1 Hr., 12 Mins.
The Old Dark House October 4, 2018
The rainstorm roars. So much so that a trio traveling in it in a new car — an on-edge married couple (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and a wise-cracking companion (Melvyn Douglas) — is convinced that getting to its final destination, at least by the end of the night, is a fantasy. The Welsh countryside, twisting, unlit, and flecked with patches of unsound road, is no place for a band of lost, novice travelers anyway — especially in the pitch-black of the evening, in the throes of near-apocalyptic weather. What is this group to do?
Just as hope’s about to run dry, something promising appears around the corner: a mansion, albeit a gloomy-looking, Shirley Jackson-like one. Any other time, the place would be a creepy curiosity to drive past. Not now. In a couple ticks, these tourists are pounding on the manor’s creaky front door, hoping that whoever lives inside will be willing to accommodate them until morning.
James Whale's second film from 1932, The Old Dark House, of course doesn’t watch as this troika has an uneventful rest of the night. Inhabiting the home is the Femm family, a clan who comes across like a collection of sinister side characters featured in macabre movies from days past. Frankenstein's monster himself — Boris Karloff — answers the door. He's the family's mute, alcohol-pumped servant who'd probably put "will strangle you to death" on his Tinder bio if he were a phone-addled youth of today. Our intrepid travelers invite themselves inside, unfazed.
Notable about The Old Dark House — which was long-considered a “lost” movie until Whale’s old friend, Curtis Harrington, headed a successful search for the movie’s original reels in 1968 — is the way it sits in the middle of the Universal horror boom but doesn’t altogether hew to that particular zeitgeist's tropes. Visually, it resembles monster-centric features of the era, like Dracula (1932) and Whale’s own Frankenstein (1931). But tonally, the film is more analogous to a screwball farce.
The setting is tenebrous and unabashedly spooky. It is topped off by locked doors with something ominous behind them, and a peppering of mysterious, piercing cackles that go all through the house at the worst of times. But the atmosphere has a satirical outlining. The characterizations are similarly inculcated with parodistic flavor: our mains, with the exception of the one-liner-chucking Douglas and an eccentric guest played by Charles Laughton, make for a bunch of straight men. The Femms range from silent maniacs to sullen giants so menacing that we wonder if they’re actually blood-thirsty ghouls. But they’re witty, fervently performed sendups of the red herring sorts of characters commonplace in the haunted-house subgenre.
Wisely, Whale never overstates The Old Dark House’s comedic elements. Drawing from a script by R.C. Sheriff and Benn W. Levy, itself an adaptation of a 1927 novel by J.B. Priestley, he's more concerned with hyperbolizing horror clichés than with prying them apart. The dark and stormy night is instead ink-black and hurricane-like — almost vindictive. The haunted house isn’t, per usual, beset with a quiet, baleful hum that tap-dances on our nerves. The home is, rather than subtly, operatically, winkingly creepy. The lights are enduringly flickering, the ceilings always ready to collapse, the occupants forever chewing on eerie, Shakespearean forewarnings and quips. It’s not suspense that dominates here. Subversively, everyone, with the exception of the peripheral players, acts like everymen thrust into a horror-movie scenario, almost annoyed by the setback.
Late in The Old Dark House, there is a moment when Stuart takes a hard look at the candlelit walls, as if admiring how they enhance the uncanny feeling that’s been bothering her since arriving at the mansion. Then, hardly missing a beat, she performs a shadow-puppet show for herself. Arguably, this moment works as an encapsulation of what makes this misfit of a movie so appealing. It has the look and feel of a haunted-house movie, but would prefer to find the humor in the subgenre than go through the motions of self-serious spookiness once again. B