Friday, July 22, 2011

A Very Benighted Household

The Old Dark House(1932)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, Gloria Stuart

The best of the subgenre from which this classy little film bears it's name, The Old Dark House is one of the most clever and satisfying of all the golden age chillers, as well as one of the most underrated classic movies ever made. The Old Dark House was produced by Universal to carry on with it's success in the horror field, by employing Frankenstein director and star, James Whale and Boris Karloff. It was only a moderate success. Those seeking more blood and thunder were greatly disapointed and the film remained unseen for decades until it was discovered by director Curtis Harrington in 1968. By that time Universal had sold the rights to the film and the story it was based off of, J.B. Priestley's Benighted, so the film could be remade by William Castle in 1963 in a poor remake. To this day, Universal Studios still does not own the rights to this film, which has been happily released by Kino entertainment in a lovely DVD edition for generations of filmgoers to enjoy.

The Old Dark House is not your typical haunted house movie and is really quite unlike any other film you are likely to see. There is nothing supernatural about the film, though a queer atmosphere lingers over the sets of Charles D. Hall that certainly suggest something otherwordly! Every shadow, every burst of thunder and flash of lightning makes one believe that something terrible and ghastly will appear at any moment. The fear in this film is distributed through the brilliant ensemble, the finest ever assembled for any horror picture. Designed like a stage play, the cast spend a night together in a foresaken Welsh mansion on a dark and stormy night as their collective psychological dilemmas and fears come to the fore and manifest themselves in paranoia and ultimately, violence. All the while, Whale undercuts the sense of dread with his trademark dark humor that gives the film a lighter air that has made many critics believe this to be a horror comedy, which is arguable, considering that all the previous efforts in this genre were laden with comedy elements.

The film begins with a young couple driving through a terrible storm. They are Mr. Phillip Waverton(Raymond Massey) and Mrs. Margaret Waverton(Gloria Stuart) who have along with them, a passenger named Roger Pendrel(Melvyn Douglas), a cynical war veteran. The road is blocked off by a landslide and they are forced to find shelter in an old mansion. They are greeted by the butler, Morgan(Boris Karloff) who is dumb and only makes strange grunts, looking very fearsome behind some fabulous Jack Pierce makeup. The owners of the house are the Femm family, led by sister Rebecca Femm(Eva Moore) who is a religious lunatic and her brother, Horace(Ernest Thesiger), a paranoid who is hiding from the police. Margaret goes to change into a lovely white dress and a really strange scene occurs as Rebecca talks about sin and the detah of her wicked sister and pokes at Margaret, telling her she is as sinful. The editing of Whale in this scene as Whale films Eva Moore through distorted glass to create odd angles and the ensuing replay of the scenes in Margaret's mind are very effective and creepy.The group are invited to stay for the night and have dinner in a darkly funny episode where Horace offers them as little as possible, offering that great quip of, "Have a potato!"

Another couple arrives in the storm, Sir William Porterhouse(Charles Laughton) and his mistress, Gladys Ducane Perkins(Lilian Bond). The group get to know each other and we learn that Sir William is a powerful business man who takes offense to Roger's opinion on moneymakers, explaining that he became what he became because of the death of his fiance, who had been jilted by such businessmen. Roger is delusional about his place in the world and Gladys and him hit it off, sharing a bottle of whiskey in the barn and falling in love. The electricity goes out and it is decided that they should acquire a lamp, which Horace is deathly afraid of getting, sending up Philip to get it alone. Meanwhile, Morgan has been drinking in the kitchen and come back lusting after Margaret, chasing her around the house. He comes after her upstairs and fights Philip, who sends the lamp crashing into his face and knocking him down the stairs. Philip and Margaret then discover a room at the top of the house that contains the family patriarch, Sir Roderick Femm(John Dudgeon) who is 102 and explains to them that the family has been affected my madness and that they are housing a madman named Saul, behind locked doors because he is prone to burning things. They lock the old man in his room and go downstairs where they join the others. Morgan awakens from his stupor and fights the group, leading Sir William and Philip away and causing Rebecca to lock the remaining three in the main room. By now, Morgan has unlocked Saul, so Roger tells Gladys and Margaret to hide in the closet as he awaits the madman. What he finds instead is a scared old man(Brember Wills) who seems perfectly harmless. However, a sly smile reveals something sinister and soon Roger is bargaining for his life when the madman grabs a knife and goes off on a rant about flames really being like knives. They get into a struggle as Saul attempts to burn down the house and the two fall off the second story, in a violent crash. Morgan crashes through the locked door and discovers Saul dead. Whimpering, he carries his limp body upstairs to his room, never to be seen for the remainder of the picture. Miraculously, Roger has survived the fall and he and Gladys are to be married. It's now daytime and a happy Horace Femm waves goodbye to his departing guests, as his sister sneers from a window.

The Old Dark House is a brilliantly realized horror movie, unlike any produced before or since. Borrowing elements from the popular haunted house films, such as The Cat and the Canary(1927), Whale creates a gothic world all his own, imbuing it with some of the most fascinating characters ever to grace the silver screen. Every shadow seems to hide a secret about the old mansion and that feeling of mystery permeates every reel of this classic. Whale directs the film very much like a stage play, but with far more mobility and impressive use of essentially one set. The house in itself becomes like a character, just as mysterious and guarded as any of the film's protagonists. Humor is sprinkled throughout the production, especially by the sarcastic delivery of Ernest Thesiger, who nearly steals the show. One of my favorite bits is a moment where Ernest Thesiger's Horace Femm picks up a bouquet of flowers and remarks that his siter was on the point of arranging them, before tossing them into a fire! His nearly schizophrenic personality that shifts from frightened paranoid to rational sceptic is very effective and comical. Eva Moore makes for one twisted old crone, delivering a performance that seems to suggest a tinge of guilt brought on by repressed lesbianism(justa  thought) and may have added to her religious fanaticism. Her moment with Gloria Stuart is one of the most imaginative of the film. Melvyn Douglas is likewise perfect in his first leading man performance, offering a more fuller blooded performance than many other golden age horror heroes, one that appears more realistic, with a touch of humor. Charles Laughton made his American debut in this film and is a delight as the boisterous Sir William, whose bombastic attitudes are in sharp contrast to the more reserved Femms. Lilian Bond, who made very few movies is pleasant and lively as Gladys and while her sudden romantic attachment may strain credibility, she creates a likeable, three-dimensional character. Gloria Stuart and Raymond Massey, were both capable of better, but give enough life to their smaller roles to make them effective. Gloria's look in the film, clad in a dazzlling white evening gown, creates a lovely contrast to the macabre environment. She has a wonderful scene where she is alone and makes shadow puppets on the wall, and in her subconscious, Eva Moore appears to still taunt her. It's wonderful cinematic touches like this that make the film so engaging, time and time again.

Boris Karloff has an interesting billing in the beginning of the film. A producer's note informs the audience that this is the same Boris Karloff who portrayed the mechanical monster in Frankenstein and that all disputes are a tribute to his great versatility! Karloff has little more than a supporting role here, but is splendid in his fearsome makeup, obviously inspring Charles Addams when he created Lurch the butler for The Addams Family, as i'm sure this entire movie inspired that macabre comedy. Karloff would have more opportunity to stretch his acting muscles in his next two roles, The Mummy and The Mask of Fu Manchu, released that same year. Brember Wills makes for one of the most memorable of movie madmen, going from sympathetic old man to sly and terrifying, literally with one twisted grin! His speech about fire has to be seen to be believed and it's a credit to Whale and the performers that this scene comes off as being both funny and chilling. The power of his character permeates the picture, despite his limited screen time. His wicked laugh and that image of his hand resting on the banister, til nearly being forgotten, fill the film with a sense of terror that hardly lets up til the final reel. John Dudgeon who plays the ancient patriarch was in reality, Elspeth Dudgeon, an older woman who was performing under grotesque makeup. A typical Whale touch, I suppose.

The Old Dark House is one of those films that really can weave a spell on the viewer and invites him or her to return again and again. It's a film that actually improves with each viewing as more details are uncovered and more is dissected and understood. For that, it's one of the most fascinating and unique of all golden age chillers and the one most worthy of reappraisal. It may never reach the heights of popularity of Universal's biggest chillers, but it is undoubtably, one of the finest horror films ever made and a personal favorite. Maybe it's not for everyone, but for fans of these spooky classics, it's an essential. The perfect movie for a dark and stormy night.

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