Old Dark House, The (1932)

“Can you conceive of anyone living in a house like this if they didn’t have to?”

Synopsis:
On a dark and stormy night, a group of travelers — including a honeymooning couple (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their friend (Melvyn Douglas), as well as a portly young widow (Charles Laughton) and his female companion (Lilian Bond) — seek refuge in the house of two eccentric siblings (Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore), their butler (Boris Karloff), and various other mysterious family members.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “splendid, much overlooked” (is it, still?) horror film by director James Whale “exhibits his usual flair, wit, sophistication, and fascination with perverse characters.” Indeed, as Peary points out, the “five inhabitants” of the titular house “make the eccentric families found in screwball comedies seem normal”: after being “greeted” at the front door by the family’s “mad, mute butler (Boris Karloff) with scars on his forehead, a scruffy beard on his chin, and a constant urge to drink himself into a violent rage”, the clueless visitors quickly encounter “elderly, prissy, cowardly, atheist Ernest Thesiger and his partially deaf, unfriendly, fanatically religious sister, Eva Moore” — only to find that the family’s eccentricity extends much further, as they are introduced to the elderly siblings’ “heavily-whiskered 102-year-old father” (played by a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon!), and the most mysterious family member of all (Brember Wills).

As Peary argues, the “film is outrageous from the outset and becomes increasingly bizarre”. Although “Whale displays tongue-in-cheek humor at the beginning to lull viewers into a false sense of security”, he then “plays up the suspense and terror in the final few scenes”. (If you’ve never seen Old Dark House, don’t read reviews, as most will give away spoilers, and it’s much more fun to simply watch how things unfold.) Peary points out that “as always, Whale makes dramatic use of shadows, sound effects, wild angles (especially when filming faces), and dramatic close-ups”, and notes that DP Arthur Edeson provides “standout [cinemato]graphy” which “greatly contributes to the atmosphere” (check out the stills below). Also of note is the stunning make-up work done for both Karloff and (in particular) Dudgeon.

Interestingly, Peary’s review neglects to point out the film’s historical significance as the forerunner of all such “old dark house” films. What’s especially remarkable is how successful Whale is at satirizing the nascent genre he was simultaneously introducing: as creepy as events do eventually become, we’re treated to plenty of campy humor throughout, notably in the laughably mundane romance which immediately flourishes between Douglas and Bond (their dialogue together is priceless), and in some of the banter offered by Thesiger and Moore (who are as kooky as all get out, but never posited as any kind of a genuine threat themselves). Meanwhile, the family members are such a collectively outlandish bunch — and the visitors’ reactions to them so hilariously muted — that, at least until the very end, one can’t help viewing the entire affair as some kind of fantastical joke.

Note: Modern film fanatics will naturally be interested to know that the gorgeous blonde here (Gloria Stuart) is none other than “Old Rose” from Titanic (1997).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fabulously creepy make-up

  • Arthur Edeson’s cinematography


Must See?
Yes, as an early horror masterpiece by a famed director.

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2 Responses to “Old Dark House, The (1932)”

  1. A once-must, to see director Whale having a…whale of a time. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

    Ultimately, ‘TODH’ amounts to something of an atmospheric piffle, but Whale knows this and has served it up as delicious fun. It’s a non-stop dark and stormy night indeed; Whale exploits that base element, and the combination of that with rampant madness is plenty to make a viewing worthwhile. A certain gay fearlessness is also evident on Whale’s part, as well as in Thesiger’s performance. In tandem with his sister Moore (“No bags!”, etc., etc.; her work is wickedly funny), the two are deliriously entertaining. (I esp. like the way Thesiger bows out of going upstairs with Massey to get the lamp.) Yes, the romance angle is exceedingly silly (thankfully, somewhat brief) but Douglas is marvelously charming throughout. (It would be difficult not to fall for him quickly, actually.) Douglas’ penultimate tete-a-tete with Wills is wonderfully edgy.

    I find the film a bit rushed as things wrap, and some of the final discovery is a bit vague – but Whale’s purpose is fulfilled. He has set out to spook us good and, to that end, the film largely succeeds.

  2. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

    A classic Universal Horror and one of the best examples of the form. Love the mordant wit and melodrama and Gloria Stuart is delectable.

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