The Old Dark House Sucker Punch

Lillian Bond... Image: White City Cinema
Gloria Stuart hopes that’s not a creepy man behind her. Image: White City Cinema

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.

Boris Karloff keeps a menacing eye on the place. Image: Fandango
Boris Karloff keeps a menacing eye on the place. Image: Fandango

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.

Eva Moore reminds ___ that his Time Is Coming. Image:
Eva Moore reminds Ernst Thesinger that his Time Is Coming. Image:

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.




  1. A fun piece about a fun movie! I do agree with you about the sucker-punch aspect.

    If you ever come across a copy of the Priestley novel, you might enjoy it. Priestley seems largely forgotten these days, but he was a very fluent and entertaining writer.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I like your description of this as a “sucker punch!” This has to be one of my favorite early horror films…and that dinner scene wither her “stabbing” at her food and his “have a potato” always makes me laugh…even, as you say, while one grows worried.

    I wonder if the novel has the same sense of humor or if that is entirely coming from James Whale?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve never even heard of this! (Are you tired of me saying that yet? Just let me know.) Love the Sucker Punch description. I can’t make up my mind about what this film is supposed to be. Guess I’ll just have to watch it. 🙂 How is the remake?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The 1963 remake is pretty funny. Lots of black humour, but not too much to put you off your dinner. There is a version of the 1932 film on YouTube, but the quality ain’t the best.

      And no, I never get tired of hearing a person say they’ve never heard of a certain movie. I learn about new-to-me movies all the time, and I’m a film blogger, for Pete’s sake.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It was nice one of James Whale’s lesser-known films reviewed (and well-done). Plus, what a cast: Karloff, Massey, and Theisger! I’ve often wondered if this film didn’t play a part in Massey’s casting in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (with all the Karloff jokes).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You wouldn’t think the description of a horror film would have me chuckling, but your post made me snicker all the way through! I could just see the food jumping off of Moore’s plate and her trying to stab it. Also, that line about “we have trouble with electricity” after everything you described was so funny! Sounds like a great film. I don’t usually do horror as they give me nightmares (embarrassingly enough), but this one sounds fun. Although the title of your post has me a little worried about the ending! 🙂 Thanks, Ruth!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m shy about horror films, too, but I had heard so many good things about this one that I had to give it a try. There are some very funny lines in this film and some truly endearing characters. A person could watch the first half, then fast-forward to the very last scene (which is a happy one).


  6. At first I thought, “haven’t I seen this before?” But then I realized I’m thinking of the William Castle version. Being such a PreCode fan and with a fun cast of folks like Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Stuart, I need to see this! Thanks for a super fun review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • An incredible cast in this film, and I really didn’t do it justice with the entire cast, e.g. Charles Laughton, etc. I would say this one is every bit as enjoyable at the 1963 version – but because it was made in 1932, it’s the one I prefer.


  7. What a great opening shot, Ruth! I can almost hear the scream building in her throat. You’re such a talented writer. Your description of Moore’s character eating as “though the food might dart sideways” is a great line. I’m not familiar with this film but it’s a must see, if for no other reason than to see Moore eat. I know I’ll be smiling. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m may be the only person who is highly amused by Eva Moore’s performance. Most people love the film for all its other fab characteristics, but I think she alone is worth the price of admission.


  8. I think I won’t leave the house until I watch every single one of the films reviewed in this blogathon! Pre-Code is easily one of my favorite periods for film and I still have got a lot to check out. The Old Dark House is one of them.
    As always, it was a great review.
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Priestley enjoyed turning story conventions on their heads — he looked at the “disparate group trapped together” with a sort of scientific detachment. Which is why the end of the book is even more of a sucker-punch than the movie! And rather annoying, because you know he’s just toying with you.

    Liked by 1 person

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