Hidden Classics of the Talkie Era: The Old Dark House (1932)

IN THE FIRST of an ongoing retrospective examining the forgotten classics of the ‘talkie’ era, Mike looks at a ghoulish ground-breaker.

“Laughter and sin! Laughter and sin!”

An understated gem in the career of director James Whale, The Old Dark House released in 1932 to completely mixed reviews. Both creating the cinematic sub-genre of ‘creaky, creepy (and sometimes haunted) house’ and wryly satirising it in the same breath, the film polarised critics and audiences. It was not the follow-up movie to be expected from a director who had so shocked and terrified moviegoers the year previously, with his iconic film adaptation of Frankenstein (1931).

However, The Old Dark House has since gone on to influence generations of filmmakers. House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Ghost Breakers (1940), The Cat and the Canary (1939), Murder by Death (1976), Clue (1986) and even popular modern supernatural horror franchises such as the Insidious films owe an enormous debt to the tropes established by Whale nearly 90 years ago.

After a brief run in cinemas, copies of it were either burnt or simply sat gathering dust in the Universal Studios vault. For over a quarter of a century, it was unseen. As Whale’s legacy grew over time, it came to be regarded as his lost masterpiece. In 1968 it was dug up from extinction by Curtis Harrington, who persevered for years at locating the one remaining print. It was badly damaged, scratched and worn away.

This has been the lens through which audiences have experienced The Old Dark House ever since; a sufficient but ultimately murky and damaged glimpse at a seminal piece of horror-comedy cinema. Now, the film is being re-released in cinemas with a stunning-looking 4K restoration by The Cohen Film Collection: An apt time to reassess this unique slice of dry-humoured terror.

The plot is very simple. Three travellers are caught in a storm in the Welsh mountains and forced to seek shelter at a nearby house. The place is host to the strange and unsettling Femm household, most prominently the anxious, sardonic and skeletal Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), his religious zealot sister Rebecca (Eva Moore) and their lumbering alcoholic mute butler Morgan (Boris Karloff, fresh off the success of Frankenstein and billed simply as ‘KARLOFF’).

They dine together, they explore the house to find a lamp. Morgan drinks heavily. Soon other travellers arrive, a romantic subplot blossoms and two other members of the family are revealed: the frail, bedridden father of the household, Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon) and his eldest son, a crazed, bearded pyromaniac named Saul (Brember Wills).

As an adaptation of the J.B Priestley novel Benighted, the first thing to note about the film is the strong influence of German Expressionism. Whale was incredibly cine-literate about films such as Metropolis (1927), Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), Sunrise (1927) and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919); here, shadows stretch across walls and faces are grotesquely distorted through cracked mirrors. The first climactic glimpse of Saul is that of a single arm writhing its way down the banister of some stairs as it emerges into view. Whale ensured that the influence of expressionism in film continued, several years after it had concluded its original silent lineage in Germany.

The second notable aspect of Whale’s contribution as director is the sheer amount of wry, dark comedy involved. Priestley’s original novel was very much a straight-faced melodrama, meditating in part on the mass disillusionment of an entire generation in the wake of the Great War. Whale used the template of the story to inject endless amounts of gallows humour.

Thus, The Old Dark House could be categorised as ‘satirical horror’. It exhibits a level of irony and self-awareness which has caused it to age remarkably better than some of its cinematic contemporaries. Ernest Thesiger as Horace Femm is a highlight in this regard. Thesiger, though largely forgotten now, was a stalwart of the English theatre scene, as well as a past master at what has now come to be known as camp humour.

Aside from Thesiger, The Old Dark House boasts an impressive cast of largely English extraction. Eva Moore (Rebecca Femm) and Brember Wills (Saul Femm) were staple English imports into Hollywood. Moore was a star of the English stage as well as being a prominent part of the women’s suffrage movement. Wills was a seasoned London-based Shakespearean actor, having played the part of Polonius in John Gielgud’s Hamlet. His performance as the crazed madman in The Old Dark House provides the film with a suitably fiery climax as he cackles and spurts biblical references whilst brandishing a knife.

Charles Laughton made his Hollywood debut in The Old Dark House as a bluff Yorkshireman businessman and was to win an Academy Award the following year for his portrayal of King Henry VIII in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Thus, The Old Dark House is unique in that it exhibited the talents of its established actors, whilst launching the careers of some of the younger players. Gloria Stuart, who plays Margaret Waverton, would make a memorable appearance some 65 years later in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).

Like so many examples created from the infancy of cinema, The Old Dark House is not without its flaws. The subplot romance is tawdry and a hang-on from Priestley’s original novel. The script also takes a few missteps, but the performances from the cast are wonderful to behold. Most of all, this is the film with which James Whale brought out his darkly comedic side. His unique mixture of wry humour and grotesque horror would continue with The Invisible Man (1935) and reach an apex with his masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

The Cohen Film Collection’s 4K Restoration is currently playing in cinemas, and the glimpses given in the trailer reveal a frankly astonishing level of clarity compared to the currently well-viewed print of the film. This release offers many people a rare chance to view Whale’s labour of love on the big screen in a state befitting of its stature as an archetypal, influential horror film.

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