On a dark and stormy night, self-conscious genre tropes abound in James Whale’s riotously fun 1932 gothic chiller The Old Dark House. Five people find themselves stuck overnight in a creepy old mansion, tenanted by a bizarre brother and sister, their decrepit father and a monstrous butler played by the inimitable Boris Karloff.
Bickering couple Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) are lost driving through Wales at night, accompanied by their louche friend Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) cracks wise in the bag. The torrential downpour causes the hillside to collapse, blocking the road, so the trio seek shelter in the eponymous gothic-styled mansion, later joined by the brash Sir William Porterhouse (a young Charles Laughton) and good-time-gal Gladys (Lillian Bond).
Acrimoniously greeted by mute butler Morgan (Karloff) and later oddball siblings Horace and Rebecca Femm (Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore), the Wavertons are in for a night they’ll never forget. The Old Dark House was Whale’s second horror film after 1931’s Frankenstein and his return to the genre sees the director leaning fully in to its gothic tropes. Though the earlier film is arguably the more influential, The Old Dark House represents a clear improvement in Whale’s craft, with ambitious camera motion and a greater creation of cinematic space than in Frankenstein, all shot with expressionist lighting and camera angles.
The queer gender politics which would come to fruition in Whale’s masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein are in evident gestation here, helped in no small part by Ernest Thesiger’s scene-stealing performance as Horace (Thesiger would later appear in Bride as the subversive Dr. Pretorius). We first meet him descending the house’s dusty staircase as the camera rises to meet him, announcing with a flourish and a double meaning about as subtle as the film’s title, “my name is Femm”.
Horace’s sinful atheism is set against his sister’s moral severity. Proudly declaring her piety above the ‘wickedness’ of her family, Rebecca equates Margaret’s youth and beauty as sinful, prodding at her silk dress and unblemished skin with equal contempt. This generational schism is in many ways the key to the film. Confining the Femms to the decaying past, the house becomes a site for conflict between the inter-war modernity of the Wavertons and the Victorian values of yesterday, now become corrupt and monstrous.
A clear influence on both the family oriented gothic of The Addams Family and the affectionate parody of Cabin in the Woods, The Old Dark House is a classic of horror-comedy. Indeed, part of the reason that Whale’s films have aged so well compared to other entries in Universal’s horror cycle of the 1930s and 40s is his mastery of the genre’s tropes and of horror’s adjacency to comedy. All Whale’s Universal films are funny, but The Old Dark House is fundamentally comic – a shaggy dog story where peril and terror is more gestured towards than fully divulged.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell