4 stars out of 4. A timeless gem nearly lost to us.
Here is a film where five travelers wind up in the titular old dark house on a dark and stormy night. We can already see where this is going. Despite being the inspiration behind so many of these cliched old house plotlines, The Old Dark House is a charming delight of a film in no small thanks to its director, James Whale.
Whale’s films, especially his horrors for Universal, contain a trademark charm and black humor that permeate even the most serious of narratives. his fondness for oddball characters reaches a high point with this film as every single one is so full of vitality that the weirder that events become onscreen, the more we as an audience anticipates with absolute delight.
In this house we find the hulking mute of a butler known as Morgan (Boris Karloff), whose emre appearance should tell anyone daring to enter that it probably isn’t the best of ideas. We are then introduced to the masters of the house, the odd siblings Horace and Rebecca Femm. Rebecca is an old crone of a woman, driven by religious fervor and an endearing bad sense of hearing. Horace is played by Ernest Thesiger which should tell you everything about his character. All right I’ll admit it, I can only think of him as Dr. Pretorious so his appearance in this film as beyond welcome. They live in a semi state of fear of their surroundings and in a sort of power vacuum for some as yet unknown reason.
This quickly becomes resolved as the fact that they have a mad older brother who is kept locked away upstairs, and can only be controlled by Morgan who just happens to have hit the bottle. This quickly turns badly for all in the house, and I will say little to spoil the plot here because the real fun of the film is in the detail. The explicit reveal and pulling back of detail as if to tantalize the audience like a cat with a ball of string.
The cast is first rate, and with a notable early appearance of Charles Laughton, perfectly serves the swift little story so that everything is wrapped up in a neat package at the end of 72 minutes. In fact the relative briefness of the narrative is perhaps the film’s only flaw. We want it to last all night.
The Old Dark House never struck a chord with audiences and was quickly shelved by Universal as a failure. Whale had made a film that was partly a tribute to the great silent films that blended horror, suspense and a drawing room charm and not a runaway hit more along the lines of Frankenstein (1931). Because of this, it was another mark against the director and designated to sit on shelves until either junked or destroyed by time. Thanks to filmmaker and friend to Whale, Curtis Harrington, the negative was saved in the 1960’s despite having to replace one reel.
To understand the basic appeal of the horror film, one must go back to the beginning. The silent horrors have their power still, but once you reach the golden age of Universal horror and feel the power of their sheer imagination, you can never return to what is today considered a “horror film”.
EDITIONS: the only available edition of the film is Kino’s 1998 DVD, which appears to be mastered for the most part from the source used for their Laserdisc release. The source seems to be a battered reduction print, perhaps even 16mm. The image is extremely grainy, with some occasional compression artifacts. There is frame wobble and all sorts of wear and tear. Audio is set in the accurate format of 1.0 mono but in a lossy Dolby Digital track that is filled with hiss and pops. Damage is very prevalent throughout and overall is not worthy of the film. Without detailed intervention the negative would have been lost and as it was only one reel had to be salvaged elsewhere. The fact that the film has never been given the proper treatment is appalling, especially for such an important early American release. I recommend the film, but the disc is quite poor. Highly in need of a new transfer if not the full blown Criterion treatment. Keep in mind, this is like watching a video copy of a battered 16mm reduction copy of a great film. Oh wait, that’s what you’re doing.