If one movie embodied a cinematic trope to its fullest form, that film would be James Whale’s The Old Dark House, a horror entry whose very name spells has become synonymous with a sub-genre that hundreds of films owe their gratitude towards.
Set in the remote Welsh countryside, the story follows a group of stranded travellers who seek refuge in a mysterious and foreboding mansion during a torrential storm. As they navigate the dark corridors and hidden secrets of the house they encounter a peculiar and eccentric family harbouring dark secrets of their own. It’s at this isolated local that the story kicks off as we are introduced to Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart), who are attempting to navigate some treacherous roadways during a torrential downpour, and along for the ride is their friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) whose acerbic wit and nonchalance will add a nice counterbalance to his bickering friends. When near-constant landslides almost bury them alive they decide to try to take refuge at a spooky-looking mansion, one that looks like it stepped out of an E.C. comic.
Note: This was Boris Karloff’s first credited starring role as his name had been left off 1931’s Frankenstein, which was also directed by James Whale.
It is here that we are introduced to the decidedly odd Femm family, the atheist and outright coward Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) and his holier-than-though deaf sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), who bring new levels of weird to the term sibling rivalry, but the scariest resident of this old dark house is their butler Morgan (Boris Karloff), a badly scarred and mute giant who lumbers about menacingly, of course, that is when he’s not getting drunkenly violent. Soon enough, two more victims of the weather arrive, the overly energetic Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his spunky companion Gladys Perkins (Lilian Bond) make an appearance and liven things up a bit. And while The Old Dark House does have a plot of sorts, there being a crazed relative locked in an upstairs room who wants to see the world burn, the film is more a collection of bizarre moments in its equally bizarre setting. The movie was based on the 1927 novel “Benighted” by J.B. Priestley and while it isn’t completely faithful to the source material it more than makes up for any changes by having such an incredible ensemble cast bringing it to life.
• The Waverton’s car is almost hit by a landslide in such a way that looked as if Mother Nature was personally attacking them.
• If a door was to open and the visage of Boris Karloff’s Morgan was to appear I’d retreat back to my car even if the floodgates of Hell had opened up behind.
• Saul sets fire to a tapestry, and is then wrestled over a railing by Roger, but we never see anyone put out the fire. Maybe everything in that house was too damp to burn.
• For those who only know Gloria Stuart for her role as old Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic, in this film, you can see that she was quite a dish back in the day.
One of the film’s greatest strengths lies in its masterful use of atmosphere and lighting, and with the aid of cinematographer Arthur Edeson, director James Whale was able to create a palpable sense of tension and unease through the hauntingly lit interiors of the house, a place that is filled with cobwebs, creaking doors and flickering candles, and this shadowy cinematography adds a layer of mystery and suspense that keeps the audience on edge throughout the film. In addition to its atmospheric qualities, the film also offers social commentary, subtly addressing class dynamics and societal prejudices of the time. It is these underlying themes that add depth to the story and elevate it beyond a mere horror film and wonderfully captures the pure intent of author J.B. Priestley’s novel.
Despite its age, The Old Dark House remains an engaging and entertaining watch and while the horror elements might be relatively tame by modern standards, and the basic trope well-used over the years, the film’s psychological aspects and suspenseful storytelling stand the test of time. The pacing is well-maintained, with its gradual buildup of tension leading to a thrilling climax that will keep viewers engaged until the very end. Not to mention the cast’s performances are top-notch, with standout roles from Melvyn Douglas as the suave and skeptical protagonist, and Charles Laughton bringing a touch of comic relief amidst the suspenseful proceedings. Of course, the real showstopper is Boris Karloff’s portrayal of Morgan, as this role of a “mute and menacing” butler really showcased his exceptional talent for evoking fear through his mere presence.
James Whale’s The Old Dark House is a timeless classic that showcases the mastery of early horror filmmaking. Its combination of atmospheric cinematography, skilled performances, and a well-crafted story make it a must-watch for new fans of the genre and cinephiles alike. Whether you’re a horror enthusiast or a lover of classic cinema, this film is sure to leave a lasting impression.
The Old Dark House (1932)
Movie Rank - 7.5/10
Directed by a master, The Old Dark House remains a must-see for horror enthusiasts and fans of classic cinema. Whale’s direction, combined with the stellar performances and eerie atmosphere, makes this film a true gem that has stood the test of time. If you’re in the mood for a spine-chilling, atmospheric thriller, The Old Dark House will not disappoint.