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Subj: Creature Feature 173: The Old Dark House(1932)
Posted: Sat Sep 14, 2019 at 07:04:51 pm EDT (Viewed 384 times)
The Old Dark House (1932) is a pre-Code Universal horror movie starring Boris Karloff (billed as "KARLOFF!"). The team of Carl Laemmle Jr. and James Whale (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man) produced/directed. Other stars include Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Ernest Thesiger and Raymond Massey. The film was considered lost for years and was rediscovered in 1968. It was based on the novel Benighted (1927) by J.B. Priestley.
On a dark and stormy night, a group of travellers find themselves stranded at the house of siblings Horace and Rebecca Femm. As we get to know the characters, we are also introduced to the brutish, mute butler Morgan(Karloff), 102 year old patriarch Roderick Femm and, finally, the psychopathic Saul Femm who is locked away in the attic. Morgan becomes instantly infatuated with one of the girls, gets drunk, and attacks her. The men subdue him but he later released Saul who tries to kill Roger(Douglas) and burn down the house. Saul is stopped and, the next morning, the travellers go on their way with Horace wishing them well, acting as if the previous night was a common occurrence.
Like most fans of The Old Dark House, I learned of it as a lost classic of the Universal golden age of horror, the film that you would mention to show that you knew your horror classics. Somehow that "lost" status gave it more weight.
It is a great movie, filled with interesting and strange characters, dripping with atmosphere, and with a couple of scenes of real menace. I've seen it listed as a dark comedy and, as with the other James Whale movies I've seen, I can understand why. However, I'd call it horror or mystery before a comedy. As a cult movie, it's not Freaks, but it's still a second tier classic for Frankenstein and Dracula fans.
While there's not much plot, the performances are memorable. Thesiger and Eva Moore as Horace and Rebecca Femm are very eccentric. Karloff is a drunken brute and looks horrifying with his scarred face. Saul is the biggest threat, though, as you can tell he's absolutely mad. The non-Femm characters are charming. It's interesting to see such a young Charles Laughton, an actor I mostly know from his caricatures in Bugs Bunny cartoons and such. Wikipedia says the novel Benighted is about post WWI disillusionment and in a way I can see it as having similar themes to 1936's Great Depression gangster film The Petrified Forest, in which several strangers are forced to face troubles together while getting to know each other and expressing their lack of fulfillment.
I really like The Old Dark House, but it might be a movie that's underappreciated since it's not as well known as the "big" monster movies, while also a bit overrated due to its reputation while "lost".
Rebecca Femm. You get so much insight into her character in the way that she treats her brother Horace, Margaret Waverton(Stuart), and the way she eats. The camera focuses on her while eating and I can only assume it's one way that Whale shows the difference between the pre-war and post-war generations. The travelers pick bits of skin off their potatoes while Rebecca eats every bit like it's her last meal. The way she treats Margaret for showing her skin is uncomfortable. It shows the moral outrage of the old generation towards the "Roaring Twenties" types.
Morgan attacking Margaret. Right from the start, you can tell Morgan is infatuated. When drunk, he corners Margaret. She runs until her husband comes to her rescue, smashing a lamp over Morgan's head, who then falls down the stairs. Great stunt acting.
Saul. While Philip and Margaret meeting Roderick was creepy, Saul was absolutely bonkers. He plays with Roger, while telling his theories about flame, and then shows madman strength when overpowering the younger man. These are tense scenes.
The Old Dark House opens with a producer's note: "Karloff, the mad butler in this production, is the same Karloff who created the part of the mechanical monster in "Frankenstein". We explain this to settle all disputes in advance, even though such disputes are a tribute to his great versatility." I wonder if Universal, with the huge success of Frankenstein, was trying to establish Karloff as the new Lon Chaney, who died in 1930.
Universal lost the rights to the story in 1957 and William Castle released a remake in 1963. In 1968, director Curtis Harrington found a print of the original film in Universal's vaults. Due to copyright issues, it wasn't shown on TV until 1994.
The Old Dark House was Charles Laughton's first Hollywood movie. He would star in such classics as The Sign Of The Cross, Island Of Lost Souls, The Private Life Of Henry VIII, Les Miserables, Mutiny On The Bounty, and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. He would also direct The Night Of The Hunter and was married to Elsa Lanchester(The Bride Of Frankenstein).
James Whale was the subject of the novel Father Of Frankenstein (1995) which was made into the 1998 movie Gods And Monsters starring Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser.
You can watch The Old Dark House here:
Next time: Island Of Lost Souls
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