Boris KarloffCharles LaughtonErnest ThesigerGloria Stuart
The Old Dark House
Medium: film
Year: 1932
Director: James Whale
Writer: J.B. Priestley, Benn W. Levy
Keywords: favourite, horror, Universal
Country: USA
Actor: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Elspeth Dudgeon, Brember Wills
Format: 72 minutes
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 1 February 2011
Bloody hell, it's brilliant. To be fair, I was always going to be excited by the prospect of a 1932 James Whale movie starring Boris Karloff. Nevertheless it's even better than I'd been hoping. The story involves three people who get caught in horrendous rain and have to take shelter in an old, dark house. (You probably guessed that last bit.) This house's inhabitants include:
1. Boris Karloff as an alcoholic mute butler, basically doing his Frankenstein's monster in different make-up. It's an odd performance. He's using his own face as a mask (rather well) and not really doing anything else at all, but he's still cool because he's Karloff.
2. Ernest Thesiger as a prissy old maid (male) with the kind of face you'd normally see on a taxidermist's shelf. He appears to take great delight in being miserable and is a joy to watch. Whale would use him again as Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein.
3. Eva Moore as a half-deaf harridan who's even more miserable than Thesiger, but also abrasive.
4. The 102-year-old bedridden patriarch of the family, described by Moore as "a wicked, blasphemous old man". Whale apparently couldn't find a male actor who looked old enough, so instead he cast an actress and got the make-up department to stick a beard on her. It's very odd. The lady isn't disguising her voice at all, although the whole movie's so feverish that this manages to come across as further eccentricity.
You can see where this is going. I should say immediately that there's nothing supernatural in the film and furthermore most of it's just talking. What's unusual though is that it's based on a J.B. Priestley novel. The idea was apparently for the whole thing to be a psychological metaphor, with Karloff being the id, Thesiger as the ego and Moore the superego. That's Priestley's idea, not Whale's, but the film runs with it and turns its Old Dark House into a poor shelter against the raging storms, with dark secrets, locked doors and hidey-holes. I can't say any of this occurred to me at the time, but I can sort of see it in hindsight. It's fun. It adds flavour.
And all that's without mentioning Charles Laughton. This was his first American film and it's rather refreshing to see him in a role like this. He's young-ish, vulgar, Northern and practically the comic relief. Until now I've always associated him with heavyweight acting (which he'll ham up deliciously), but here it's as if he's being allowed to relax. He and his girlfriend Lillian Bond show up, also taking shelter from the rain, and what's great about them is their high spirits. You've got Karloff, Thesiger and Moore camping it up as if they've mislaid their Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, but then suddenly in come these raucous goofballs who seem delighted by the fact that they just nearly drowned on a mountainside. Laughton gets to show a bit more depth later on, but seriously, I loved seeing him in this role.
This isn't one of the better-known Universal horrors. It quickly disappeared in America, although it did better business in Britain. Universal lost the rights to the original story in 1957, then it eventually came to be seen as a lost film. William Castle remade it in 1963. Five years later though it was rediscovered and these days it's something of a cult movie.
Its only weakness is a half-cocked ending. It makes sense in terms of the psychological metaphor, but unfortunately it's also a bit forgettable. I can't remember offhand what happens to Karloff, for instance, despite only watching it a few hours ago. Oh, and I'm not 100% about Gloria Stuart either. Ah well. I still loved the film anyway.
In a word, awesome. James Whale also makes it really funny, not in a laugh-out-loud way but instead with a prickly black wit that manifests itself in spiky characters and the joy of misanthropy. It looks fantastic too. This old dark house is the kind of setting black-and-white Universal horror movies were made for. There's a bit of romance, but it's done with a twist of self-awareness that raises it above the one-dimensional romantic leads you'll see in some other horror movies. It's nearly cliched, but it manages not to be. That's the whole thing all over, really. A less inspired director could have made a hackneyed film out of the same script, despite witty dialogue, but Whale is balancing camp and class to triumph with a film that I'd go so far as to call a must-watch.