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
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
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
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.