Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House(1932)
Directed by
James Whale
Written by Benn W. Levy from the novel from J. B. Priestly
Starrring Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond., Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Elpeth Dudgeon,Brember Wills
IMDB Entry
Full Movie on Youtube

The original Frankenstein was a sensation, making Boris Karloff a star and putting director James Whale on the top of the Hollywood heap.  His next venture into horror was also something of a classic and defined the genre of “Strangers caught in a creepy house during a story” subgenre of horror:  The Old Dark House.

The movie starts by showing Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) driving with their friend Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) in a vicious Welsh storm.  The roads wash out, and they are forced into stopping at an old, dark house for shelter.

He house is home to the Femms:  Horace (Ernest Thesiger), wanted by the police and trapped in their house and Rebecca (Eva Moore), slightly deaf and somewhat of a religious fanatic.  Their mute butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff) skulks around the premises.

They are soon joined by two other travelers:  Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his chorus girl “friend” Gladys (Lilian Bond).  And there are other people in the house:  Horace’s centenarian father (Elspeth Dodgeon*) and his brother Saul (Brember Wills), both locked away from the others.

There is conversation and romance, creepy matters and attacks.  Nothing too terrible by modern standards, but the dialog and characters drive the plot.

Karloff is an fine menace,** but it’s really an ensemble piece.  Each actor gets a moment to show his stuff.  Laughton is great as the rich ne’er-do-well, while Thesiger is just enough off to make him worth watching.  And the entire production is shot in a dark and moody with the deep shadows characteristic of German Expressionism.

Boris Karloff & Gloria Stuart

To modern eyes, there’s a fascinating gay subtext.  Whale open about being gay – far more than most in his era -- and Laughton was considered by many to be at least bisexual.  There’s a scene at the end with some homoerotic overtones and a comment that arguably was the first use of the word “gay” to mean homosexual in a mainstream source.

In any case, the film was successful, and spawned many imitators, so much so that the situation became a cliché.  Though the acting is crude by current standards, the film stands out for its humor and its concentration on character.

Whale continued his winning streak of horror with The Invisible Man and his masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein (which also included Karloff and Thesinger), and with the musical Show Boat. 

The others in the cast were also very successful.  Laughton and Douglas won Oscars and Massey was nominated for one.***  Gloria Stuart is best known to modern audiences today as Old Rose in Titanic, and nearly all the rest worked regularly in films into the 1950s or later.

The film became forgotten partly due to rights issues and partly because it was sandwiched between Whale and Karloff’s two Frankenstein films.  But it still had plenty to offer viewers today.

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*She was billed as John Dudgeon and is clearly intended to be an old man.  It’s an interesting piece of casting, possibly chosen because a woman’s voice was thought to be more like that of an old man.

**There’s an amusing title card that assures the audience that Karloff really is the same actor from Frankenstein.

***A side note is that Massey played Jonathan Brewster in the movie version of Arsenic and Old Lace, a character who was supposed to look like Boris Karloff.  Karloff played the role on Broadway, but was not released to play the role on film.

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