In 1931, Universal Studios gave Count Dracula his voice when Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi was cast as the sinister aristocrat, forever stamping the character with the hard ‘v’s and languid pronunciations of romantic decay that became inextricably bound to all future portrayals. With Frankenstein (1931), they defined the tone of the mad doctor’s laboratory with the help of Kenneth Strickfaden’s combusting switches and crackling dynamos. The following year, Universal made yet another all-important contribution to the aural landscape of horror: they finally brought the “stormy” of “one dark and stormy night” to life.
Prior to the release of The Old Dark House (1932), a second-fiddle chiller that reunited director James Whale and stars Boris “KARLOFF” after the overnight success of Frankenstein, motion pictures of similar persuasions were confined to the realm of silence. The “old dark house” mystery was a pet subject of theatrical productions in New York and abroad during the 1920s and 1930s, and with their commingling of scares, sleuths, and occasional silliness they were seen as hot properties to adapt to the silver screen. Acknowledged classics like The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Bat (1926), along with underseen thriller-dillers like The Last Warning (1929), are all that remain of this once-beloved stage genre crystallized in cinematic form. What tempestuous elements they had, if any, were left unheard.
The Old Dark House, though, has “stormy” in spades. At one point in the film a character notes that the rain is coming down in “bucketfuls,” and it’s certainly no understatement: massive puddles eddy and froth all over the pitted road, and even Raymond Massey isn’t safe from the freezing torrents outside his chugging automobile as icy water trickles from the brim of his hat down into his coat collar. The storm also presents an impressive symphony of sound, all roaring thunder and gales of wind that feel sharp enough to the ear to cut a loaf of stale bread. When our heroes narrowly miss being pummeled by a landslide and finally spot the glowing lights of a nearby mansion, we can’t help but share their relief. The way this ghastly storm ripples on the screen, we want nothing more than to warm our clammy skin by the fire and restore our souls with some choice spirits right alongside them.
But as Massey, Gloria Stuart, and Melvyn Douglas await an answer to the hollow booms their knocks produce, The Old Dark House shifts gears to become a different kind of picture. For although it shares a common name with the subgenre of aforementioned stage mysteries—lifted from the American publication of British author J. B. Priestley’s source novel, Benighted (1927)—the film’s plot possesses little of the trappings that marked the other “old dark house” chillers that came before it. Yes, we have a group of travelers waylaid by inclement weather and forced to spend an evening in a rambling abode of ancient vintage, but there is no fateful reading of a will naming one of the characters as the sole inheritor of a reclusive tycoon’s estate. Nor do we have anything in the way of trap doors, secret panels, revolving bookcases, vanishing corpses, or baleful eyes peering out from oil paintings. There are villains, certainly, but they don’t dress up as spooks or go by the names of animal predators, and they don’t make violent overtures motivated by greed or vengeance but rather by genuine psychosis. But perhaps most importantly of all, The Old Dark House’s greatest difference from its antecedents is that, here, the lunatics outnumber the caretakers. And no motley collection of the deranged are they, but rather a fractured family playing at house.
From the moment Boris Karloff swings open the front panel of the mansion door and reveals the blunt force of Jack Pierce’s masterful makeup, heroes and audience alike enter the merrily mad land of the Femms. In addition to Karloff’s mute, glowering savage of a butler there is Ernest Thesiger as Horace Femm, two years and a whole universe removed from bitchy maniac Dr. Pretorius who he would immortalize in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), here reduced to a wispy coward who acts the convivial host when he isn’t quivering in fear of disasters both within and without the house. At his side like a malign tumor is Eva Moore as his sister Rebecca, a crotchety old maid who passes out fire and damnation to all with lip-smacking vehemence. These three compose the main family unit to whom we are exposed for the majority of the film, but later on we meet Sir Roderick, a decrepit old degenerate who lies moldering in an upstairs bedroom. He is portrayed with high, piping voice by actress Elspeth Dudgeon in one of her infrequent credited film appearances. And even higher up in the mansion is Saul, the naughty brother and man of the hour on everyone’s lips, and it is only after Karloff’s butler Morgan unlooses the chain on this mad dog that the party at the Femm place really starts to crackle.
Many of the variations in the film’s formula from those it is repeatedly likened to originate in Priestley’s novel. More Gothic in its tone and allusions compared to the Scooby-Doo stylings of the other “old dark house” chillers, Priestley’s book and screenwriter/playwright Benn Levy’s adaptation of the film place their emphasis on the foundationally “cracked” inhabitants of the house, a structure whose drafty corridors and deep shadows reflect the neurotic, harmfully cloistered lives they lead. The only thing nurtured just as well by the atmosphere of Femm House other than the insanity is undoubtedly the mold.
The Old Dark House blazed a trail in defining the “psycho family” film, a horror subgenre populated by notables such as Spider Baby (1964), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and The Devil’s Rejects (2006), films which in many ways it bears more of a resemblance to than closer contemporaries like The Monster (1926) or The Ghost Breakers (1940). For though The Old Dark House remains couched in the motifs of “cozy horror”—rainy nights, burgeoning romance, theatrical foreboding, et al.—and instigates moments of legitimate comedy and whimsy, particularly in the depictions of fellow travelers Charles Laughton as the blustery Sir William Porterhouse and the vivacious Lillian Bond essaying the role of his live-in companion Gladys, Whale’s picture remains remarkably savage and eerie at times. In a scene that perfectly balances both elements, Stuart’s character, seemingly suffering from a persecution complex after Rebecca calls her out for a perceived moral looseness, playfully casts shadows puppets on the wall from the glow of the hearth when, suddenly, Rebecca’s shadow appears next to her’s, pointing an accusatory finger… only Rebecca herself is nowhere to be seen in the room. The effect is startling, and it leaves one questioning: Has the familial madness Sir Roderick chirps about crept its way into the skull of one of his guests?
This lingering strangeness comes to a head when Saul Femm, played with impish glee and terrifying intellect by Brember Wills, makes his grand entrance, a spidery hand upon the gargoyle-bedecked balustrade all we see of him at first. His engagement with Douglas’ character, the perfectly debonair and endlessly quipping Penderel, is the lighted wick to the film’s dramatic powder keg, a scene of superb unease that finds our unflappable hero finally ruffled at last, trying to ease himself from the spider’s web in which he’s become ensnared. When the moment comes for Saul to bare his fangs, Whale and Wills don’t hold back, as Saul literally launches at Penderel’s throat repeatedly as they struggle on the second floor landing, snapping at the man’s jugular in a fuller light than even the Wolf Man ever received. In another neat twist of conventions, the cursed house is almost immolated not by a torch-bearing villager but by a torch-bearing monster, but thankfully goodness prevails as evil expectations come crashing back down to the first floor. All of the preceding events would have been more than enough to perplex viewers expecting something a little more traditional from the film, but then Levy and Whale add another dollop of the unexpected onto the affair when the scene changes to the following morning. The birds are chirping, the roads are clearing up again, and the infernal Femm clan is rightfully going about their business as usual. Though they’ve suffered a loss (and have had their guests suffer at their hands), the Femms are only marginally put-out by the events of the preceding evening; you would think that someone had just informed Horace his favorite baseball team lost again. The Femms’ delusions and sickness haven’t been cured with the arrival of the sun, but that’s okay. They’re still a family, and today is a new day.
All of this—the sounds, the sights, and the shocks—are currently being made available in a form that the public hasn’t witnessed since the original release of the film, if even that. The Cohen Film Collection has recently performed a 4K restoration of The Old Dark House and is showcasing it on the big screen at New York’s Quad Cinema. It would appear that the film has encouraged a healthy amount of enthusiasm; as news of the run was originally made available to Diabolique, the film was scheduled to run through October 12. As of this writing, The Old Dark House has been booked for an additional 5 days, with some dates featuring multiple showings. Diabolique had the opportunity to view this restoration, and it is every bit as stupendous as this grand showcase would warrant.
Long neglected and rejected even upon its initial American release, The Old Dark House was virtually unavailable until the persevering efforts of director Curtis Harrington and Eastman House brought the film back into the home video market. The disc released by Kino Lorber 18 years ago was a revelation at the time but its significant wear and tear has only become more apparent in the glare of the high-definition age. The Cohen Film Collection has stepped in to address this need, and they have delivered in spades. The specks, splotches, and general graininess that marked the earlier release are wiped clean from the image, highlighting the gorgeous, silky B&W photography of Arthur Edeson (Casablanca) as it was meant to be seen, and nearly every instance of hissing on the audio track has been eliminated. We can only imagine how glorious it must be to witness this film unreel on the silver screen, so if you are in the area and can manage to spend some quality time with the Femm family, we heartily endorse the effort.
For those of us who would have to drive a far more considerable distance through sodden autumn nights than any of the travelers from the film did, fear not. The Cohen Film Collection will be releasing this beauty on DVD and Blu-Ray on October 24, just in time for your hallowed celebrations of bountiful harvests. This way no matter where you may live, there will always be a terrible storm out there in the night and the sound of mad laughter just beyond the door.