The Old Dark House review: James Whale’s 1932 comedy-horror classic is wonderfully subversive

Combines some genuinely grisly elements with scenes that could have slipped out of a PG Wodehouse comedy

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 25 April 2018 13:26 BST
(Universal Pictures)

James Whale, 69 mins, starring: Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Gloria Stuart

It is fitting that James Whale’s 1932 comedy-horror classic should be back in British cinemas in the same year that a new adaptation of RC Sherriff’s World War one drama Journey’s End reached the screen. Sherriff was also one of the screenwriters on The Old Dark House. Its characters are among the generation “battered by the war.”

The film, loosely based on J.B. Priestley’s novel Benighted, is a wondrously eccentric and subversive affair. It has also been also hugely influential. Everything from spoofs like The Rocky Horror Show to the work of Sam Raimi and Jason Blum owes at least surely a small debt to The Old Dark House. It paved the way for Whale’s own later horror films wit Boris Karloff.

Three travellers on the way to Shrewsbury have somehow got lost in the Welsh mountains during a torrid storm. They take refuge in an old mansion house belonging to oddball family, the Femms, who are far from hospitable.

Ernest Thesiger is in high camp form as the gin quaffing Horace Femm. His sister Rebecca (Eva Moore) is a veritable battle axe who won’t let the visitors have beds and only reluctantly allows them to warm themselves by the fire. The Femms have a hulking, mute butler called Morgan (Karloff), whose face is horribly scarred. We soon learn “there’s a madman upstairs.”

This may be a stormy night in the middle of nowhere but the oppressive conditions don’t stop the guests from tucking into a roast beef dinner. Gloria Stuart (who appeared in James Cameron’s Titanic 60 years later) plays the beautiful Margaret Waverton.

She arrives soaked with her husband Philip (Raymond Massey) but very quickly changes into a low cut evening gown. Other guests driven to the house by the storm are self-made businessman Sir William Porterhouse (a roaring Charles Laughton), and his chorus girl companion, Gladys (Lilian Bond.) “Once you’ve started making money, it is hard to stop,” Roderick apologises for his vast and increasing wealth.

Just when we think the film can’t get any stranger, we meet the hairy but very effeminate bed-ridden patriarch, Sir Roderick Femm, who is confined to his bed upstairs. He is actually played by a woman (Elspeth Dudgeon), and has a very high pitched voice. Melvyn Douglas is the urbane war veteran, Roger Penderel, who won’t let the strange goings-on get in the way of his attempts to seduce the chorus girl.

Director Whale (soon afterwards to make Frankenstein) combines some genuinely grisly elements with scenes that could have slipped out of a PG Wodehouse comedy. The film is funny and blood-curdling by turns. It is re-released in the restored version first shown at the Venice Festival last August.

The Old Dark House will be re-released in the UK on 27 April.

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