Friday, May 13, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Old Dark House (1932)

The married couple of Margaret (Gloria Stuart) and Philip (Raymond Massey) Waverton and their car guest Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) whose connection with the two is never quite explained, are driving through the Welsh countryside during a spectacular rainstorm. As it is usual in cases like this, they have lost their way completely and the couple is bitching at each other with some aplomb, while Penderel proceeds to sing sarcastically.

Fortunately, this very special kind of revelry is broken by a landslide. The trio and their car barely manage to find their way to the titular old dark house, which is the only place where they can find shelter before they are all blown away by the forces of nature.

Rather less fortunate for them are the inhabitants they find inside. Head of the household seems to be Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), an older gentleman who acts terribly afraid of something or someone within the house, at least when he is not passive-aggressively bickering with his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore). Rebecca herself is half deaf (at least when she wants to be) and in the grip of some sort of religious mania caused by old wounds from the relationship with her long-dead sister that makes her rather nasty to young pretty women like Margaret. This assortment of weird characters is completed by the siblings' servant Morgan (Boris Karloff), a mute, bearded, less than friendly seeming sort of fellow (and since this is a film from 1932, he is in fact not friendly). The siblings inform their guests merrily that he tends to get quite violent when drunk.

While everyone's still getting acquainted and/or scaring the shit out of each other, another pair of weather refugees arrives to make the cast complete for now. It is the jolly seeming Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and the woman whose sugar daddy without sexual benefits he plays, Gladys Perkins (Lilian Bond). Gladys and Penderel are really hitting it off, and after they have known each other for about ten minutes, he is all good and ready to propose marriage to her.

Their romance will have to wait a little, though, because the night will be filled with a drunk Boris Karloff doing Frankenstein's monster in drunk and mean, creepy giggling by the Femm's ancient father (for no clear reason and very obviously played by a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon in her film debut), and another, fire-loving surprise family member.

For some time, James Whale's The Old Dark House was thought to be lost, but after some adventures in film restoration the movie is now watchable on an excellent DVD by Kino. I must say that I find it quite disturbing that even a film like this - produced by a major studio like Universal and directed by someone as highly acclaimed as Whale - can come so close to being lost.

Having said that, I also have to add that I am not as completely enamoured of the film a some of my acquaintances are. This isn't to say that I don't find The Old Dark House worth watching, but it is far from perfect and far from being Whale's best film.

But let's talk about the film's good sides first. First and foremost, there is Whale's sure-handed direction, with the typical atmospheric and adventurous use of shadow and light you will find complimented in every single review of one of Whale's films ever written. Whale is also enthusiastically avoiding the stagey feel that drags down many of the films of his contemporaries. While there is quite obviously only a very small number of sets, the director is not satisfied with just letting stiffly arranged actors talk at each other (which is the typical way an old dark house movie would be set up). Instead, there is much more movement on display than usual. A feeling of liveliness pervades the film, making it very much the stylistic opposite of the Poverty Row films that define the Old Dark House genre.

Also quite excellent is the acting. While I wouldn't call any of the characters very original even for 1932, the script does its best to give most of them a little more depth than usual or strictly necessary. Laughton's Porterhouse for example is not just an obnoxious loudmouth with a talent for making money, but someone who hides the pain the loss of his wife brought him behind it. His relationship with Gladys is not based on sex, but rather on a mixture of blunt honesty and real affection, and a way for Porterhouse to cope with the loneliness he feels after the death of his wife. The film doesn't show Gladys as a gold digger, and therefore doesn't feel the need to punish her for living her life. This aspect of the film has a the sort of proper grown-up feel to it Hollywood would soon have to give up for the trite moralizing the censor expected of it.

I have to say that I have my problems with the Gladys/Penderel love aspect of the script. It is not that they fall in love (Lilian Bond and Melvyn Douglas do have a good bit of chemistry going on between them), but really the absurd tempo in which it happens that bugs me. It is unavoidable in a film that takes place in a single night, yet still manages to strain my suspension of disbelief more than mad relatives in the attic.

The film's second and larger problem is also the script's fault. It is the nearly complete absence of a plot for much of the running time, as well as the movie's near Italian exploitation-like avoidance of really putting the motivations and elements it contains together to make something like a whole, until everything culminates in a badly set up, hyperactive finale.

What would ruin another film completely only drags The Old Dark House down from the chance of being a great film to being a good one. Whale's visual mastership and the excellent acting ensemble are a joy to watch, and I'm more than willing to overlook sloppy plotting in favour of mood and character depth.

Some modern viewers will also have their problems with the way the film shows its age - women belong in cupboards when it is getting dangerous, mentally ill people roll their eyes and giggle before they are going to kill you, etc etc. Like most art, The Old Dark House is a product of its time, for better and for worse, and like with most art, we have to live with this, or will probably not be able to relate to it at all.

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