It’s always fun and games until someone loses an eye.
That’s the lesson of The Old Dark House (1932), a comedy-horror flick about – you guessed it – a group of people stranded in an old dark house.
The film opens on a Dark And Stormy Night as an English couple drives through a severe rainstorm and series of mudslides in rural Wales. Happily for us, they’ve brought along a glib and charming gadabout, one Melvyn Douglas.
The wife (Gloria Stuart) frets about the the horrible roads and argues with her husband (Raymond Massey). Douglas, reclining comfortably in the back seat of the car, airily dismisses their concerns. “Just drive on,” he says. “We’ll arrive somewhere, sometime.”
The trio find a stone house where they decide to seek shelter. They’ll not find warmth in this house, though; the occupants grudgingly allow them to stay, then complain loudly about it.
They’re an odd bunch, they who live here: an elderly woman (Eva Moore), her two aging brothers, and their frail, ancient father. The guests are warned about the butler (Boris Karloff), a mentally unhinged fellow who becomes even more so when he drinks.
Moore’s character is our favourite, although she would be intolerable in Real Life. She specializes in pointing out sinful behaviour, whether genuine or imagined. For instance, she tells a horrible story about the death of her sister. However, it’s not the tragic death that sticks in Moore’s craw, it’s her sister’s refusal to Repent.
Moore is certainly the world’s greatest living expert on the subject of Blasphemy, and no such activity escapes her notice. Of her own father, she says, “He’s a wicked, blaspheming old man.”
She finds no pleasure in life. Even at the dinner table she eats quickly, as though the food might dart sideways before she can stab at it. She doesn’t speak or look at her guests; her dinner plate consumes all her attention.
Moore is a stark contrast to her brother (Ernst Thesinger), a congenial but nervous fellow who says nothing at dinner except, “Have a potato.” It’s quite surprising, therefore, when he off-handedly reveals he is Wanted by police.
These characters are over the top and amusing, and an audience member can become lulled into a false sense of security.
In some circles, this is known as the Sucker Punch.
About halfway through, the film unexpectedly turns on us, and we realize we are watching an honest-to-goodness horror flick. An ugly evening becomes worse when a murderous sibling is freed from his locked room, and Karloff’s unstable character starts drinking heavily.
The traditional horror-flick lighting suddenly seems more dramatic, but director James Whale winks at us, as though sharing a joke. In one scene, a character says, “We’re not very good with electricity.” In another scene, Stuart mocks the cliché lighting with lively hand shadow puppetry.
But Whale never lets up on the thunder outside, and we feel the weight of it. He will not let us forget that the storm holds everyone hostage.
We’re not laughing now. Fun and games are Over. Amusing quirks in the characters have turned into something worrisome; we realize these people are capable of doing anything.
The Old Dark House is based on the 1927 novel, Benighted, by British novelist and playwright J.B. Priestly. The film had mediocre box office sales in the U.S., but it was a hit in England, and was later remade by director William Castle in 1963.
We think this is a film you ought to see. When it’s not making us fearful, it’s a cheeky pre-code flick that enjoys quite a bit of fun at its own expense.
The Old Dark House: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton. Directed by James Whale. Written by Ben Levy. Universal Pictures Corp., 1932, B&W, 72 mins.
This post is part of the Hot & Bothered Blogathon hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch and Once Upon a Screen. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries.