Director James Whale, best-remembered for his early Hollywood movies Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and the Bride of Frankenstein (and whose life is celebrated in Gods and Monsters), was also behind the camera for 1932’s The Old Dark House, which has been re-released on DVD and Blu-ray, with 4k restoration, and is also enjoying a limited run in selected cinemas.
The story is full of stock horror tropes – weary travellers take refuge in a spooky old house, and may have been safer facing the storm than looking for shelter. There’s a crazy person locked away upstairs. The servant is sinister and brutal. The family hides dark secrets… What Whale adds to the mix is a spot of comedy, though interestingly the A-list cast play to their own genre, though the meshing of tones works fairly well.
For example, Boris Karloff, who was so memorable as Frankenstein’s monster, is the one behind the sinister make-up as Morgan, the butler with a drinking problem. Nobody exuded menace quite as well as Karloff in those days. On the other end of the scale, Charles Laughton (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), in his first Hollywood role as an upper-class twit trying to buy the affections of a woman to good for him (Lilian Bond), plays everything for laughs. Melvyn Douglas (Hud) takes on the romantic lead with flair. Raymond Massey (Things to Come) plays it dead straight, and Gloria Stuart (who towards the end of her career played the elderly Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic) is suitably glamorous as the damsel in distress. On top of the household names, The Old Dark House has great turns from Brember Willis and Ernest Thesiger, who combine in the second half of the movie to increase the creepiness.
Whilst The Old Dark House commands your attention through its stellar cast, and the comedy/horror mash-up works surprisingly well, the plot feels like it meanders rather than is driven by the characters’ needs. This means that the atmosphere, which needs to be taut and suspenseful throughout, sags in places. Despite being in mortal danger, the characters still have time to fall in and out of love over the course of the evening, with lashings of melodrama that seem preposterous in these more cynical times. The movie runs to only 72 minutes, and also builds to a satisfying conclusion with an incredible stunt that has to be seen to be believed. So with an overall decent premise, memorable conclusion and incredible cast, The Old Dark House is worth just over an hour of your time. It’s a pleasing product of more innocent times, but also a robust rejoinder to any argument that Hollywood dumbing down ideas is a more recent innovation.
The cleanliness of the film print in a way make it hard to believe this movie was created the best part of a century ago, but such is the miracle of modern restoration techniques which grant a new lease of life to classics from the archives. Extra features also include a 44-page booklet which has many production still and other images from the movie, which provides plenty of background information for students and connoisseurs.
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Cast: Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Ernest Thesiger, Brember Wills Director: James Whale Writer: RC Sherriff (based on a story by JB Priestley) Duration: 72 mins Released By: Eureka Entertainment Release Date: 21st May 2018