Film/DVD: review

The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House
Directed by James Whale
 
1932, US — 72 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Comedy / Thriller

Delightfully disturbing comedy about a group of travelers stranded, during a horrific storm, in a mysterious Welsh mansion filled with lunatics. From the great James Whale, who also made Bride of Frankenstein; starring Boris Karloff (Frankenstein), Gloria Stuart (James Cameron's Titanic), and Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty).

Review

ImageJames Whale's The Old Dark House (1932) is a landmark picture, of both the comedy and suspense genres. It's been imitated countless times, by everyone from Abbott and Costello to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Whale refined the long tradition of 'old dark house' thrillers — Poe's story "The Fall of the House of Usher" is a defining work — and in the process, created a hilarious, and sometimes disturbing (who's sane? really!), picture that holds up remarkably well after more than three-quarters of a century. He made this film in between his classics Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933); and in his masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), he uses some key actors from The Old Dark House, including Karloff and Ernest Thesiger (who in the later film chewed up the scenery as the wild-eyed Dr. Pretorius). The DVD is made from the best available restored film and sound elements, and includes such excellent supplements as a video interview with filmmaker Curtis Harrington (Night Tide), who spent years tracking down this "lost" film, and two separate commentary tracks: one from Whale's biographer James Curtis, the other by actress Gloria Stuart (director James Cameron was so taken by her energetic and witty commentary, from the original Laserdisc release, that he cast her in Titanic).

There are twists and turns aplenty in this deeply strange comedy that seems far ahead of its time. It's a highly entertaining, multi-layered combination of laughs, tension and dark visual beauty.

Before taking a closer look at the film, and some of the fascinating recesses that Whale worked into the story through his sly visual genius, let's pinpoint this particular old dark house on a larger literary and cinematic map.

ImageAlthough there's nothing supernatural in this godforsaken, crumbling Welsh manor, it partakes of the long line of haunted house tales. That tradition stretches back millennia — in prehistoric times, you can imagine people shunning 'haunted caves' — and includes works by such classical authors as Plautus (whose plays inspired A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and Pliny the Younger, as noted in Greek and Roman Ghost Stories (1912) by Lacy Collison-Morley. Haunted or just plain scary, the Gothic tradition frequently sets its shockers in terrifying, vast, mysterious mansions or castles; the more labyrinthine corridors and passageways, the better. A classic example is Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), but Whale's The Old Dark House is closer to Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (started 1798; published posthumously in 1818), that began as a satire on the genre's improbable plots and characters but ultimately becomes an exploration of how people try, and sometimes spectacularly fail (there are a lot of lunatics in Whale's film) with the complexities of adult life. Perhaps the single most influential old dark house in literature is Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), that jettisons the silliness of the earlier Gothic tradition and focuses on the unsettling psychological links between the terrifying house and the people trapped in it. Perhaps its greatest subdivision in the nineteenth century is Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (1851), and in the twentieth century Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and its film version, arguably the perfect ghost film, Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963).

The old dark house sub-genre became a hot property in theatre and film beginning in the 1920s, with key works quickly moving from stage to the silent screen to a remake with sound, to spoof versions a few years later. The cycle began with Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart's hit 1920 Broadway play The Bat (that they novelized themselves; Rinehart also wrote the classic 1908 thriller The Circular Staircase), set at a remote, spooky manor where people search for hidden money while a masked killer, the title character, kills them one by one; both the 1926 silent film (same title) and 1930 sound version, The Bat Whispers, were directed by Roland West (trivia buffs note that Bob Kane credits "The Bat" as a direct inspiration for his creation, Batman). Frank Willard's 1922 play The Cat and the Canary is about heirs to a wealthy eccentric's will (he saw himself as a "canary" surrounded by greedy, lip-smacking "cats") who must spend a night in a super-creepy old mansion; silent film (same title) in 1927 by the great director Paul Leni (don't miss this witty and sometimes visually stunning picture), sound version retitled The Cat Creeps in 1930 (presumed lost) by Rupert Julian (Phantom of the Opera), 1939 comic version (original title) by Elliott Nugent, starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. The third major work of this type is Ralph Spence's flop 1925 Broadway comedy-thriller, The Gorilla, that went on to a lucrative screen life; it added some much-needed gags to the already creaky formula, replete with secret passages, a hidden fortune, a dastardly villain and, for good measure, a giant ape; silent film in 1927 by Alfred Santell and sound version in 1930 by Bryan Foy (same title for both), a 1937 gag version retitled Sh! The Octopus (guess what the gorilla was turned into) by William C. McGann, and a 1939 version (original title) by Allan Dwan as a slapstick vehicle for the (unfunny) Ritz Brothers. While this sub-genre quickly lapsed into yuck-yuck self-parody, maybe the freshest take on it is Walt Disney wonderful spoof of specifically Whale's The Old Dark House and Frankenstein, in the Mickey Mouse and Pluto cartoon "The Mad Doctor" (1933). By 1932, when Universal released The Old Dark House, that type of picture had been replaced at the box office by the same studio's outright horror films, led by Whale's own Frankenstein and Tod Browning's Dracula (both 1931). Forty years later, after countless 'mysterious mansion' comedies (from The East Side Kids / Bowery Boys' 1941 Spooks Run Wild to Don Knotts' 1966 The Ghost and Mr. Chicken), one picture not only returned the sub-genre to its Gothic roots but ratcheted up the horror to the breaking point: Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) — one of the two or three greatest horror films I've seen — that shares not only the same basic 'stranded travelers' plot device as The Old Dark House but even includes a mysterious, invalid centenarian.

ImageAs a man of the theatre, J.B. Priestley would likely have seen, or at least known about, the Bat/ Cat/ Gorilla plays that all employed the locale that gave its (generic) name to his novel: The Old Dark House was published under that title in the US in 1928, although it had originally come out in England, a year earlier, as Benighted. (You might think of other generic titles, like Love Story, Ghost Story, and High School Musical.) It was Priestley's second book and first best-seller. Whale's film often follows Priestley's novel very closely, often line for line in the dialogue, and even with some of the striking visuals described in the book, from small moments, like the rain water dripping in the car on Mrs. Waverton (Gloria Stuart's character) to more prominent scenes, like her making shadow figures on the wall before being startled by an intruder. As you can see from even the brief descriptions above of the Bat/ Cat/ Gorilla cycle, Priestley and, to an even greater degree, Whale in his use of brilliant visual design, take The Old Dark House in some intriguing, and subtle, new directions. Instead of devolving into cheap laughs, like The Gorilla, they downplay the melodrama, instead focusing on psychologically compelling yet still entertaining — as only lunatics can be — character studies. Gone is the fortune hunting, masked murderers, and convoluted plot twists; although the obligatory storm remains, with more bang and billowing than ever.

Before taking a closer look at this picture, let's get to know a bit about Whale, and note career highlights of his extraordinary crew and cast. You can also jump directly to the analysis section below.

James Whale and Crew

Cast

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Analysis

ImageWhat struck me, not having seen The Old Dark House in several years, is how suggestively Whale uses lighting and design to create a world that both traps and exposes the characters, or rather forces them to reveal themselves.

The film is particularly well entitled, or rather retitled as we saw above, since the house itself seems to be the most vivid, not to mention central, character. Through Whale's fertile, and feverish, visual genius, the house becomes a reflection of all of the characters, much as, say, the crumbling-before-completed Xanadu becomes an externalization of Welles's title character in Citizen Kane (1941).

A key moment in Whale's film, that works both psychologically and symbolically, comes when Mrs. Waverton is changing out of her wet clothes — provocatively, in the pre-enforcement days of the puritanical Hays Code — while the jealous, age-worn Miss Femm cackles on about sin and damnation. As the tension in that funny but increasingly chilling scene becomes more fervent, Whale has the women's reflections in the mirrors become more grotesque, even as the editing goes into overdrive, and as he includes a couple of shock cuts to the looming, bestial servant Morgan (Boris Karloff) spying on the scantily-clad young woman (shades of Norman Bates). As we come to see with increasing (pardon the oxymoron) ambiguous clarity, the imprisoning house is both repressive and volatile — as represented by Miss Femm and her pyromaniac brother, Saul, locked in the attic — on the verge of going up in flames.

Despite Karloff's top billing, his character doesn't do very much out of the ordinary — at least as defined by that bizarre household — except get drunk later on, and chase Mrs. Waverton; and that's a far cry from the serial murders in earlier works of the Bat/ Cat/ Gorilla type. (Trivia fans take note: cartoonist Charles Addams was inspired to create the Addams Family's butler, Lurch, after Karloff's character here.) The film's poor box office returns, despite strong reviews, may have been caused by audiences' disappointment that Karloff, that ads implied was the star, is only one member, and a mumbling one at that, of an ensemble cast.

ImageYet Whale directs his ten skillful actors superbly, molding each one into a distinct, vivid character, but never letting any of them, not even the suave Melvyn Douglas as Penderel, steal the show. You can see that both in how Whale conducts their performances and how he composes them in shots that subtly and/or wittily suggest much about the nature of each one, or each changing group. A droll example is how he often shoots the fabulously over the top Horace (Ernest Thesiger) from a slightly low angle to emphasize his uniquely expressive nostrils; or notice how the compositions that initially place the actress Gladys together with her sugar daddy, Sir William, gradually change to reveal her connected — both emotionally and visually — with the man she'll (not unexpectedly) leave with, Penderel.

Although this narrative approach, together with the tale unfolding in a single setting, would suggest deploying a theatrical style, Whale uses cinema's full expressive power, through striking imagery and sound — even more than he does Priestley's story — to fulfill his incisive vision. By contrast, Leni's The Cat and the Canary has many gorgeous Expressionistic moments — Whale's frequent production designer, Charles Hall, also worked on Leni's film — but its focus is on stylish set pieces. Whale's film embodies his unique Gothic vision throughout, from the skewed angle of the car in the first scene (suggesting that both the modern world and all of nature are in a state of chaos), to Morgan's entrance as he opens the massive ancient doors when at first all we can see is one of his staring eyes (a moment later when he begins mumbling in dialect, the lost travelers begin laughing as much as the audience would, since "Even Welsh ought not sound like that" — establishing the continuity between chills and laughs), to the endless shadows that have an ominous life of their own, to the weirdly dark fire that breaks out at the end (I'm purposely omitting some key plot surprises). The camera is not quite as fluid, and innovative, here as in, say, Bride of Frankenstein, but it's still a kinetic film, with visual momentum often coming from carefully choreographed actors' movements within the frames and sharp editing.

ImageOne of the most haunting images in the film, that we see a couple of times, is of huge curtains billowing in dark corridors: the inspiration originally came from The Cat and the Canary, and that motif has been reused in many pictures, most poetically in Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946). Although Whale's film, like the novel, is set in its present day, he's turned that Welsh manor into something out of the Dark Ages — not to mention something out of the dark, if droll, emotional recesses of all of the characters.

Whale's use of sound is also extraordinary if necessarily limited by the story. Comparable to how he makes the house a character, he turns the wind into a superhuman presence. It's banshee-like howling is yet another force trapping everyone in the manor. It also, subtly, increases or decreases in severity depending on the emotional pitch of a scene. Finally, Whale uses it as a sort of surrogate musical score, to manipulate the precisely controlled pacing of the film. As in most other films of the early sound era, such as Browning's Dracula, the only music used is over the credits; the effect also somewhat anticipates how in The Birds (1963), Hitchcock and composer Bernard Hermann substituted electronically manipulated bird sounds for a musical score.

The fact that not much happens dramatically, until the last few minutes, makes the picture feel modern, even post-modern, rather than inert (Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot was two decades in the future); that may be why, second to Whale's visual mastery, it's become so highly regarded today. The hoary, even in 1932, melodrama has been drained off, leaving all of those darkly, strangely beautiful Gothic images that suggest layers of psychological, thematic, and symbolic density — but never at the expense of the film's considerable entertainment value, with ten of the most starkly colorful characters you'll ever see under one vaulted roof. And let's not forgot those two genuinely funny running jokes: Miss Femm with her squealed refrain of "No beds!" and Horace with his flesh-crawling, oft-repeated invitation, "Have a potato" (I shudder to mention that, if you must, you can relate both to themes of insatiable appetite: sex with the former, which is how Miss Femm sees it, and eating with the latter).

ImageStill, some dramatic blame must pass to Priestley and to Whale, for not having his screenwriters take more care with some story elements. Besides the problem of Karloff's under-scripted role, we never learn why the Wavertons and Penderel are driving through Wales in the middle of a hurricane-force gale; or why Horace and Miss Femm, so memorable in the first half, all but vanish during the melodramatically pumped up final sequences. And what about this house divided, with Miss Femm and Saul religious fanatics (of the most amusing variety) but their father and brother Horace "godless" freethinkers: What caused such a split? It seems that Whale was focusing — brilliantly — on the images and sound design to convey his vision but the missed thematic opportunities do lurk in the shadows.

The book's original title, Benighted, reminds us of the importance of another key aspect of this picture: the nocturnal hours during which it unfolds. Night has long been a time of transformation, as seen in plays like Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream or the final thirds of such great films as Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938), Renoir's Rules of the Game (1939), and Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). In all of those works, that like Whale's picture are black comedies, darkness unleashes much more than any of the characters, or us in the audience, expected — even a pair of rutting leopards in Bringing Up Baby (talk about symbolic) — in between the laughs, of course. Perhaps the most resonant offspring of The Old Dark House is Jarman's The Tempest, in which Prospero rules over not an island, as in the original play, but an enormous dilapidated mansion not unlike that of the Femms, where various characters' self-realizations prove more enduring than any brief bits of magic: it's Shakespeare's text but Jarman's dark poetic imagination filtered through a very Whale-like vision.

Another aspect of the film that feels wittily prescient is its sly gender bending. Although credited as "John Dudgeon," and sporting a beard, the 102-year-old lord of the manor, Roderick Femm, was actually played by character actress Elspeth Dudgeon, then a mere 61. Whale claimed, perhaps with his tongue in his cheek, that he couldn't find an acceptable male actor; of course, there's more than a bit of gay subversiveness in making the patriarch of the clan a woman.

ImagePLOT SPOILERS BEGIN HERE: The final sharp touch in Whale's film comes when he shows the characters in — to use one of the film's catch phrases — the cold hard light of morning. They have been transformed by their experiences in that architectural embodiment of their collective unconscious... or have they? Some relationships certainly seem stronger, especially the Wavertons with each other and Sir William with himself.

But others, notably the dashing but world-weary Penderel and the golden-hearted chorus girl Gladys, may have become even more blinded. Does anyone, even Penderel and Gladys, really believe that they have fallen madly in love and will live happily together for decades to come, when they don't know anything about each other, except that they have slipped into each other's romantic fantasies? The light of morning apparently isn't cold, hard or clear enough for them to see through their own delusions; time will take care of that unless, as all of us optimists hopes, they do indeed find a lifetime of love together.

The Femms and Morgan are still, well, who they were at the beginning, although the pyromaniac, cradled by Morgan, may be dead. Transformation has fallen back into stasis; no doubt the house has remained unchanged for centuries, just getting older and, with the fires put out for now, darker.

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Crew

  • Directed by James Whale
  • Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr.
  • Written by Benn Wolf Levy and R.C. Sherriff,
  • Based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley
  • Original Music by David Broekman (uncredited)
  • Cinematography by Arthur Edeson
  • Art Department: Charles D. Hall
  • Edited by Andrew Cohen
  • Makeup by Jack P. Pierce (uncredited)

Cast

(in the order listed in the film's credits)

  • Boris Karloff as Morgan
  • Melvyn Douglas as Penderel
  • Charles Laughton as Sir William Porterhouse
  • Lillian Bond as Gladys
  • Ernest Thesiger as Horace Femm
  • Eva Moore as Rebecca Femm
  • Raymond Massey as Philip Waverton
  • Gloria Stuart as Margaret Waverton
  • John Dudgeon as Sir Roderick Femm [as noted above, the actor is actually actress Elspeth Dudgeon]
  • Brember Wills as Saul Femm

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DVD

Whale & HarringtonKino International's DVD has fine image and sound quality, especially considering the age of the source materials — that were considered lost, until filmmaker Curtis Harrington (who's interviewed on the DVD) rediscovered them, appropriately enough, in the Universal Pictures vaults. There are several outstanding supplemental features, described below.

DVD Details

Reviewed October 31, 2008

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