The Old Dark House (1932) Review, with Boris Karloff

Morgan
Boris Karloff
Penderel
Melvyn Douglas
Sir Porterhouse
Charles Laughton
Margaret Waverton
Gloria Stuart
Gladys AKA “Perkins”
Lilian Bond
Horace Femm
Ernest Thesiger

Released by Universal Pictures
Directed by James Whale
Runtime: 72
minutes

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • People die, murders were committed, whatever, let’s get the hell out of here.

The Old Dark House: Bumps in the Night

“Go on Mr. Penderel, I’m not easily frightened.”
“Aren’t you? I am.”

Fresh off of Frankenstein and Waterloo Bridge at Universal, director James Whale made another horror film, though much different than the monster feature that preceded it. The Old Dark House is filled with eccentricities and class consciousness that could be seen as a character piece, a satire of ‘dark house’ pictures, and a horror thriller all wrapped into one.

Traveling through the damp British highlands, a trio finds themselves stranded at a spooky old mansion after a landslide. They’re Mr. and Mrs. Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their affable, soused pal Penderel (Douglas). Penderel is a disillusioned sort, sarcastic and playful but aching deep inside, adrift ever since he’d returned from The War.

Shock therapy is in order in the form of the demented Femm household. First is Morgan (Karloff), the mute, scarred butler who loses his control when he starts to drink. As for the family that inhabits the creaky place, there’s Horace Femm (Thesiger), who is uptight, frightened, and kind of personable when you get to know him. There’s also his sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore), a pushy woman full of Godly indignation and spit. There are few other household members locked upstairs, too, who will play integral roles in the night’s proceedings.

The two groups are also soon joined by Sir Porterhouse (Laughton) and Gladys (Bond), whose car is similarly stuck in the downpour. Together, they spend a stormy night as relationships fray, personalities are revealed, and old sins reemerge.

For those who may be wondering why it took me so long to hit this film for this website, truth be told: over the previous two years, each time I sat to watch it, I fell asleep halfway through. (That’s little fault of the movie and more an indictment of my shit sleep habits.) The Old Dark House is a movie that doesn’t work to build up suspense until the third act. Instead, it becomes a weird drawing room comedy (“Potato?”) with moments of grotesqueness scattered about until things come to a head.

The movie is remarkably character-driven in a way you rarely see in the films of the early 1930s. While we do only get to know these characters superficially, their stations in life and their places in British society are put under the lens. The setup here forces the bourgeois middle and under-the-gun working classes set up in the house of the decrepit, rotting wealthy.

Porterhouse scrambles for money and has paid for his lack of wealth. Gladys pimps herself out not for love but for survival. Margaret needs to remain beautiful so that she can maintain her status in life. And then poor Penderel has almost gone full Sun Also Rises towards life until a kinship with Gladys is formed and he decides to take some control as the evening’s events threaten to jump the rails.

Besides class, The Old Dark House also plays with taboo aspects of religion, both as a tool that Rebecca uses as a cudgel to control those around her, but also through the perspective of the evening’s events as a divine retribution for the crimes the Femms have committed. The Femms themselves are a fascinating gallery of wax figures, a sort of a Leatherface family with steak knives instead of chainsaws.

One aspect I haven’t commented too much on is Karloff’s Morgan, an effective creature but rather pallid compared to the other characters of the piece, a silent agent of chaos and violence. Karloff does what he can with the role, acting as an uncontrollable tool of the Femms that both obeys them but one that also threatens to finally destroy the family.

Of course, in a very cynical manner, there really is little punishment for all of the sins espoused in the picture, though Morgan loses a friend and all the guests get good and frightened. The Femms defer their culpability to be cranky and odd for another day and everyone else leaves as fast as they can. While tiny changes happen, the big picture stays the same.

Whale’s The Old Dark House isn’t actually much of a stereotypical ‘old dark house’ picture– see 1927’s classic The Cat and the Canary for a very straight take on a mansion full of secret passages and eyes poking out from behind walls. But it’s its own quirky little picture and for anyone who loves horror and thrills an essential product of its time.

Screencaps

Trivia & Links

The film’s quirky take on the haunted house genre was not much appreciated in 1932, and after being reissued in the late 1940s, the film disappeared. Universal let their rights lapse in 1957, and it was never shown on tv. Director Curtis Harrington, a horror aficionado who worked mostly in television, was a friend of Whale’s in his last years. In 1968 he was under contract at Universal. He begged for the vaults to be scoured for vaults for any remnant of a print. Universal claimed that all prints and negatives were destroyed when the rights reverted back to the Priestly family, who had optioned the novel Benighted to Schlockmeister William Castle, who remade it in color in 1963. Finally, they told him they had a nitrate negative in which the first reel was so deteriorated that it couldn’t be printed, but they had a “lavender protection print” they could use to fill in. Universal had no interest in a property they saw no foreseeable income from (before the days of home video) and Harrington came up with the few thousand dollars needed from the George Eastman House and the Film Foundation. Eventually, a few immaculate copies were made, for George Eastman House, for MoMA for AFI and LoC, and one for Universal. Harrington even told Boris Karloff, filming an episode of the 1970s tv series The Name of the Game, that he had managed to rescue it. Karloff’s puzzled reaction: “Oh, that’s nice.”

  • Erich at Acidemic notes how the laserdisc release of this film led directly to Gloria Stuart’s role in Titanic. He also traces how his admiration for the movie has grown over the years:

Not an old dark house movie, Old Dark House is not even really a horror movie or a comedy, but a James Whale movie. As such, it’s a combination of many atmospheric, very British elements that don’t come together until numerous viewings over decades help the various medicines buried in its flavor tapestry kick in. Getting older, we come to understand the ‘that’s fine stuff’ rant by Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) to Gloria Stuart, and how it leads to her reflection like that of a skull in the mirror; or the resemblance Rebecca has to a photo of Queen Victoria by her mirror; the general nicety and British crust of Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) who “likes gin” (and would still be drinking it a few years later in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein), the way the alcohol passed around by the roaring hearth gives you a feel of being there and feeling the warmth of the cinematic image like that same fire; the honest romance between lost generation lad Melvyn Dougas and Bill’s (Charles Laughton) traveling companion Perkins (Lillian Bond); their arrival like a daft breath of fresh working class air in the middle of a stiff dinner, lightening the rich yobbo dryness against which the merry Melvyn Douglas hurls himself like a kid fighting waves on the beach. […] See it 30 times, 300, it’s still not enough… my friend.

  • Mordaunt Hall’s contemporaneous review notes, “The Old Dark House” may not have as complete a story as “Frankenstein,” but in it are such talented performers as Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Melvyn Douglas, Ernest Thesiger, Boris Karloff, Lillian Bond and Brember Wills.”
  • The BFI has some astute British analysis of the film.

Awards, Accolades & Availability

More Pre-Code to Explore

4 Replies to “The Old Dark House (1932) Review, with Boris Karloff”

  1. Danny- I I love your movie synopses, and that you provide them regularly. Can you add Evelyn Brent to your list of actresses?
    Thanks,
    John

  2. Per usual, your timing is impeccable! I just wrote a piece on The Invisible Man for Claude Rains’ birthday & have become more interested in James Whale. I ordered the Cohen BD of The Old Dark house & it just arrived yesterday. Your synopsis will lead to me playing it tonight!! Thanks again for your great site!!

    Kevin Maher
    Top10FilmLists.com

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