THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) Reviews and overview

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‘Beware the night!’

The Old Dark House is a 1932 American comedy horror feature film directed by James Whale (The Invisible ManBride of Frankenstein; Frankenstein). The Universal production is based on the 1927 novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley and was adapted for the screen by R.C. Sherriff and Benn Levy.

The film stars Boris KarloffMelvyn Douglas, (Ghost StoryThe ChangelingThe Vampire Bat), Charles Laughton (The Hunchback of Notre DameIsland of Lost Souls) and Gloria Stuart (The Invisible Man).

In 2017, The Old Dark House was restored in 4K and re-released.

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Seeking shelter from a pounding rainstorm in a remote region of Wales, several travellers are admitted to a gloomy, foreboding mansion belonging to the extremely strange Femm family. Trying to make the best of it, the guests must deal with their sepulchral host, Horace Femm, who claims to be on the run from the police, and his religious, obsessive, malevolent sister, Rebecca.

Things get worse as the brutish mute butler, Morgan, gets drunk, runs amok, threatens Margaret Waverton and releases the long pent-up brother, Saul, a psychotic fantasist and pyromaniac who gleefully tries to destroy the residence by setting it on fire.

The Old Dark House was previewed in early July 1932 and was issued into theatres in 1933.

In 1957, Universal Studios lost the rights to the original story. Whale’s fellow director and friend Curtis Harrington (Ruby; The Cat Creature; Night Tide; et al) helped The Old Dark House from becoming a lost film. Harrington repeatedly asked Universal to locate the film negative and then persuaded the George Eastman House film archive to finance a new duplicate negative of the poorly-kept first reel.

The New York Times praised the film stating that “there is a wealth of talent in the production” and “like Frankenstein, it has the advantage of being directed by James Whale who once again proves his ability”. The box office reception started well in the first week of release, but later suffered through negative word of mouth. It was booked for three weeks at the Rialto Theatre in New York where the audience turn-out dropped to less than half in its second week and the film was pulled after ten days. The film performed better in England, where it broke house records at the Capitol Theatre in London.

Ali Catterall of Channel 4 referred to the film as “Impressively atmospheric and hilariously grim”. Time Out London praised the film stating that “Whale manages to parody the conventions of the dark house horror genre as he creates them, in which respect the film remains entirely modern.”

Karl Williams of the film database Allmovie wrote that “by the 1960s attained a grail-like status among fans of director James Whale… The Old Dark House came to be reconsidered a cult gem, part of the renewal of interest in Whale’s talents many years after his creative peak”.

The Old Dark House is brilliantly perverse, a clear reflection of the sensibilities of its director, the cultured gay Englishman James Whale, and particularly for his fondness for smuggling homosexual allusions into his films in a kind of visual polari. In Ernest Thesiger (like Charles Laughton a married gay man) Whale found a memorably camp interpreter.” Darryl Jones, Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film

” …arguably director James Whale’s greatest cinematic feat, a macabre queer comedy disguised as a horror, delightfully acted (by lots of Brits abroad), and fused together with Whale’s stylistic, sardonic humour, well-knit scenario witty and insightful screenplay, and moody camerawork, lighting and production design. It is, quite possibly, the best British horror ever made – in Hollywood.” Peter Fuller, Kultguy’s Keep

old dark

Network’s British DVD release features audio commentary by Kim Newman.

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Main cast and characters:

Boris Karloff … Morgan
Melvyn Douglas … Penderel
Charles Laughton … Sir William Porterhouse
Lilian Bond … Gladys (as Lillian Bond)
Ernest Thesiger … Horace Femm
Eva Moore … Rebecca Femm
Raymond Massey … Philip Waverton
Gloria Stuart … Margaret Waverton
Elspeth Dudgeon … Sir Roderick Femm (as John Dudgeon)
Brember Wills … Saul Femm

Technical details:

72 minutes
Black and white
Aspect ratio: 1.37: 1
Audio: Mono (Western Electric Sound System Noiseless Recording)

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