We return back to the era of the old dark house story….by reviewing James Whale’s The Old Dark House. Made a year after Whale and star Boris Karloff were launched into popular consciousness with Frankenstein, this plays like old home week for those who have watched horror films, especially James Whale ones. Such an A-list packed cast including Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, and Melvyn Douglas (of all people!), The Old Dark House expertly blends the creeps with levity, utilizing Whale’s masterful use of darkness, shadows and silhouettes.
Three friends end up stranded in a rainstorm seeking refuge in the house of the Femm siblings, Horace and Rebecca (Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore). When another couple shows up, the group all learns about the Femm’s dark secrets which could threaten everyone’s lives.
As mentioned, this was Karloff and Whale’s reteaming after the success of Frankenstein. Karloff even warrants additional mention with an opening text disclaimer acknowledging Karloff, who plays the mute housekeeper Morgan, also played the bolt-necked monster. Ernest Thesiger and Charles Laughton would be connected to Whale in future productions; Thesiger played Dr. Pretorius in Whale’s Frankenstein follow-up, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), alongside Laughton’s wife, Elsa Lanchester. Karloff and Raymond Massey (who plays Philip Waverton) also had an interesting history; Massey played Karloff’s role in the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) since Karloff couldn’t get out of playing the character on Broadway. Other stars, like Gloria Stuart, had worked in the horror field as well.
With barely an hour to tell everything, Whale economizes and wastes no time. We’re quickly introduced to our heroes and villains, while maintaining a perpetual air of unease. Obviously Horace and Rebecca have skeletons in their closet, possibly literally, and we’re given glimpses at their upbringing. Whale doesn’t allow things to get too inky, but there are allusions by the Femms of their savage past. Horace throws out the fact he’s wanted by the police; Rebecca borders on religious zealotry with references some sick sadism in the house’s history. Later on, we meet long locked-up brother Saul (Brember Wills) who could have been a confined victim…until otherwise. Karloff as the thuggish, mute Morgan has a few too many characteristics to Frankenstein, only thrust to the other end of the spectrum, but he still conveys so much by saying little.
Whale’s films do their best at injecting social commentary or sexual politics in his work. The Femms, as a family, are established via snatches of dialogue and the house’s general atmosphere. Their surname conjures up images of women, or possibly questionable sexual identity, furthered by the fact their bedridden father sounds and is played by a woman. There’s an inherently strong bond between Horace and Rebecca similar to The Fall of the House of Usher; they may hate each other, but they’ve lived together this long. Each member of the family boasts their own individual obsession, leading you to desire flashbacks to the family’s hedonistic heyday. When Rebecca declares, “They’re all godless here,” there’s multiple interpretations. Is it sexual deviancy? Atheism? By mentioning these things the audiences’ mind immediately goes down dark paths, establishing a world far worse than what Whale depicts.
The Femms savagery is contrasted with the uptight elegance of the various visitors, all of whom are as prim and proper as they come. We’re first introduced to the Wavertons, Philip and Margaret (Massey and angelic pre-Code/horror starlet, Gloria Stuart), with their friend Penderel (Douglas). Douglas, the sole source of levity, acts similar to Bob Hope in The Cat and the Canary (1939). He’s both aware of the creepiness, but tries putting smiles on faces. He’s also “that friend,” aka the friend who enhances the terror by taking his mind down roads untraveled. Case in point, when the group finally ends up at the Femm house Penderel asks everyone to wonder “supposing the people inside were dead.” As if the concept of being alone in a downpour, reliant on the presumed kindness of strangers, isn’t unsettling enough… Gladys actually hits the nail on the head in explaining how Penderel, and Douglas, don’t fit in with the otherwise stiff and formal group, calling hi ma fish out of water. He is certainly more modern than the rest of the cast assembled, making him unique if somewhat histrionic.
The introduction of Laughton and Lilian Bond sets up conflict between our civilized group as Penderel and Bond’s Gladys fall in love, despite Sir William Porterhouse’s (Laughton) affections for her. A romance is a necessary evil in these movies, and Douglas and Bond aren’t overly effusive or melodramatic in conveying their mutual desire for each other. Lilian Bond takes the thankless role of Gladys and turns her into an audacious chorus girl who demands respect. Listen to her talk to Laughton about spending time with him and the concept of chorus girls in general: “If I were good at my job I wouldn’t be weekending with you. I take that back, I would be.” That’s not to say Gloria Stuart isn’t good as Margaret, she’s just mired in the damsel roles someone like Valerie Hobson would get. Her white dress practically demands her flying down stairs, and she’s got a fantastic moment involving shadow puppets that’s on par with Val Lewton’s use of them.
The Old Dark House plays on themes generally reserved for Bronte novels (like Jane Eyre). Much like Whale’s other films, The Old Dark House is more than meets the eye, and there are shadows (both literally and metaphorically) around every corner.
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