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Traditions of cinematic haunting in The Old Dark House (1932)

A dramatic title credit sequence fades to black, and a soft glow lights up the screen, on which appears a bickering married couple driving together during a manic storm. They are Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart), driving through a country region of Wales – “somewhere in the Welsh mountains” – slowly finding their way to Shrewsbury. At first, the camera frames only them, focusing on the front seat of their jalopy, but before long, Philip calls to another person. The camera pans to the right to reveal a possibly drunken, or just insolent, man lying in the back of the car, smoking a pipe. He is, it turns out, their friend and companion. This is the first of many surprising moments in the film.

After their car is almost crushed beneath a heavy landslide (a thrilling event depicted with a miniature model vehicle and steep hillside by prolific special effects artist John P. Fulton), the travelers decide to stop at a daunting mansion they spy by the road, as it offers the only light and shelter around. As they approach the door of the mansion, a man opens it a sliver and mumbles something, somewhere between a rejection and an incantation. In any case, it sounds unfriendly; “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that!” Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), the drunken third-wheel, exclaims. Combined with the storm, things seem not quite right. It is a distinct sign that something may be very out of balance within the house.

The Old Dark House (1932), adapted from a 1927 novel by J. B. Priestley, came early in Universal’s catalogue of monster pictures. It works both as an effective horror film and also a well-mannered, tongue-in-cheek comedy. The essential elements of the film are relevant to the tool of the supernaturally or metaphorically haunted house trope, that spanned many genres and decades. As a spectacle of wonder, and with its iconography of the monster mythology including darkened corners, shadowy staircases, disfigured characters, and sinister glances, to list only a few, the film’s influences can be tied back to Georges Melies’ Le Manoir du diable (The Devil’s Castle, 1896), an early silent short considered to be the first horror film to be made.

Directed by James Whale, who was a key player at Universal during the decade, this film contains many elements of his highly sophisticated visual language that was both developed in his own work and referenced by many filmmakers afterwards. Whale’s dramatically angled camera, tilted so distinctly towards and inside of the structurally deranged house in the earlier Frankenstein (1931), first has this effect in The Old Dark House while approaching an aged man as he walks down the stairs. This is Horace Femm (Ernest Thesinger), a skeletal figure with sunken eyes and curled fingers, as he introduces himself, trilling his “r”. While this forward tracking camera movement is menacing, Femm himself could be harmless. When faces and figures are deranged, it’s often by camera movement, composition, distorted shadow, or reflections in mirrors. This instills doubt in appearance and perception, and the film becomes doubly haunted – by the house’s dark interior, and by its cinematic style.

As it turns out, the misfortune met by the guests at the old, dark house, may indeed be simply brought on by the weather. (Whether it is a natural phenomenon, or is supernaturally or religiously foreboding, the characters argue about the weather. Perhaps it is sent down by “an irate Jehovah”, as in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein three years later.) The place provides little to no comfort, yet it is the only shelter that the travelers have. For the most part, the house contains a family of oddballs, and the guests are subject to surroundings that seem to represent or bring on a sense of the uncanny. Thus containing no members of the dead or undead, and without any monsters, Whale’s film makes clear that a house does not have to be haunted to seem haunted. As Anthony Vidler writes, certain spaces, particularly those with dark recesses and forgotten margins, can be “a harbinger of the unseen” that allows objects of fear to threaten and engulf inhabitants.[1] The unknown in a familiar space can seem uncanny, which breeds anxiety, and anxiety can surface as fear. And yet, the tale of the old dark house became such a part of the fabric of the haunted house on film because its horrors are so vividly imagined and witnessed.

The house contains a feeling of horror, but ruled over by the cackling invalid in striped pyjamas Sir Roderick Femm (John Dudgeon), this house is, otherwise, simply old and dark. Its appearance is sinister because it lacks the usual domestic comforts. While it is a fortress to hide a deranged family member, Saul (Brember Wills), who is revealed to have murderous instincts when he is let loose from his bolted chamber, there is nothing supernatural in its walls. What the guests discover – the odd triplet is soon joined by other stranded travelers Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and Gladys Perkins (Lillian Bond) – is that the house is concealing a horror that is mundane, a horror fostered by a domestic scenario. The house’s haunted sensation is thus marked by a queerness, enhanced by unsettled glances, unexplained noises, and the gnarled scars on the drunken butler’s face. That butler is Boris Karloff, a foreboding mute. Roderick, with his small and wrinkled 102-year-old visage, is depicted by Elspeth Dudgeon, a British stage actress who was at the time aged in her sixties. Yet she is credited as John Dudgeon, and this gender switch in the credit text, in reverse of the performance in the film, enhances the film’s queerness further.

With a long history in literature, the haunted house became key to explorations of anxiety and the uncanny in the eighteenth century, “a site for endless representations of haunting, doubling, dismembering, and other terrors”.[2] The Old Dark House has a sibling in Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928) and its source material, a story written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1839. Poe’s tale, as told by Epstein, is visually rich, as the French filmmaker and poet had so developed his practice. The isolated mansion occupied by Sir Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt) and his wife Madeline (Marguerite Gance), affects a similar eeriness, its deathly appearance made heavier by the fog constantly swirling around its proximity. The house’s interior is similarly affected by the weight of death, Madeline’s ailing health mirrored by darkened corners, vast empty rooms, and a palpable mustiness. Drapes that cover open windows billow silently throughout the house, and scattered leaves dance across floors. Whispers of sound can only be evoked via imagery. In the old, dark house just a few years later, crepe drapes are lifted and swelled by the intruding wind, too, but a wind with an audible, as well as visual, power.

In this manner Universal Pictures’ sound design is stunning, if a little rusty due to the restrictions of the early years of its integration into cinema’s visual language, but absolutely adding layers of effective resonance to the film. While technical crew were often excluded from credits at the time, with sound credited only to Western Electric Sound System Noiseless Recording, later sources offer the sound recordist as William Hedgcock, and sound supervisor as C. Roy Hunter. The film opens with a menacing musical score that was specially composed by David Broekman,[3] interrupted part-way through by a crash of thunder. While there is no score following this credit sequence, already the sound effects are announced as key to the film’s template, interrupting domain where they usually do not trespass.

Spectacularly, the wind as an almost constant sound heard throughout the film, a remarkable experiment within the catalogue of sound pictures at the time, and its tonal and directional differences bring to it a sense of realness. The sound of the wind brings dimension to the film’s space, that is so vividly imagined in images, bridging the space between it, as a story, and us, with intimacy. It’s as though the wind moves around us, in the audience, as it whips around the characters, and traps them in its grasp. As David Toop writes, “Stories written by specialists in horror, haunting and the supernatural, deploy sound and silence as agents, premonitions or signs of the uncanny.”[4] In this way, through sound, this haunted house and its tale entwine us. With wind, rainfall, and theatrical claps of thunder, the film’s players, and so us in the audience, are held captive inside a house that is battered by a continuous sound design, through which anxiety is intensified and sensations of shivering cold are aroused. In the lived filmic space of the house, then, the feeling generated is dramatic, although rather ghostly.

Wind is also distinctly used as a sound of turmoil, whether actually or psychologically perceived, like in films of subsequent decades like Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947) and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (Peter Godfrey, 1947). These two films, both from Warner Bros., are not quite haunted house films yet they have narratives that rely on the central figure of the house where a woman is led, or taken, and seemingly strange and unexplainable things happen to her. In both films, the woman is driven nearly mad by the weather, and the wind has prime position on the soundtrack for a distinct period of time. Importantly, it is in a particular house that the woman is pushed to her limit, a specific location that is a boiler pot of romantic and domestic anxiety. In the latter film, the storm leads to her further condemnation at the hands of a murderous husband. The house, essentially a space of domestic comfort, is made uncomfortable, even terrifying, offering no solace or sense of home. The houses in these stories is not homely; it is unheimlich, uncanny. In these three films, the storm without is an aural companion to the festering of strange happenings within.

The Old Dark House, a key Universal horror picture and a central example of the psychologically haunted house in cinema, has many descendants. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one, that borrows the premise of the film – a couple caught in a storm who happen upon the lights of an isolated mansion that houses a motley crew of strange and misbehaving inhabitants – amongst many others of the Universal catalogue. Even Riff Raff’s observation of the couple, “You’re wet,” recalls Charles Laughton’s oddly affected English accent in The Old Dark House as he observes, “So you got your feet wet.” (Similarly, Frankenfurter’s entrance descending from above, mirrors Horace Femm’s.) A hand appearing out of nowhere, seemingly unattached to a body but feeding the occupants’ fears of a sinister spectre on the loose, is a trope revisited in, for instance, Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957), when fears of a nonexistent ghost are aroused at an isolated mansion. This list could be endless, as the haunted house is such a popular motif, and can always find new ways of unsettling potential inhabitants.

The following morning, once the darkness of the night has passed, the storm has subsided and the wind is no longer whistling. The guests are no longer trapped by the soundscape of the elements. Instead, cheery birdsong surrounds the house. Think of Gaston Bachelard, who writes, “The violent whistling of the wind is what shakes the dreamer, or the listener… By day, the Abyssinian can whistle. Day has dispersed the reserve of nocturnal terrors.”[5] The darkness is what had illuminated the house with its sinister affectations, and induced perceptions of the uncanny in its guests. In this way, The Old Dark House stands out from many of the other Universal monster pictures and particularly those by Whale, excepting a few elements: a number of recurring actors, and a clear call to a famous line of Frankenstein dialogue when Gladys discovers her lover is, after all, not dead. Horace Femm gives a final, unsettling smile, and all is well here. But the haunted house would remain very much alive.

 

[1] Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely, Cambridge, London: The MIT Press, 1992, p. 167.

[2] Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny, p. ix.

[3] William H. Rosar, “Music for the MONSTERS: Universal Pictures’ Horror Film Scores of the Thirties”, The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, Vol. 40, No. 4 (FALL 1983), p. 399.

[4] David Toop, Siniser Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, USA: Continuum, p. 154.

[5] Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams, An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, Farrell, E. R. and C. F. Farrell (trans.), Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 2002, p. 228.

About Eloise Ross

Eloise Ross is a film historian and university lecturer, and has a PhD in cinema studies specialising in film sound and embodiment. She writes about these things too, and also about pre-Code cinema and Classical Hollywood mostly, in various places in print and on the internet. She’s President and one of the programmers of the Melbourne Cinémathèque, and co-hosts the Cultural Capital and the Senses of Cinema podcasts.

One comment

  1. What a great article! Thanks Eloise.

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