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Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Old Dark House (1932)

Director: James Whale
Stars: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas and Charles Laughton
The old Universal horrors are joys to me, archetypal and influential, but never forgetting how much fun it is to play with monsters, real monsters that are as scary as they are human, not the cuddly Hallowe'en toy monsters they later became. By the time The Old Dark House came along they were well established, with Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy behind them, along with the Chaney classics and Murders in the Rue Morgue. Yet this one somehow left me dry when I finally got to see it in 2006, though the all star cast all have a ball with their parts and the omnipresent howling wind provides an appropriately creepy soundtrack.

A young couple is trying to make it through the Welsh mountains to Shrewsbury and they're more than hindered by torrential rain, very believable in its ferocity. Before long it starts washing down the mountainside and the Wavertons are forced to stop at the first and only place they can find. Philip Waverton is angry and frustrated, his wife Margaret with her light Billie Burke voice not far behind him. It isn't Billie Burke though, it's Gloria Stuart in her fourth film, no less than 65 years before Titanic, where she successfully introduced herself to the modern generation as the much older version of Kate Winslet. Her screen husband is Raymond Massey, just as early in his career. He had only three films and one credit behind him, though he made an impression here and it's no wonder he'd soon go on to films like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Things to Come and The Prisoner of Zenda.

In the back of the car is Melvyn Douglas as the lackadaisical Roger Penderel who doesn't really want to go anywhere, let alone Shrewsbury. He refuses to be phased by anything and proves he's good at that by not being shocked when Boris Karloff answers the door that they knock on. He's Morgan, the mute butler of the Femms, Horace and Rebecca. Horace is a nervous Ernest Thesiger, who looks a little like Lon Chaney's Phantom, only without make up. He's afraid and his sister Rebecca knows it and torments him for it. She's a wild one, cackling away in distorting mirrors and passing judgement on everyone. 'You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don't you?' she accuses young Margaret, before poking her in the chest and gleefully telling her that all her fine stuff will rot and so will she. It wouldn't surprise me to find that Eva Moore influenced Terry Jones in his portrayals of bitter and twisted old women in Monty Python. The Femms bicker at each other with blistering abandon.

Penderel and the Wavertons stay the night, more out of necessity than anyone's deliberate decision, the Femms giving them a roof for the night but hardly making them welcome. They're soon joined by another couple, Sir William Porterhouse and his lively chorus girl companion, Gladys DuCane Perkins. Gladys is played by Lilian Bond and Porterhouse is played by a boisterous Charles Laughton, complete with a broad Yorkshire accent that can't have been too much of a stretch for him given that he was born and grew up in Scarborough. Together they all get to attempt to survive the granddaddy of all spooky mansion stories, complete with its raging storm, its drunken monster of a butler and its dark family secrets, locked and bolted away from sight.
These actors aren't minor names, though most were still establishing themselves in 1932, even Charles Laughton. Top credited is Karloff, still at that point in his career where he only used one name, when he wasn't just using a question mark. They all play up the material, which is sourced from Benighted, a novel by another Yorkshireman, J B Priestley, surprisingly only the first screen adaptation of his work. I'm sure he was happy for the attention but a little less happy at the fact that the filmmakers couldn't spell his name. Benighted was an early Priestley novel and I haven't read it, but if it has half the fun of this adaptation it's got to be a riot.

Most of the cast would return to the horror genre, not just Karloff, and many would continue on for Universal. Laughton would play Dr Moreau in the same year's Island of Lost Souls before becoming a mainstream star in The Private Life of Henry VIII. Thesiger would appear in The Ghoul before achieving genre immortality as Dr Pretorius in 1935's Bride of Frankenstein. Even Gloria Stuart would land an even better Universal horror role a year after this film, as the leading lady in The Invisible Man. Surprisingly Lillian Bond, who echoes Dr Frankenstein's famous 'It's alive!' line here wouldn't return to the genre for quite some time, but she did appear in both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Man in the Attic. Raymond Massey of course would take Karloff's role in Arsenic and Old Lace, given that the Broadway producers wouldn't release him for the film.
The names you may not recognise are just as fun as the names you do. Eva Moore comes close to stealing every scene she's in as the preachy and cackling Rebecca Femm. Brember Wills is a blissful and very active old lunatic, climbing up Melvyn Douglas as he tries to burn down the old dark house. Elspeth Dudgeon is the patriarch of the family, Sir Roderick Femm, who we meet in the key explanatory scene. She was a stage actress of renown but only a minor name in film, though proves her talent here not just by playing a man but even being credited as one, Jack Dudgeon.

Like so many of the Universal horrors this was a trendsetter. So many of what have become cliches in the genre began as fresh ideas in the first half of the early thirties when producer Carl Laemmle Jr could do no wrong. Directors like James Whale (along with Tod Browning and Karl Freund) were major reasons for this, conjuring up magic from a talented cast but a sparse set. With Frankenstein already behind him, Whale had made his mark, but he'd build on it here and would add to that legacy with The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein. Not a bad five years really, those four films (plus a couple of others) providing a firm base from which the horror genre would build over the next eighty years. Filmmakers are still copying his angles and shocks and shadows today.

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