“As a matter of fact taking one thing with another, I’m not particularly sure that I want to go to Shrewsbury. As far as that goes, I don’t particularly want to go anywhere. Something might happen here, but nothing ever happens in Shrewsbury.”
The Old Dark House is one of those movies that as you watch it, you are reminded of the countless other movies who have imitated it. It is a movie that, like the old radio plays, hints at the dark and sinister all the while characters trade witty barbs and drink merrily as the storm outside rages on. It remains to this day, a hoot of a film.
James Whale birthed an entire genre with The Old Dark House. While not the first creepy old house movie ever made, it is the one that all others look to for inspiration. Impressive, when you stop and consider the movie is just over an hour-long, and nothing of any real consequence happens.
Whale and his screenwriters Benn W. Levy and R.C. Sherriff, who adapted the film from the book “Benighted” by J.B. Priestly, cobble together a splendid cinematic lark. The Old Dark House is one of those movies that feels like a parody of itself. After all, the movie literally begins on a dark and stormy night.
We meet the Wavertons, Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margaret (Gloria Stuart), driving through the storm in a rickety old car. The couple snipe at each other as poor Philip navigates flooded ditches and howling winds. In the backseat, the Waverton’s quick-witted and cynical friend, Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), tosses and turns.
It’s never clear why the Wavertons are out driving in this night not fit for man or beast. Neither is it ever made clear exactly why Roger is with them. The Old Dark House is one of those movies where it doesn’t matter who or what the characters did before the movie starts, only what they do once it has started.
The storm soon washes out the road and the travelers seek refuge in a lonely old house up ahead. Though once they meet Morgan (Boris Karloff) they begin to doubt their choice. A towering, grumbling, hairy brute, Morgan with his haunted sunken eyes is exactly the face you don’t want to see in a storm.
The Old Dark House came out in 1932, a year after Whale’s previous movie Frankenstein. Karloff was a well-known face but not a well-known name. Indeed, he is billed in the credits simply as KARLOFF.
Much of the sinister and creepy atmosphere comes from Karloff’s lumbering Morgan. He never utters a word, but his presence is unsettling. Whether he’s leering at Margaret or glaring at his brother Horace (Ernest Thesiger), Karloff’s posture and mere presence are intricately tied to the mood and atmosphere of the film.
That’s what The Old Dark House is, a mood piece. A frothy slice of horror presented in the style of a campfire story. There are no backstories, merely hints, the only things that matter are the here and now. The past is whispered about but never confronted directly.
Horace understands the circumstances and agrees to put the strangers up for the night. His sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), a hunched over puritanical crone of a woman, is less charitable. The two bicker and squabble throughout the movie. Though the tall and gaunt Horace looks down at his sister, but it is Rebecca who seems to have all the power.
For it seems Horace is on the run from the police. What Horace has done or how long he has been on the run, again, are never revealed or even questioned. The important thing is making sure their guests are comfortable.
Fluttering about the den, trying to tidy up, Horace picks up a vase of flowers and admires them, “My sister was on the point of arranging these flowers.” He then tosses the flowers into the roaring fire and moves the empty vase.
The Old Dark House is quaint by today’s standards but it still entertains. If only because good writing is good writing no matter what the time period, and Whale is such a consummate director it’s easy to forget just how deeply influential he is. Take the set design, a simple almost brutalist example of a living. It resembles something you’d expect to see in a castle not a farmhouse.
A massive roaring fireplace on one side, a grand oak table upstage, a great big staircase that seems to lead up to countless other staircases, and a small couch by the front door. The design is more befitting a stage play than a movie. A combination of both Whale’s theater background and the limitations of the camera at the time.
In the last ’20s and early ’30s, the camera was restricted in its movement, but Whale uses the restriction of movement to his favor. By keeping the set so bare, he allows the set to be almost abstract, hinting at a house much more grandiose than what we see. Everything in The Old Dark House is exaggerated.
Arthur Edeson, the cinematagrapher, and Whale make sure the shadows of the character’s dance in the background along the stone wall. At times, the characters aren’t even in the frame as we hear them talk offscreen, just their shadows. Again, it gives The Old Dark House a feeling of a fairy tale or a simple story told between friends over a long stormy night.
As the movie goes on we learn snippets of the Femm family history. A younger sister apparently died, another brother Saul (Brember Wills) is apparently insane and, along with the patriarch Sir Roderick (Elspeth Dudgeon), is kept in a locked room upstairs.
All the while, the storm rages on. Two more travelers stumble upon the Femm house, Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and Gladys (Lillian Bond), and that’s when the madness begins to boil over. Perhaps madness is a bit hyperbolic but suffices to say Morgan will be drunk, the power will go out, and soon Philip and Margaret will meet Sir Roderick as he tells them a sad tale about the rise and fall of the Femms.
Whale plunges us into the world of the Femms and never allows us any time to find our footing. Who are these strange people living out here in the middle of nowhere? For a family of questionable characters, they are awfully trusting and welcoming to strangers, though “welcoming” may be too strong a word. The way the Femms look at new people often feels like a pride of lions eyeing a herd of gazelles.
It’s impossible not to see everything from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Jojo Rabbit in The Old Dark House. Whale and his writers tell a simple tale to great effect. I’ve seen the film a few times and more than anything I’m always impressed by how my much deatil I remember about the house compared to how little Whale actually shows us.
Levy and Sherriff help the film along by having characters who love to talk. These characters revel in the sound of their own voice. They may be stranded but that’s no reason why they can’t gaily talk the night away.
Horace: Mr. Pendrel I will give you a toast that you will not appreciate being young. I give you, illusion.
Roger: Illusion? Ha, I’m precisely the right age for that toast, Mr. Femm.
Horace: Oh, I presume you are one of the gentlemen slightly, shall we say, battered by the war.
Roger: Correct, Mr. Femm. War generation, slightly soiled, a study in the bittersweet, the man with the twisted smile. And this, Mr. Femm, is exceedingly good gin.
The Old Dark House is one of those movies that never takes itself all that seriously. It just acts as it does. The actors play their characters so broadly that they threaten to spill over into being almost caricatures, but they pull back just in time.
Laughton’s Sir William is the stand out as a boisterous but sweet-hearted businessman. The type of man that barges into the house and greets everybody in the room as a matter of course. But, afterward, he pulls Horace aside to tell him, “Incidentally, this house will probably be washed away any minute.”
There’s a veneer of camp in The Old Dark House. I don’t mean camp in the Susan Sontag sense, where something is camp because something takes itself so seriously without realizing how bad it is. No, I mean camp in a sense that there’s a sort of archness that runs underneath every scene.
Whale was openly gay and it’s not that hard to read queerness into the Femms. Horace’s lisping urbane demeanor calls to mind certain gay stereotypes. Rebecca’s puritanical religious zeal against all things of the flesh but she does so with an almost masculine coarseness.
Pay attention to Rebecca’s face as she openly watches Margaret changing her clothes. She circles Margaret, preaching to her, but her words have a different sort of passion to them, a passion far from religious zeal. Just like Horace and Morgan, there’s something off about Rebecca.
Edeson and Clarence Kolster, the editor, cut to different angles during the scene. They either have Moore’s Rebecca in profile surrounded by the darkness of the room or reflected in a broken mirror, distorting her image. At one point they have Rebecca looking up at Margaret, her arms grasping the bedpost as if she’s afraid to let go.
Then there’s Sir Roderick, the old man, played by a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon. Though she has a wispy beard, her high pitched feminine voice makes it clear this is a woman in drag. Whether or not Philip and Margaret realize this or if this is merely a joke for the audience, is never made clear. But it’s there and it exists and is just another odd addition to the Femm family.
Whale is playfully poking fun at his heterosexual audience and heterosexual norms. The Old Dark House is teasing the straights, mocking how easily uncomfortable we are in the face of anything remotely queer, coded or otherwise. He’s needling us for a bit of fun.
Eventually, the rain stops and a new day begins. Horace merrily sashays over to the door and bids his guests a fond goodbye. So what if Saul tried to burn down the house and Morgan tried to kill Margaret and Gladys? Bygones are bygones. That was yesterday and, after all, Roger did say the gin was exceedingly good.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures