By Doug Gibson
“The Old Dark House,” James Whale’s 1932 take on what happens when travelers stop at a dreary, tomb-like mansion, with creepy occupants, on a dark and rainy night, is not as well-known as Whale’s other Universal offerings, such as “Frankenstein,” “The Invisible Man,” or “Bride of Frankenstein.” That’s probably because it was considered lost for about 30 years. We’re lucky it’s a found film, because it’s a crackling good, creepy horror/comedy.
The plot: Squabbling husband and wife Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) are driving through the Welsh mountains, thoroughly lost late at night during a brutal rainstorm. In their back seat is their relaxed, witty friend, Roger Penderel, (brilliantly played by Melvyn Douglas). In a superb special-effects scene, the Waverton car barely escapes a massive mudslide. They spot a mansion and stop, requesting shelter for the night. The door is answered by a brutish, very fearsome looking mute servant, Morgan, played by Boris Karloff. Later we learn that Morgan has a drinking problem. Eventually, the trio is greeted by an odd brother and sister pair, Horace Femm, (Ernest Thesiger), and his dourly religious sister, Rebecca, played by Eva Moore. The Femms inform the guests that they have a 102-year-old father, Sir Roderick Femm, bedridden upstairs, Interestingly, a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon, plays Sir. Roderick, although the actress’ sex was kept from audiences in 1932.
Early on there is a very creepy, pre-code scene where Margaret Waverton, very scantily clad in her underwear, is intruded upon by the religious fanatic, Rebecca Femm. While lambasting Margaret for her immorality, Moore’s Rebecca forces her hand on Margaret’s exposed upper chest, just above the breasts. It discombobulates Margaret, who is now very wary of the house. She has good reason; later a drunken Morgan attacks her on the stairs.
Later a couple more travelers seek refuge in the mansion. They are the garrolous, obese, somewhat crude, but wealthy Sir William Porterhouse, played well by Charles Laughton, along with an unemployed chorus girl, Gladys DuCane Perkins, (Lilian Bond), who is Porterhouse’s girlfriend, although there’s no real love between them. He has money, and she has a pleasing body. In one scene, Laughton effectively conveys the inner sadness and tragedy of Porterhouse, a man whose wife is died, feels empty and is no longer attractive enough to obtain love. Eventually, Penderel (remember him) and Bond form an attachment and fall in love, without too much consternation from Porterhouse.
As the weather stays dangerous outside, events inside the old, dark house get more perilous. I don’t want to give away the plot except to mention that we get a chance to see the very feminine-looking 102-year-old Sir Roderick Femm, who informs the guests that there is a third younger Femm, named Saul, who is by far the most dangerous inhabitant of the house. This all leads to a pretty thrilling, and witty at times, conclusion.
“The Old Dark House” is great gothic comedy/horror. It’s based on a long-ago bestselling novel, called “Benighted,” by J.B. Priestley. Whales stuck pretty faithfully to the plot, but omitted a lot of philosophic sophistry from the novel and focused on the action. The director looked for droll, humorous lines in the midst of chaos or fear. Thesiger’s Horace Femm has the best lines, such as “We make our own electric light here, and we are not very good at it. Pray, don’t be alarmed if they go out altogether,” and, when picking up some flowers, says, “my sister was on the point of arranging these flowers,” and then tossing them into the fireplace.”
The film is about 71 minutes long. It pops up on Turner Classic Movies but can be seen at YouTube above. A Blu-Ray version has recently been released. It's a worthy, out-of-the-box choice for a Halloween film selection.