The Old Dark House

Day Eighteen of the 2010 Silver Shamrock Happy Halloween Countdown!

Happy Halloween Countdown Day Eighteen

The Old Dark House
James Whale’s next film, hot on the heels of Frankenstein, was 1932’s The Old Dark House. Adapted from J. B. Priestley’s novel Benighted, a tale about strangers from different social classes forced to seek shelter in the same rural manor, The Old Dark House starts with that seed of a storyline then blooms in an entirely different direction.

The Old Dark House was billed as a horror/ suspense movie, but that’s not exactly correct.  Imagine a story about a creepy manor house whose residents are members of an ancient family, all afflicted with varying degrees of madness.  Have you got it?  Okay, now imagine that it’s a stormy night and said creepy manor house with its  mad family are to play reluctant hosts to five stranded travelers who’d be more at home in a Gershwin musical than a horror film.  Yeah, The Old Dark House is what you’d get if H.P. Lovecraft decided to write musical comedies, only without the music.  It’s probably the earliest example of an intentional horror/comedy; at least it’s the earliest example that I can think of offhand.

The cast is just about perfect: Boris Karloff as the murderous butler; Melvyn Douglas as the romantic rogue; Charles Laughton as the self-conscious dandy; Raymond Massey as the hero; Eva Moore as the near deaf and surly Rebecca Femm; and best of all Ernest Thesiger as twitchy Horace Femm.  Thesiger, probably best known for his role as Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein, also directed by James Whale, pretty much steals The Old Dark House, that’s no small feat considering the company considering the formidable company of actors gathered here.

It’s interesting to note that The Old Dark House was for quite a while considered a lost film.  I have no idea how a movie with that many Hollywood greats can end up lost.  It remained lost  until recovered by Curt Harrington, a fan of the film and a himself  director, who managed to get the negatives  tracked down and have it restored before it had totally deteriorated.

The Old Dark House is Whale’s riff on the English drawing room mystery theme.  I know what your thinking, “Whaaat? English drawing room mystery?  That sounds as exciting as watching old people play Clue®!”  It far from that.  As you’d expect, The Old Dark House is rather talky but  it doesn’t drag.    The characters, on the strength of the performers and dialogue, keep things interesting.  Whale’s deft balancing of dark humor and the tense gothic undercurrent is the mortar that holds The Old Dark House together.

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