The Old Dark House is a striking, lavishly mounted pre-code oddity from the early years of producer Carl Laemmie Jr’s cycle of horror classics made in the 1930s at Universal City in Los Angeles. It saw the British director-abroad James Whale return to the genre that has since come to define his reputation not long after attempting to escape its gravity-like pull with a little-remembered drama called The Impatient Maiden, which had delivered somewhat unconvincing results at the box office following the huge success of Frankenstein the previous year. In the novel Benighted (the original 1928 source for the picture) the Yorkshire-born author & playwright JB Priestley sought to critique what he perceived to be the aimlessness and drift of interwar Britain, viewing the country’s malaise through the allegorical lens of a well-established British Gothic tradition for bad-things-happening-to-people-in-creepy-abodes plots stretching all the way back to the first Gothic novel itself -- Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, from 1764. This Gothic tradition was sustained in English literature through various permutations until eventually influencing John Willard’s 1922 comic stage play The Cat and the Canary: a recurring text in the story of how the Gothic mode got translated from literature into a visual medium by way of the German director Paul Leni’s 1927 American-made silent version of the play and its now-lost Universal sound remake The Cat Creeps, which technically predates Dracula as Universal’s first foray into Horror.
Undercutting or deflecting the possibility of censorship by using comedy to distract from the often macabre or sensational nature of Gothic subject matter was a common technique in the early Horror sound pictures -- becoming especially prevalent as a method once the Hays Code really kicked in. But in the hands of James Whale, the turn to comedy contributes to a high-camp auteur sensibility unique to this director’s particular oeuvre, and indicative of a much more subversive and playful approach to the material. The Old Dark House may indeed be Whale’s most artistically cogent expression of that ironical, witty style of his. Perhaps one of the main reasons he suggested that the film rights to Priestley’s novel be secured by Universal lies in the fact that this property so obviously gives him the perfect opportunity to provide Universal with yet another horror blockbuster starring Boris Karloff, while simultaneously indulging himself in what is at heart an intrinsically British comedy of manners, full of deliciously strange characters.
One of Hitchcock's former collaborators, Benn Levy, contributes a screenplay adaptation capturing the sort of waspish, cutting sense of humour that Whale himself often demonstrated off-screen, and gives the comedic material an incongruous context via Gothic set designs that hark right back to Leni’s original film. Indeed, Universal Pictures’ art director and frequent James Whale collaborator Charles D. Hall had himself worked on the 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary. This combines with a taste for the absurd deriving from the novel itself, which is delivered on screen in the guise of a series of macabre comedy grotesques made ‘flesh’ via the particular talents of Universal makeup man Jack Pierce; not to mention a hand-picked cast, largely made up of British stage performers already known to Whale from his days as an actor and theatre director, imported especially to play alongside the genre’s latest star, Boris Karloff.
Interestingly, although the screenplay adheres fairly closely to events as detailed in the novel, little of JB Priestley social commentary survives beyond the most perfunctory elements of character detail. The author was apparently sorry not to be asked to contribute to the script or even to be consulted about it, yet he and Whale share formative experiences (as do a great many of the cast) rooted in their participation in the First World War, and these undoubtedly inform each of their very individualistic approaches to the work. For the Bradford-born Priestley, his time in the army made the young writer acutely conscious for the first time of the English class system in a way that led him to believe that it played a key role in contributing to the moribund psyche of the Country in the years after the war. For Whale, though, becoming a POW in Germany during the conflict introduced him to the world of drama for the first time. He put on theatre shows while imprisoned in a Holzminden prison camp in Germany, and afterwards became an actor and theatre director whose most successful London stage production was an adaptation of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End -- a play set in the trenches of World War One – which successfully transferred to Broadway and Chicago and provided him with his route into film and to Hollywood. Whale’s first proper directorial assignment (after re-sculpting a sound version of Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angles) was the 1930 Tiffany film version of the same wartime play.
Meanwhile, some of Priestley’s wartime ennui survives in the film in the character of Roger Penderel, played by Melvyn Douglas, who is an amiable cynic described by one of the other characters as “one of those chaps who’s been knocked about a bit in the war.” Nevertheless, Penderel’s existential grief is downplayed by Whale, and Douglas’s performance is that of a slightly shop-soiled but down-to-earth everyman-cum-self-sacrificing romantic hero who provides a contrasting counterpoint to the more morbidly eccentric occupants of the house. They are clearly the main focal point for Whale as expressions of the director’s own arch, essentially British and borderline aristocratic sensibility, which is emphasised over and above the allegorical, state-of-the-nation pretensions of the original novel.
One of the other ironies about the film that Whale himself might have appreciated in retrospect was that Priestley’s novel had been quite poorly received at home in Britain, while Whale’s lighter, comedic adaptation would go on to be an especially big hit with cinema audiences in the UK upon its release there. In the US, though, the reverse was the case: Priestley’s novel – retitled The Old Dark House for American publication -- did extremely well, which is what prompted Universal’s decision to film it; but the odd tone and camp humour peculiar to Whale’s film version resulted in the picture being unfavourably compared to his Frankenstein by many US critics who, because of Karloff’s presence, were expecting a more formulaic terror picture. Audience attendance proved to be nowhere near as impressive although it still did solid if unspectacular business.
This perceived disappointment must have contributed, though, towards The Old Dark House falling into obscurity in subsequent years, while Dracula and Frankenstein would be frequently revived and their success prompt the making of numerous sequels. The film came to be considered almost lost until the director and producer Curtis Harrington rescued a nitrate print from the Universal vaults in the 1960s. Now it has been restored by the Cohen Media group after years of murky prints that in the past have made it seem tough-going to sit through. It re-emerges as a stone-cold classic thanks to a pin-sharp 4K transfer that highlights every meticulous detail of set and costume design, along with cleaned up audio emphasising the atmospheric soundtrack of thunderclaps and howling winds which replaces a more traditional musical accompaniment. The Eureka Entertainment Masters of Cinema edition also serves up a fine selection of extras -- including a total of three commentary tracks and a thirty-minute video essay.
Both book and film detail how a trio of travellers on their way to Shrewsbury find themselves marooned in a sodden, remote region of the Welsh mountains, where they encounter the deranged household of the eccentric Femm family after a terrible storm and a flood have caused a landslide to block the narrow muddy road out of this forbidding landscape. The group seek shelter in the family’s slab-like, rain-lashed mansion house, first discerned looming out of the shadows thrown up by their car headlamps. This opening sequence is a bravura spectacle of flickering studio created lightning, soundstage wind machines and a driving torrent of sprinkler-produced torrential rain; a miniature, seamlessly spliced into the waterlogged live action, illustrates how the travellers’ motor vehicle narrowly avoids destruction beneath the slurry of mud and cascading rocks produced by the landslide.
Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart and the aforementioned Melvyn Douglas -- the American and Canadian contingent of the cast -- play the lost and beleaguered travellers seeking shelter amongst the mixed assortment of West End imports from the British stage who play the floridly weird Femm hosts. According to Gloria Stuart, the story’s set-up, which plays on a division between the oddball hosts and the fish-out-water visitors, was carried over into the off-screen relationships between the cast members, the American contingent feeling very much the outsiders as Whale filled the rest of his cast with British luminaries he had known or worked with during his years as an actor and theatre director in the UK. The British thespians indulged in strange arcane English rituals like ‘elevenses’, while Universal contractee Stuart and her co-star Melvyn Douglas played cards in the corner of the studio. Whale’s casting choices here couldn’t have had more resonance with Priestley’s critique of the English Establishment and the stultifying class system at its root, providing unspoken subtext to the macabre humour that furnishes much of the surface entertainment in the picture.
This is especially evident during, for instance, the early dinner scene, which takes place soon after the three travellers have arrived: a set-piece of ghoulishly delightful comic awkwardness presided over by the creepily sepulchral Horace and Rebecca Femm -- the two heads of the demented household -- and waited on by the couple’s mad, drunken troglodyte mute butler Morgan, played by Karloff.
A distinguished thespian who was also the grandson of the 1st Lord of Chelmsford and a nephew of the 2nd, the prissily sparrow-like Ernest Thesiger, playing the hyper-nervous, aristocratic atheist aesthete Horace Femm, already must have seemed like a figure from a lost age to his American and Canadian co-stars; as would Eva Moore, who plays his half-deaf, religious maniac sister Rebecca. Moore was a veteran of the Edwardian women’s suffrage movement, who had been appearing regularly on the stage as a performer since the 1880s and was known as a great beauty during the late-Victorian era. She was also the mother-in-law of Laurence Olivier from his first marriage to Jill Esmond. The household presided over by Horace and Rebecca represents its own similarly self-contained lost world, into which are plunged a modern young married couple and a war veteran still searching for his place in modern society.
The film becomes a brooding Gothic metaphor for interwar England as a land caught between the judgemental religious mania of its morally punitive Victorian past, and the ineffectual petty bureaucracy of the present, run by an intellectual class that cannot command the respect to change or challenge the shibboleths that define its antiquated surroundings. Karloff, meanwhile, represents the rather prejudiced JB Priestley vision of the brutish working classes: uneducated and inarticulate, latently violent, often drunk and lecherous, and easily exploited by the destructive anarchistic tendencies existing within the margins of a body politic usually kept figuratively locked in the attic, but which, in this case, is also literally present in the form of a homicidal pyromaniac brother, Saul Femm (Brember Wills) -- who is indeed locked up in the attic. The soul of the family is the witheringly old and critically enfeebled patriarch Sir Roderick, who is maintained at the age of 102 in a state-like, oak-panelled bedbound splendour -- like a funerary corpse hidden in the upper chambers of the house. He is played, in a typical example of Whale’s offbeat knowing humour, by a little old lady with a Jack Pierce-made glued-on beard! (Elspeth Dudgeon -- credited as ‘John’ Dudgeon in the cast list)
Perhaps one of the things about the film that confused audiences at the time, and still disconcerts some of its viewers today, is that it has no real story … It really is just a collection of encounters between some lost young people and a selection of oddball characters that take place over the course of one long night, with everyone going his or her separate way in the morning as if nothing had happened ... except for Penderel and chorus line ‘showgirl’ Gladys (Lillian Bond) who fall in love during the course of the night despite Gladys having arrived halfway through the evening in the company of ebullient self-made businessman Sir William Porterhouse – a part which affords Charles Laughton one of his first Hollywood roles.
Staging it like a proscenium play in one location, with a series of entrances and exits of characters strategically placed across a three-act structure, Whale nevertheless exploits the space in the film to make these interactions extremely psychologically compelling and dynamic, marshalling showy camera movement in the form of those enduringly wobbly tracking shots one tends to find in pictures from the early 1930s, and fractured, almost avant-garde editing techniques which are utilised to startling effect to enhance the across-the-board excellent performances of the ensemble cast, especially the exquisite mime performance given by Boris Karloff, who is otherwise overshadowed by the likes of Thesiger, Laughton and Moore as they get to deliver all the film’s many memorably juicy dialogue scenes.
There is no greater example of Whale’s directorial flair combining with the meticulous attention to detail of the screenplay and the performances of the cast to create heightened, resonate spectacle than an early scene that takes place between the young married Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart) and the barnstorming god-botherer Rebecca Femm after Margaret asks to change out of her wet clothes in Rebecca’s room soon after arrival at the Femm mansion. The room is dark and fusty, cluttered with Victorian china figurines and brass candlesticks, and dominated by a big brass bed and a large framed portrait photograph of Queen Victoria on one wall. Under the disapproving gaze of Rebecca (and Queen Victoria), Margaret strips by candlelight down to silk stockings and a loose, revealing shift undergarment, before unaccountably changing into a somewhat impractical (in these grim surroundings) bias-cut, satin velvet, Jean Harlow evening dress with spaghetti straps, personally specified by Whale for aesthetic reasons because he wanted Stuart to stand out like a ‘white flame’ when Karloff’s Morgan has to chase her around the house later in the movie.
But the conceit also helps to illustrate the pathological puritanism of her host, bringing the casual sexuality of the 1930s into close proximity with a suffocating cloud of stiff Victorian rectitude. Her face creased with malice, Rebecca slyly informs Margaret of the salacious history of wantonness and’ fleshly pleasures’ once pursued in this house by her brothers and her ‘blasphemous’ father. She details with lip-smackingly cruel suggestive pleasure the diabolical fate of her sister, who died in the very bed on which Margaret is at this very moment sitting: “all the young men used to follow her about, with her red lips and big eyes and her white neck. But that didn’t save her! She fell off her horse, hunting, and hurt her spine!” The malignant old woman continues to relate how her sister would beg to be allowed to die in order to escape the chronic pain she was left in after the accident. Rebecca would ignore these entreaties and instead concentrated her efforts on trying to get her crippled sister to accept the Lord. “She didn’t,” snaps the old woman with satisfaction, her face distorted by the cracked and warped mirror on an old bedside wardrobe;“she was Godless to the last!”
Then, prodding at the young woman’s semi-exposed chest, Rebecca turns her attention to the vulnerable, half-naked Margaret: “you’re wicked too! Young and handsome. Silly and wicked. You think of nothing but your long straight legs, and your white body, and how to please your man! You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you!” With that, she scuttles out of the room, leaving her shaken guest alone with her now utterly disturbed thoughts. Margaret distractedly attempts to straighten her hair in the gloomy mirror, but the image reflected back at her is now utterly warped and fractured. Whale emphasises her distressed state of mind by flashing back to Rebecca’s mean words and her spiteful face also warped by the mirror, intercutting it with brief images of scarred Morgan’s misshapen leering gaze ... A window blows open in the turmoil of the storm outside and suddenly it is as if the entire room is now rejecting her, as she, in turn, recoils from everything that it represents: the judgmental obsession of an oppressively cloistered household with sin and moral retribution.
Whale includes a lovely scene expounding on this theme not long after, when Margaret, still in her fetching evening dress, makes silhouette animal shapes on the wall in the candlelight of the dining room, only for the short, stout outline of Rebecca to suddenly materialise alongside them, invading the frivolous spectacle as if from nowhere to poke Margaret’s shadow self -- also being thrown onto the wall -- in the chest. It’s as though Margaret’s peace of mind and ease with the idea of her own sexual allure has now been irrevocably tainted by exposure to the hateful moral spite of her host.
But this tour de force only sets the scene for a succession of similarly metaphorically suggestive sequences: Morgan’s subsequent violent pursuit of Margaret around the threatening Gothic pile, and the various attempts of her polite and sophisticated male companions to restrain this raging symbol of proletarian sexual brutality. Additionally, the escape of the imprisoned pyromaniac brother Saul -- kept locked in the attack until a drunken Morgan releases him to set in motion the film’s climactic struggle, sees Penderel forced to go head-to-head with this deranged imp of a man who appears at the head of the staircase in an ill-fitting threadbare suit. Amid the scattered trash and smashed cutlery from previous upsets that now litter the dining room floor, their altercation escalates downstairs before leading back up to the balcony landing, where Saul sets fire to the curtains. During their fight, Saul, giggling maniacally, shockingly attempts to bite Penderel sadistically on the neck – a scene censored from many early prints; as were references made by chorus girl Gladys earlier in the movie suggesting that she was not averse to accepting money for sex.
The subplot involving Gladys being at the centre of a love triangle with Penderel and Lord Porterhouse provides a slither of conventional human interest drama amongst the lovingly rendered grotesquery, that also allows Charles Laughton to shine as this loud, bluff Yorkshire businessman with a bought title, who is, by the close of the picture, revealed to be so much more sensitive and likable than his initial coarse image might have suggested when he and Gladys first barged into the mansion. Whale finishes the film by upending the downbeat conclusion of the novel -- which bowed out with Penderel dying during the struggle with Saul – and making an intertextual joke: the two still plunge from the first floor balcony, but a distraught Gladys, cradling her lover in her arms believing him expired, suddenly detects a pulse and exclaims with joy “he’s alive! .. alive!” -- repeating verbatim Frankenstein’s famous line from Whale’s classic film of the same name!
The Old Dark House is a unique entry in the Universal horror pantheon that stands proudly alongside other pre-code horror classics of the day from other studios, such as The Island of Lost Souls or the 1931 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But James Whale’s camp humour and the performances of Thesiger, Moore and Laughton bring something extra special to it that’s still discernible today. This dual format release from Eureka Entertainment features a stunning 4K high definition transfer that really makes the film pop and helps highlight how much of its humour still seems current. The extras bring together previously recorded commentary tracks including one made by Gloria Stuart herself, who gives a fascinating insight into the behind-the-scenes relationships between cast members. James Whale biographer James Curtis contributes a thorough, informative production history, while film critic Kim Newman and author Stephen Jones bring their brand of chatty knowledgeability to the party. Critic and filmmaker, David Cairns, continues to be a leading exemplar of the art of the video essay with another fine one included here; and there’s a short archive film featuring Curtis Harrington, detailing how he managed to save The Old Dark House from becoming lost to film history. Finally, Sara Karloff talks about her father’s prestigious career and the resurrection of The Old Dark House as a horror classic. Early pressings of the dual-format release include some impressive artwork on a limited edition O-Card by Graham Humphreys and Philip Kemp contributes a written overview essay in the accompnaying booklet. An essential release.