gets drunk and he has begun drinking. When Rebecca goads her brother to get a kerosene lamp from the attic, he’s too fearful so Philip is persuaded to go instead. Upstairs resides the 102-year-old invalid father, Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon, an elderly female actress), who believes he’s the only sane one in the family but soon proves he’s as nutty as the rest of them as he cackles and warns against the dangers of his oldest son Saul (Brember Wills). Locked up in a room at the top, Saul is considered a dangerous madman who once tried to set the house on fire. Saul is freed by the drunken Morgan and confronts Roger, at first pretending to be a timid soul and an admirer of Roger’s. Roger we have learned had a bad time with his war experience and though he puts on a cheery front he’s a sad man who has given up on life and thinks everything is pointless. But that has all changed this night, as the penniless upper-class Roger has fallen in love with the working-class fun-loving Gladys and plans to ask her in the morning to marry him. They shared a drink and kiss in the stable, and exchanged life stories during the course of the evening. The problem is that Saul is really a dangerous lunatic, and in this brilliant scene his madness builds to a crescendo. After leering at Roger he turns into the raging Saul of the Bible who was jealous of David and threatens Roger with a large carving knife (which he compares to fire and ice), and then when the knife is kicked out of his hand he goes berserk and bangs him over the head with a chair. Both men are still alive but badly wounded in the fight, and in the morning when the rain subsides Philip goes for an ambulance.
The story moves along as a spoof on those Broadway mystery plays that are set in an old dark house and convey a conventional horror atmosphere. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson films it with a very dark and foreboding look. The strange characters talk a lot, and though there’s a threat of something bad about to happen very little happens till the end when Saul goes bonkers. The film’s most peculiar scene has Margaret enter the bedroom of Rebecca’s deceased younger sister Rachel (whose death is mysterious and a guarded family secret) to change her wet clothes and Rebecca touches her evening dress and says “That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot,” and then puts her hand on Margaret’s breast and says “This is fine stuff, too, but it’ll rot too in time.” After preaching about the ills of vanity, Rebecca before leaving the room stops to check out her hair in the mirror. There were touches of this kind of subtle and unexpected humor throughout the narrative.
Next to Bride of Frankenstein, it’s Whale’s best realized film. It’s one that manages to both parody those “old dark house” horror tales while at the same time creating a contemporary (and still not outdated) new one that is gripping and macabre. They don’t make ’em much better in the horror genre.
REVIEWED ON 10/27/2006 GRADE: A+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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