Retro-review: New on Special Edition BluRay and returning to select theaters from Cohen Media Group!
THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)
Directed by James Whale
Written by Benn W. Levy (screen play from the novel by J.B. Priestly)
Starring Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Elspeth Dudgeon, Brember Wills
There are those who poo-poo classic horror because they exhibit old sensibilities, rudimentary makeup and effects, and simplistic stories. Those people have never experienced classic horror films such as THE OLD DARK HOUSE—an excellent film from the early years of Hollywood from THE INVISIBLE MAN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN’s James Whale, who exhibits so much creativity, so much ingenuity, and so much terror in one little story about a creepy house and even more creepy folks living inside.
A trio of young travelers— the flip and sarcastic Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), the stern Philip (Raymond Massey), and his privileged wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart), are caught in a torrential downpour and forced to knock on the door of an old dark house in the middle of the woods. Once inside, they meet the Femm family made up of the cowardly and haughty Horace (Ernest Thesiger, best known as Doctor Pretorius from BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN), the brutish Morgan (Boris Karloff also from BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, plus the original FRANKENSTEIN, of course), and the nagging crone Rebecca (Eva Moore). Though Rebecca is not pleased to have guests, the rain outside doesn’t permit them to leave. Soon after the group settles in, another knock sounds at the door and the group is joined by blowhard Sir William Porterhouse (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME’s Charles Laughton) and his kooky but lovable companion Gladys (Lilian Bond) both seeking shelter from the storm. It isn’t long before strange sounds begin coming from the dark corridors and upper floors of the home. After Rebecca and Horace retire for the night, Morgan gets drunk, goes on a rampage, and lets loose the true monster of the house, the chaotic Saul (Brember Wills). With horrors around every corner and hiding in every shadow, the guests find that the storm outside the house is the least of their worries.
Like a well structured building, THE OLD DARK HOUSE is a rock solid film with a foundation built on the strongest of old ghost stories. The film begins on the ground level, with rain forcing the group inside and the main action occurring on the ground floor. But as the film goes on, as the guests begin to venture to higher ground, the terror escalates. We meet a bedridden pariah named Sir Roderick (actually played by a female actress) and the truly scary Saul (Wills), plus Morgan (Karloff) bares his fangs as he fixates on the females of the house. The darkness and action escalates as the upper floors are discovered, proving that a house is a perfect metaphor for an unfolding plot. It’s a testament to Benn W. Levy’s script and J.B. Priestly’s novel, but further proof that Whale was a genius by highlighting this structure.
Within this strong structure are a cornucopia of fantastically entertaining scenes. There is a whimsical scene where Margaret (Gloria Stuart) makes shadow animals with her hands cast from the large fire in the dining room, followed by a very cool scare from a specter. There’s a wonderful scene where Penderel (Douglas) and the enchanting Gladys (Lilian Bond) hide in the gaage from the storm and they simply bond and talk about their own pasts while he rubs her feet. There are also fun lines such as Douglas pontificating “What if everyone is dead inside?” as they knock on the door of the house for the first time. While there are some chilling scenes of Karloff lurching around and Wills’ horrifying Saul unleashed to spread all kinds of mania, it’s these small scenes that make the film undeniably lovable. Add in a cast that is either utterly spine-tingling or completely likable and distinct, and this is a film beyond enjoyable.
Playing out like an expertly plotted single locale stage play, THE OLD DARK HOUSE sets the standard for horror for generations to come with the creepy mansion on a stormy, dark night, just as EVIL DEAD did so with cabin in the woods films. While there are many films that stand out in the haunted mansion style, THE OLD DARK HOUSE not only sets the standard of the house as being a character capable of much horror simply by the terrors it holds, but it also comes off as an all-around entertaining film with stunning romance, undeniable charm, genuine humor along with the bone chilling atmosphere and nerve shredding terrors that unfold. It’s simply a movie like few others that delivers with full force, crossing and mixing genres like few other films have been able to accomplish. And while there are honest to gosh horrors to experience in this film, there is no blood, no gore, and the deviance that is suggested is subtle enough that children could be just as entertained and chilled with this one as the adults. It’s simply one of the best horror films of all time and a must see for anyone who dare call themselves a fan of horror.