31 Days of Hell: The Old Dark House (1932) - Reviewed

Years back, director Ridley Scott remarked of his 1979 visceral scare fest Alien “you know, it’s The Old Dark House”.  Already legendary by Scott’s time yet largely overlooked and then forgotten back in 1932, realisateur James Whale’s personal favorite of his pictures based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley is one of the earliest examples of a straight-laced horror film with a wicked streak of humor running through it. 

Though he was already considered a master in his own time after directing some of Universal Studios’ greatest and most beloved monster movies of the 1930s including but not limited to Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, The Old Dark House tragically did not enjoy the same measure of love as those aforementioned pictures did. 

After the rights to the film reverted to novelist Priestley who himself expressed dismay over the final product due to the film’s sense of humor, filmmaker William Castle mounted his own largely derided remake in 1963 and efforts were then taken to bury the 1932 film from existence.  Though filmmaker Curtis Harrington discovered the original negative in 1968, the rights issues prevented the film from being screened on television all the way through 1994 despite extensive restoration efforts made to show the film again. 

Finally made available to the moviegoing public in commercial form once again in 2017 with a Cohen Media Group 4K restored blu-ray disc, modern moviegoers and fans of the old Universal Horror movies now have a chance to indulge in one of the studio’s most overlooked and celebrated offerings, one which took the “dark house” tropes coined in Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary and ran with them. 

The story is an exceedingly simple one concerning a group of friends who on a dark and stormy night take refuge inside a gloomy looking old house.  Inside the group finds three strange figures running the home, wimpy Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), his spooky and pious elder sister Rebecca (Eva Moore) and their frequently intoxicated and deformed butler Morgan (Boris Karloff in one of his creepiest roles).  Once inside the home, it quickly transforms into a funhouse of horrors and witty one-liners which would no doubt forecast the creation of television shows such as The Munsters and The Addams Family. 

What’s most striking about The Old Dark House aside from the film’s brilliant production design from Charles D. Hall of Frankenstein fame, is the film’s stellar cast.  Its rare, if ever, to get this many major movie stars all in one horror picture, including future The Changeling star Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, future Titanic starlet Gloria Stuart and the distinguished Charles Laughton in his first Hollywood production.  With a cast like this, the picture soars instead of slumps, keeping the proceedings fresh and frequently funny, allowing for the scares to sneak up on viewers rather than laughing away the whole thing. 

Boris Karloff will forever be remembered by horror fans as Frankenstein’s monster or as The Mummy when he wasn’t doing crime pictures, but his disfigured mute butler here is only onscreen for a fraction of the time as the previous pictures yet is ten times more frightening.  Take for instance, in true pre-code fashion, a scene where the butler corners Gloria Stuart and chases her around her room.  In a succession of close ups to Karloff’s scarred face, we catch a momentary glimpse of a grin forming, suggesting in that moment far more dire thoughts than post-code films would ever consider allowing. 

Though there isn’t anything overtly supernatural running through the mazelike house which feels lifted right out of the waking nightmarishness of German Expressionism, the dread and unease it’s soaked and dripping in is palpable and not easy to look around.  Thanks to a years-and-years creative partnership with cinematographer Arthur Edeson who also shot Frankenstein in addition to such industry legends as The Thief of Bagdad and The Big Trail in the first 70mm widescreen film production, The Old Dark House simply looks like a claustrophobic Hellhole slowly closing in upon the film’s unlucky heroes.  There's also extensive use of deep shadows and dark windy hallways to create a sense of creeping unease as if danger is lurking around every corner.

Upon initial release, critics weren’t too kind to Whale’s spooky lark which had more than a few tricks and surprises up its sleeves than the surrounding Universal Horror pictures released around that time.  Variety, for instance, called the picture ‘inane’ and despite strong reviews from the New York Times, negative word of mouth spread quickly among moviegoers and the picture was withdrawn from circulation after only ten days before studio heads saw fit to wash their hands of the picture completely in 1963. 

Looking back decades later after the negative was rediscovered, modern moviegoers have since reversed themselves on James Whale’s film, citing it as his quintessential cinematic achievement while pointing out the film’s uncanny ability to make fun of dark house horror tropes as it serves them up, predating the likes of Wes Craven’s Scream in this sense.  Though some elements have indeed waned in effectiveness over time, many others haven’t including one truly hair-raising surprise which is as scary in its minimalist approach as that infamous shot of the xenomorph in Alien peeking around the corner.

Of the Universal Horror films produced at the time overseen by Carl Laemmle, Jr., best remembered for his issued warning precluding Frankenstein, The Old Dark House is his masterpiece, a film well aware of the conventions of horror which freely plays around with them, creating an experience that manages to be both hilarious and frightening, sometimes both at the same time.  

Because of the film’s consistent use of comedy throughout the proceedings, it makes you the viewer let your guard down and therefore more susceptible to having the daylights scared from you.  All in all, this is one of the greatest horror films of the 1930s, one which paved the way for decades upon decades of creepy or haunted house thrillers to come!

--Andrew Kotwicki