After the success of Frankenstein (1931), and before the future successes of The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), James Whale directed The Old Dark House (1932). This once lost movie provides as much early DNA for the horror genre as those other Whalean masterworks. It’s hard to think of a title that sounds older and creakier than The Old Dark House, but the film remains stylish, funny, and surprisingly modern. For a brisk 72-minutes, the film entertains handsomely and never varies its perfect tone of witty suspense or its atmosphere of wry, comic horror.
We open on a dark and stormy night somewhere in the Welsh mountains. The rain is coming down in bucketfuls.A rickety old jalopy struggles on a road so precarious it seems half precipice and half mudslide.As someone later observes, it’s nice weather for ducks. Driving the car are Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) trying to make their way to Shrewsbury. The desperate, bickering sarcasm of the Wavertons’ opening dialogue is characteristic of the whole production:
Philip (after getting stuck in the mud): “Hell!”
Margaret: “What are you stopping for?”
Philip: “I’m stopping for a rest.”
Margaret: “Really Philip, you can’t stop here.For pity’s sake either go on or go back.You can’t expect me to spend the night like a half drowned rat on a mountainside.”
Philip: “It’s better to stop than drive the car gently over a cliff, isn’t it?”
Margaret: “Well, it won’t help things, losing your temper.”
Philip: “I’ve never been in a better temper in my life! I love driving a hundred miles through the dark practically without headlights.I love the trickle of ice cold water pouring down my neck. This is one of the happiest moments of my life!”
Smoking his pipe and cracking wise from the back seat is a 31-year old Melvyn Douglas, playing the third wheel part of Roger Penderel with his customary insouciance and drollery. Penderel doesn’t particularly care if they ever get to Shrewsbury. “Something might happen here; nothing ever happens in Shrewsbury. “Penderel would much rather have a drink—whiskey maybe, or some “exceedingly good gin.”
After a narrow escape from a wet and sodden avalanche, our trio comes upon a large, ominous house. It’s old. It’s dark. They bang on the thick, heavy door, seeking entry. It opens to reveal the half-visage of Morgan, the mad, mumbling butler played by Boris Karloff. In one of those classic Universal Horror closeups so exquisite and so careful that it’s worth the price of admission, the door slowly widens so his face waxes full. We see the black beard and coarse skin, the scarred nose and the hirsute brow…and then it closes again, his face eclipsed by the dark. The hulking Neanderthal Morgan is one of Karloff’s and makeup guru Jack P. Pierce’s finest collaborations, ranking alongside their other classic creations like Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy.
The disclaimer tacked to the beginning is the quaintest thing in the picture. It’s a mystery to me how the 5’11’’ Karloff always comes off looking bigger than everyone else on screen. It must be something about his presence; or his long arms; or some miracle of awkward tailoring.
Morgan receives our rain-drenched travelers at last, but his inarticulate mumbling leads Penderel to quip that “even Welsh ought not to sound like that.”
Once inside, we are introduced to the owner of the house, Miss Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore), a squat, inhospitable zealot who keeps yelling “no beds, we’ve got no beds” at our weary travelers. “You must excuse my sister. She is deaf ...sometimes quite deaf” explains her brother, the cadaverous Horace Femm, brilliantly played by Ernest Thesiger, who would later go on to play Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein. Thesiger’s richly comic performance—all nervous tics and sinister, passive-aggressive cowardice—is the tingling spine of The Old Dark House. A fellow Brit, he was one of Whale’s favorites and known as an actor’s actor. He was an open homosexual who sat around the set between setups doing his favorite hobby:needlepoint (he even wrote a book on the subject). Whale liked to shoot his thin frame from cockeyed angles. Patrick Macnee said that such was the angle of his nostrils, that whenever he surveyed you, which was often, it was as though you were being transfixed by his olfactory organ instead of his eyes.
The thought of the storm leaving everyone stranded in the house has Horace spooked. Something upstairs seems to bother him. “I am rather a nervous man,” he explains after dropping a dish. His frightful reluctance to go upstairs to retrieve a lamp after the storm knocks the lights out is quite funny. Try as he might, Philip can’t make Horace Femm ascend the stairs; it’s like trying to put a cat into water.
Margaret decides she needs a place to change out of her wet clothes, so Miss Femm leads Mrs. Waverton to her deceased sister’s room. As the 22-year old Gloria Stuart puts on a shimmering gown with spaghetti straps (Whale said that when Karloff chases Miss Stuart around the shadowy corridors, he wanted her to resemble a white flame), Rebecca Femm gives her a lecture on the wages of sin and the price of lust. James Whale shows Miss Femm’s harangue in a series of reflected surfaces, each more distorted than the last, that mirror Margaret’s psychic vulnerability and curdled sense of fear. It’s one of many bravura moments in the film.
The next marvelous setpiece has the guests assembling for dinner. Horace mocks Rebecca’s need to say grace. She can’t hear him, but she knows blasphemy when she sees it. Morgan serves up a meal of roast beef, potatoes, bread, and pickled onions. “Have a potato,” Horace implores every guest, mostly as a way to cut off any conversation. Whale’s camera tracks along the table, capturing every plate, every guest picking over their food, every tentative bite, and finally lingers on Rebecca Femm as she devours every bite of roast beef and wolfs down pickled onions like it’s her last meal on earth. Morgan keeps a special eye on Margaret Waverton. Serving her water, his hairy knuckle brushes against her bare arm with more than a hint of sexual menace.
There is a knock at the door. Our last two wayward guests enter: the gauche, nouveau riche Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton, in his American debut and already married to future Frankenstein bride Elsa Lanchester) and his chorus girl concubine Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond). Now it’s a party. Minus Morgan and Miss Femm, the six people carry on an after-dinner conversation that contains perhaps the last vestiges of class consciousness and social commentary—before James Whale scrubbed the source material clean—from J.B. Priestley’s novel Benighted. We learn, for instance, what drives Porterhouse to make money and how Penderel is a friend to Illusion after having been battered, like Whale himself, by The Great War. “War generation, slightly soiled—a study in the bittersweet—a man with a twisted smile.”
For those readers who haven’t yet seen this gem, I will stop the retelling here…before the lights go out…before Morgan gets his drunk on. Suffice to say that The Old Dark House has more secrets upstairs—secrets like the bedridden 102 year old patriarch Sir Roderick Femm, played by actress Elspeth Dudgeon, but billed as “John Dudgeon” and, on the very top landing, behind a door that is padlocked and bolted shut, the darkest secret of all: a pyromaniac madman known as Saul Femm (Brember Wills). We’ve already been warned what can happen: “The fact is, Morgan is an uncivilized brute. Sometimes he drinks heavily. A night like this will set him going and once he’s drunk he’s rather dangerous.”
James Whalewas a one-of-a-kind director. He would arrive at the set early, impeccably groomed and dressed, with the shooting script under one arm and his storyboards under the other. He was so synchronized with his cinematographer Arthur Edeson that none ever saw them speak. It was the same with celebrated art director Charles D. Hall. By all accounts Whale was a man who knew exactly what he wanted. His shoots were very businesslike. According to Gloria Stuart’s audio commentary, there were no pleasantries or small talk on the set, unless perhaps you were a part of the British contingent that hung together and had tea and crumpets delivered twice daily for “elevensies” and “foursies,” gatherings to which Gloria Stuart and Melvyn Douglas were never invited.
Whale could spend days preparing for a single closeup. Aside from his patented dry wit, and the macabre humor of his actors’ performances, he was a master of the kinds of effects that exist on screen in a durable and solid form. To illustrate this idea I must make a quick detour to Japan, specifically through a scene from Akira Kurosawa’s great post-war thriller Stray Dog. Near the climax of that movie, a police detective played by Toshirô Mifune boards a train to look for a killer. He knows he will identify the killer by the mud on his shoes and trousers. We watch detective Mifune as he looks one by one at the legs and feet of several men dressed similarly. As the camera cuts to each new suspect, the viewer along with Mifune strains to identify the merest visible speck of mud. When we finally land on the killer we see that not only has he recently walked through the mud, but that the heavy dark mud is splattered all over his white trousers up past the knee. It is impossible to miss! It is reported that several of Kurosawa’s crew took exception to this lack of subtlety. They thought it was too much—but Kurosawa insisted on this extreme effect. I wanted to side with the crew when I first heard this story, but later I reconsidered. Kurosawa had insisted, after all. Maybe this was the instinct of a great filmmaker. He wanted the effects to “pop” on the screen.
James Whale had this instinct in spades. He never does anything halfway. If the script calls for rain, the rain comes down in bucketfuls and gets everyone soaked. When three grown men wrestle Boris Karloff to the ground, they really scuffle hard and throw their weight around. Gloria Stuart opens a window, and it’s like she’s just let a hurricane enter the room. The book calls for our lost travelers to stop and consult a map that’s too wet to read, and on screen the map is as sopping wet as a dirty dish rag. This is the main reason that James Whale’s darkly humorous films withstand repeated scrutiny. The storming rains won’t wash them away because, like the old dark house itself, they’re built on a foundation of solid rock.