Seeking shelter from a pounding rainstorm in a remote region of Wales, several travellers are admitted to a gloomy, foreboding mansion belonging to the extremely strange Femm family. Trying to make the best of it, the guests must deal with their sepulchral host, Horace Femm and his obsessive, malevolent sister Rebecca. Things get worse as the brutish manservant Morgan gets drunk, runs amuck and releases the long pent-up brother Saul, a psychotic pyromaniac who gleefully tries to destroy the residence by setting it on fire.Written by
Doug Sederberg <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Gloria Stuart recalled on the film's DVD commentary that Melvyn Douglas and Raymond Massey hated filming the opening sequence, which was a very cold, wet night shoot. She, however, thought it was a lot of fun, and even if she had not been enjoying herself, she was so new to the film business that she didn't want to cause any trouble by complaining. See more »
When the butler falls down the stairs, he's slightly on the side, but when cut to the next scene he's on the floor face down, obvious cut from scene to scene (perhaps for changing the stunt man to the original actor). See more »
After the introductory credits there is a 'producer's note' (on some prints it appears before the studio logo) : 'Karloff, the mad butler in this production, is the same Karloff who created the part of the mechanical monster in "Frankenstein". We explain this to settle all disputes in advance, even though such disputes are a tribute to his great versatility.' See more »
It's a funny experience when a film evokes déjà vu, only to realize the source of the déjà vu is, itself, intended to itself incite déjà vu. Picture this: a miserable storm sweeps a carload of normal people, as earnest as they are bedraggled, into taking refuge at a spooky old manor, only to be besieged and coveted by the prurient, camp Gothic inmates. But don't do the Time Warp again just yet: at the core of this Russian Doll of horror, pastiche, and dark humour lurks James Whale's oft-overlooked but seldom forgotten mini- masterpiece – The Old Dark House. As Poe-faced as if the script had been quoth by the Raven itself, Whale's film is, if not the granddaddy of most horror clichés, then at least the wry, drunken great-uncle. And, weathered as it is, time has been kind to this one, making The Old Dark House a creepy, clever, and sordidly amusing addition to the pantheon of horror classics. Singing not included; pelvic thrusting barely omitted.
If nothing else, The Old Dark House makes for a fascinating transitional tonal touch-point for Whale, one of the defining masters of classical horror. The film isn't as overtly satirical and camp as Whale's later monster mash-terpieces, The Invisible Man and, especially, Bride of Frankenstein, but it certainly shows him creeping in that direction, with a persistent snicker of irreverent naughtiness under its raspy breath. This isn't to say the film is an outright farce - indeed, Whale runs the gamut of thematic leitmotifs that would proceed to become preoccupations for decades of horror to follow: dogmatic religion, lurid sexuality, class discrepancies, and shunned, disabled family members. Yet, his film crackles with an invigorating, nervy energy, and his characters banter with zingy, pre-screwball fury, with several double-entendres pushing the boundaries of Hays Code knuckle-rapping with cheeky aplomb (maybe Whale assumed American censors wouldn't understand them through the Welsh accents?).
His setup is certainly foreboding enough, with the harried car ride prelude across flooding, lightning-scarred Welsh countryside a perfectly ominous amuse-bouche for the sinister, Gothic castle theatrics to come. Whale's flair for atmospheric mise-en-scène is superb, peppering the film with marvelously spooky flourishes and Expressionist lighting keeping the audience biting their nails throughout (one bit, where a woman makes shadow puppets on the wall with her hands, only to have a dark figure emerge from the shadow, is a jump scare for the ages). But Whale bides his time, keeping his pacing cunningly slow and allowing his film to froth at the mouth with looming tension.
Whale's film is also remarkable for the unprecedented access the audience is given to his cabal of characters. Too many horror films introduce characters as disposable (and disposed of) props, but Whale treats the first half of his potboiler like a theatre piece, as the growing crowd of storm refugees and reluctant hosts meet, and poke hopes, dreams, prejudices, and – mostly – fears out of each other. Whale's ensemble rises to the challenge, delivering genuinely well-crafted and compelling characters, particularly the suave, sharp-tongued Melvyn Douglas, the tough but chipper Lilian Bond, and, especially, Charles Laughton, who gives a remarkably heartfelt performance, his effete bluster whisking away to reveal a man plagued by terrible loneliness underneath. His monologue, revealing his bitter turn to capitalism as a means of finding purpose and escaping past tragedy, is strangely tragic and surprisingly moving amidst the film's tongue-in-cheek tone, and a curious counterpoint to Depression-era cinema's usual propensity for portraying the super-rich as vacuous twits. Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore deliver masterclasses of brooding as the manor's sister tenants, while title star Boris Karloff is genuinely terrifying, his performance so much more affecting than the mere rage-ravaged riff on his Frankenstein lumbering and grunting you'd initially expect. Finally, Brember Wills gives a performance so deft and daringly over-the-top that he turns horror conventions on their head even while pushing new boundaries of skin-crawling, especially for the 1930s.
Whale's quieter companion piece to his more famous forays into the macabre may tip the cap more at Hitchcock than Mary Shelley, but ably continues his macro theme of humans being far more terrifying than any conventional 'monsters.' The Old Dark House may be humbler in scope, and somewhat more tonally imbalanced than some of its cohort of horror classics (including a swooning romantic subplot that's altogether too saccharine and sincere to play amidst its sardonic surroundings). Still, at a mere 72 minutes, the film is as concise and sardonically sinister as it is creepy, and still a slice of spine-tingling fun for an eerie, rainy night.
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