The Old Dark House (pre-code 1932)
“Have a potato.”
Kicking off Tuesday Terror is black/white classic The Old Dark House from 1932. Once considered a horror film, really, it’s more a thriller-comedy about a group of travelers, who on one violent stormy night, find themselves stranded in the mansion of an eccentric Femm family and their creepy mute butler.
Directed by James Whale and produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr. at Universal Pictures Corp., who were still riding the wave of success from the horror sensation, Frankenstein, the film starred soon-to-be-leading man Melvyn Douglas, English actors Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore and Lilian Boyd, and was the first Hollywood film for both British star Charles Laughton and Canada’s Raymond Massey. The film gave up-and-coming starlet Gloria Stuart her first starring role as well, and oddly enough, the film hottest star at the time, Boris Karloff, received his first credited starring role (Karloff’s name was not printed on Frankenstein publicity packages).
The Old Dark House is one of the first atmospheric, dark, creepy house movies. The lightening and cinematography and dreadful, menacing music sets the tone perfectly: cold, dark and wet. While it has its moments of creepy melodrama, particularly towards the end, I found the movie quite humorous. The script was brimming with funny lines and sardonic wit, remember, this is pre-code too, so there’s drinking, smoking, and a very thinly dressed leading lady.
As for the scares, it’s an entertaining build to the end, and then, it gets real dark and weird. Most of the horror is contained to the audience not knowing the motivations of the hulking mute butler, Morgan, played by Boris Karloff, in a role so similar to Frankenstein’s monster, the movie company issued a notice in the first frame that this movie is not the Frankenstein movie released in 1931. Unlike the sympathetic monster, Morgan is a nasty piece of work here, a mean drunk who terrorizes Gloria Stuart’s Margaret, navigating her way in the dark like a delicate gazelle.
There’s some real laugh out loud moments and charming interactions between the travelers, as well as a rushed love story, or maybe I’m just too cynical to believe two people can indeed fall in love in ten minutes. Despite not knowing whether to laugh or hide under the covers, it’s those bizarre and charming characters that really make the film worth watching. The film was even marketed on the strength of its cast and for being weird.
One of the highlights is Ms. Rebecca Femm played by the veteran stage actress and women’s suffrage activist, Eva Moore. Her turn as a cantankerous religious fanatic going deaf is both creepy and hilarious. Rebecca hates the idea of opening up her home to strangers (“No beds! They can’t have beds!”) and seizes several moments to insult her guests, especially the young and beautiful Margaret.
In 1957, Universal lost the rights to the film and the William Castle was hired to direct the remake in 1963 for Columbia Pictures. The original film was considered lost for many years until found by director Curtis Harrington, who discovered a negative print in the Universal Vaults in 1968. The first reel was in such bad shape, the famed George Eastman House was brought in to help restore the film.
With lukewarm reviews, the pic didn’t do much box office business in the US but broke some records in the UK, due in part to the talented English cast. Now, The Old Dark House is just an underrated thriller with a cult following.
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