Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: James Whale
Starring: Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moor
He’ll forever be remembered for his Frankenstein films, but outside of those undeniable classics, there’s perhaps no finer example of James Whale’s deft touch than The Old Dark House.
Thought lost for years until filmmaker Curtis Harrington’s perseverance unearthed a print in 1968, the film both reinvented and set a template for well, old dark house films, but heavily leaving it with the darkest of humour in amongst its relentlessly creepy and disturbing atmospherics.
A fairly faithful adaptation of Benighted, J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel of post-war disillusionment, Whale’s film was a huge hit in his native Britain, but fared considerably less well in America where it pretty much died on the vine, but in the years following its rediscovery is now rightly being hailed as the masterpiece it always has been.
Finding themselves lost in Wales and in danger of floods and landslides during a violent storm, Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey), his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart), and friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) take refuge in a crumbling mansion owned by the Femm family.
Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) is polite and friendly to a point, though his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore) is far from it, initially refusing them help, then compromising by not allowing them beds for the night at the very least. Horace also warns them that their heavily scarred and near-mute butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff), drinks heavily and is to be considered dangerous.
The group are fed dinner though, during which arrives Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) arrives with his (apparently platonic) girlfriend, a chorus girl with the stage name Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond).
Over the course of the night, the strangers bond and even fall in love, but also must fight to stay alive when both Morgan starts drinking and the secret member of the Femm family is freed from his locked room in the attic. Will they survive the night in the Old Dark House?
What an absolute joy this picture is. James Whale had already probed what a talent he had not just for horror and atmosphere, but drawing out nuances of humanity from both his scripts and his actors, but with the ensemble nature of this one, nog to mention its focus on outright comedy at times, it feels like he’s completely being given free reign to do what he does best.
The doomy atmosphere is all-pervading of course, the combination of the wonderfully dilapidated mansion and the constant howling of wind and rain outside giving the whole thing an oppressive and deeply claustrophobic feeling throughout. There’s going to be no escape from the Femm house, no matter what happens, not this night anyway. Nobody is going anywhere. Brrrr.
The thing is though, with this cast and script, Whale could have set the whole thing against a painted sheet background and it still would have worked. The Femm’s are one of the most disturbing
and unsettling families in cinema history, easily up there with the degenerates of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or anyone else you care to mention.
The double act of Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore as the possibly too-close siblings is magnificent. The pair have exquisite timing and are as amusing as they are repulsive. Horace is seemingly the most normal of the lot, but his sister Rebecca is a battleaxe of the highest order, a broiling cauldron of repressed sexuality and barely contained hatred of her fellow women, wrapped up in the guise of a good, god-fearing religious type.
Morgan meanwhile is everything Horace warned about and more. Initially an amusing grotesque as he answers the door in a style that would be lifted wholesale forever in everything from The Munsters to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the butler soon shows his true nature when in his cups, chasing poor Margaret around the house with less than noble intentions. Karloff (and brilliantly, he’s billed purely as that here) brings all his physical skill as an actor to the fore here, somehow managing to be menacing and ludicrous at the same time, a holy terror in the giant, misshapen body of a comedy idiot.
Oh and we must forget the residents of the attic. There’s Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon) the 102-year-old father of Horace, Rebecca and Saul (we’ll get to him), covered in wispy hair but played by a woman because they couldn’t find a man who looked old enough. He’s not massively threatening, but the unacknowledged gender-swapping adds a whole new layer of wrong.
And then there’s Saul. Hysterically played by Brember Willis, he’s a ravibg lunatic and a pyromaniac to boot, who immediately tries to Ben the house down as soon as the drunken Morgan lets him out. Imagine how bad you have to be in *this* family to get not allowed out your room? That’s Saul.
The regular cast don’t fade into the shadows against such high-end grotesquery though. Douglas and Bond make for a delightful couple, quickly falling in love, their dynamic calling to mind David Niven and Kim Hunter in A Matter Of Life And Death
It’s the magnificent Charles Laughton who nearly steals the show as Sir William Porterhouse with his effortless charm and comic timing. Remarkably affable about losing his so-called girlfriend, it’s the way Laughton just takes a slight beat before speaking that adds so much to his character, letting us know that he’s a much more thoughtful and philosophical type than his jolly demeanour suggests. Marvellous.
The most horrifying thing about The Old Dark House is the fact we nearly lost it. Make no mistake, this is a stone-cold classic. It’s terrifying at times, laugh-out-loud funny at others, featuring one of the all-time great ensemble casts and a director at the peak of his powers.
If you’ve already seen it, you’ll know this already, but if you haven’t…put it straight to the top of your “must-watch” list. I guarantee you won’t regret it. Go on…have a potato.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy