The Old Dark House – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by James Whale
Starring Boris Karloff, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas
Re-released in a handsome new digital restoration from Cohen Film Collection, James Whale’s The Old Dark House is as wild, weird and wicked as it’s ever been – the director’s shivery peculiarities as playfully transgressive today as they were on its original release in 1932.
Adapted from J. B. Priestley’s 1927 novel Benighted, the film begins with the familiarity of an old wives’ tale. Married couple Philip and Margaret (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) are travelling with their louche friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), when a storm forces them to take shelter in the foreboding structure of the title. There, they encounter the surpassingly eccentric Fenn family, including siblings Horance and Rebecca (Ernest Thesinger and Eva Moore), who are tended to by glowering mute Morgan (Boris Karloff). Later, the group is joined by boorish Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and chorus girl Gladys (Lilian Bond), also seeking shelter from the elements.
The Old Dark House has been parodied and pastiched so many times – most obviously in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – that present-day audiences are occasionally wont to overlook the fact that it is itself both a parody and a pastiche (notably of John Willard’s oft-filmed stage play The Cat and the Canary). What lifts Whale’s film above its pretenders, though, is the near miraculous way in which it manages to be simultaneously hilarious and genuinely unnerving. The Fenns are so bizarre, and so committed to their own entrenched manias, that they retain their power to disturb, at the same time as being the most quotable screen family pre-Grey Gardens (‘Have a potato’ and ‘No beds!’ are particular highlights of Thesinger and Moore’s delivery).
As the pleasingly shaggy story unfolds, and we gradually come into contact with the even more sinister upstairs denizens of the house – 102-year-old patriarch Sir Roderick (Elspeth Dudgeon) and pyromaniac black sheep Saul (Brember Wills) – the film takes on the kind of high-wire suspense that is common to both a really good scary story and a really good joke.
Whale’s ingenious choice of a woman to play Sir Roderick is one of the slyest pieces of ‘gender blind’ casting in cinema, not really matched until Sally Potter’s gleefully arch deployment of Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth in Orlando (1992). Dudgeon’s casting gestures toward a ‘queerness’ that was unspeakable even in the pre-Hays Code context within which The Old Dark House was made (and the film is surprisingly sexy, largely thanks to Stuart, in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few years later). The notional heroes’ encounter with the high-voiced, peering Sir Roderick is a meeting with the Other that’s arguably more potent than the more explicit confrontation between straight and queer when Brad and Janet face Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the Rocky Horror. It’s a reminder that the gayness embedded into Whale’s films was much freakier and much more fun than one might suppose based on recent popular (mis)conceptions – notably the sentimentalised portrait of Whale as wistful old queen in Bill Condon’s fictionalised biopic Gods and Monsters (1998).
The other side of the coin is Saul himself, one of the most genuinely disturbing portraits of madness to emerge from 1930s Hollywood – beyond even Dwight Frye’s more celebrated turn as Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). When Saul finally emerges on screen, the film seethes with danger in a way that still feels startlingly modern.
If The Old Dark House isn’t quite as affecting as Frankenstein (1931), as technically accomplished as The Invisible Man (1933) or as deliriously, exquisitely camp as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), it nevertheless stands out as the film that most perfectly captures the sly mind at play beneath the horror genre trappings of Whale’s films – and the deeper horrors that move beneath even that. It’s a 72-minute dream, and not to be missed under any circumstances. Now, have a potato.