It was a dark and stormy night. Really. That’s exactly how The Old Dark House opens. From the outset, you’d be justified in expecting a trope-laden failure of early cinema. But if you want cardboard characters and predictable sequences, then search elsewhere because this 1932 forgotten masterpiece is anything but ordinary.
Let’s start with the basics. Accompanied by their indolent yet loveable pal Roger, young couple Margaret and Philip Waverton get their jalopy stuck in a mountain mudslide. With rocks blocking the way behind them and a storm of biblical proportions spoiling their otherwise pleasant country drive, the three knock at the ominous front door of a nearby mansion and ask the denizens of the titular abode if they can stay for the night. Rebecca, the would-be matriarch of the house, announces “No beds”, an oddball mantra she repeats throughout the film (with increasing comic effect). However, her brother Horace—equally creepy but somehow more sociable—welcomes the trio. Soon after, another couple motorists, also stranded in the storm, join the fray. But as the accidental houseguests soon discover, Horace and Rebecca are not the only members of the Femm family lurking about the dilapidated manor.
The sterling cast is among the best ensembles in horror movie history. The inimitable Melvyn Douglas plays the role of Roger while Raymond Massey—who would later assume co-star Karloff’s part in the film adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace—portrays lughead husband Philip. Rounding out the male “heroes” is Charles Laughton, the Shakespearian-trained actor who is remembered in the annals of horror both for his turn as Quasimodo in 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and his thirty-three-year marriage to Elsa Lanchester, the eponymous Bride of Frankenstein.
As for the female cast, Gloria Stuart simply glows as Margaret. Styled exactly like a flapper of Daisy Buchanan caliber, this leading lady might be the actress modern audiences most often associate with “Old Rose” from Titanic. But back in the 30s, she was the ultimate cutie, one who was always game to play a damsel in distress—all while imbuing her characters with a bit more intelligence and wherewithal than the average pre-feminist movement lass.
And the villains? Boris Karloff is at his weirdest here, grunting and skulking his way through the role of Morgan, the Femms’ mute and liquor-drenched butler. On the one hand, it seems rather a waste of talent since almost anyone can grunt and skulk. But as we already know from Frankenstein, nobody can play the part of behemoth monster quite like Karloff, so in that regard, the casting is a stroke of underappreciated genius.
With James Whale at the helm, you can guess from the opening titles it’s going to be a good time. The Old Dark House is the second of four horror films he directed for Universal, sandwiched between Frankenstein and The Invisible Man and three years before Bride of Frankenstein. Sadly, this is Whale’s least known Universal horror film, probably due to his genre-blending mastery rendering the film less than palatable for many filmgoers (so unpalatable it was once considered “lost”). The film’s got horror, mystery, and comedy, all wrapped into one surreal 71-minute package.
The film’s experimental tone borrows heavily from German Expressionism yet maintains Whale’s celluloid fingerprint. His style would go on to inspire everything from Hammer Films to Van Helsing, and all of his directorial tics and tempos are on full display in The Old Dark House. Plus, since this is a precode film, you can bet they’ll be ladies in various states of undress. Not quite as pornographic as Grindhouse cinema per se, but arguably even more scandalous.
Emitting a House of Usher vibe, the mansion is a character unto itself. The place seems passed over by time, trapped in some dreamlike world that only a true ghoulish genius could invent. A subtle undercurrent of danger permeates every room, and during the film’s awkward dinner scene, you can’t help but wonder if the baskets of rolls or pats of butter are laced with poison. The pressure cooker pace picks up during the last third of the film, segueing into what could be construed as the world’s strangest video game with the girls dodging Morgan’s overt advances and the guys contending with a pyromaniac brother of the Femm clan. There’s even what I like to dub the Scooby Doo shot as the entire cast meets up from their respective peril and turns slowly and in tandem toward the stairs just as a hand emerges around the gothic corner.
If things seem over-the-top, that’s because they are. But unlike much of the comedy from that time period, The Old Dark House works precisely because it doesn’t rely on typical 1930s gags. Whale trades Buster Keaton or Marx Brothers slapstick for decidedly macabre humor. This is the Addams Family before that particular brood ever graced the pages of The New Yorker. The laughs in The Old Dark House derive from the absurdity of human nature, something so universal it doesn’t matter what decade you’re in—or even what century for that matter.
The Old Dark House does wrap up a bit too neatly and far too nicely, but that doesn’t detract from the wild ride through the Femm Family album. Morticia and Gomez would be proud to break bread with these weirdoes. Chop Top and Leatherface might be impressed too.