If You Get Lost in the Mountains at Night, Here's a Tip - Stay Lost
A group of travelers are lost one stormy night; their car pounds its way through flooded country lanes as they seek rest and refuge from the tumultuous rain. They chance upon a lonely, forbidding mansion and hammer in desperation upon its great oaken door. Already cowering from the thunder, they watch as the door cracks open to reveal a baleful eye, a twisted nose and a mouth, cruel and mute, which utters something unintelligible...the door widens and our travellers are confronted by Boris Karloff in all his grotesque glory.
You have no doubt seen a dozen horror films open this way, but you may not have seen The Old Dark House (1932), the undead granddaddy of the ‘lost people shelter somewhere they shouldn’t’ subgenre. Based on the novel Benighted (1928) by J B Priestley, The Old Dark House came a year after Universal Studios scored a huge hit with their adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1931) and was to be the next in line of what became known as the Universal Monsters (or Universal Horror) series. Yet, The Old Dark House remains one of the best and, for its time, one of most original of the cycle.
Karloff - the Name of Horror
In the hope that the lightening that awoke Dr Frankenstein’s creation would strike twice, Universal reunited much of the talent responsible for the previous year’s monster hit, with director James Whale, actor Boris Karloff, make-up artist Jack Pierce and cinematographer Arthur Edeson all returning to work their magic. Karloff had become a star overnight thanks to his remarkable title performance in Frankenstein; billed in its opening credits as ‘?’, Universal were keen to maintain the mystique around their now bankable star, and so often billed the actor as ‘Karloff the Uncanny,’ or simply ‘Karloff,’ as here. Before the action or even the credits begin, a caption assures us the ‘Karloff’ in this film is indeed the same ‘Karloff’ who starred as the monster in Frankenstein, just in case any arguments broke about among the cinemagoers; “such disputes”, we are told, “are a tribute to his great versatility”. In truth, Karloff isn’t given as much to do in this film other than provide a shambling, lugubrious menace; the character he plays, the butler Morgan, is a mute and so utters no more than a few grunts, while Pierce’s make-up job, though highly accomplished, makes Karloff resemble a battle-scarred D H Lawrence with his thick, short beard and corrupted complexion. Karloff is still able however to eke out a little humanity from the brutish nature of the role.
Karloff is just one member of a wonderful cast assembled within The Old Dark House. The rain-blasted travellers to whom Morgan opens the door are future Hollywood legends Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart and Melvyn Douglas. Massey and Stuart play a married couple, Philip and Margaret Waverton, lost while driving in the Welsh mountains with their friend, the spectator, peacemaker and provoker of their marital bickering, witty war veteran Mr Penderel (Douglas). Massey enjoyed a long and distinguished career in films, appearing in the likes of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and James Dean’s East of Eden (1955) although these days is perhaps best remembered as Dr Gillespie in the 1960s TV show Dr Kildare. Gloria Stuart appeared in numerous films throughout the 1930s and 1940s before returning to the stage, unhappy at the roles she was being offered. Returning to film in the 1970s, Stuart had to wait until 1997 for her most acclaimed role, the elderly Rose in Titanic (1997), for which she was nominated for an Oscar. For his part, Melvyn Douglas won two Oscars during his illustrious career, for Hud (1963) and Being There (1979).
As Mr Penderel, Douglas quips his way through a film where there are as many chuckles as chills, and both are supplied by the eccentric family encountered by our urbane travellers. Head of the small household is Horace Femm, a prim, fussy, effeminate little shriek of a man, played with ghoulish glee by Ernest Thesiger, later to be cast by James Whale alongside Karloff in 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein. Thesiger makes a dainty dance of lines such as “We make our own electric light here and we are not every good at it,” soon followed by “The fact is, Morgan is an uncivilized brute. Sometimes he drinks heavily. A night like this will set him going and once he’s drunk he’s rather dangerous.” Horace Femm seems to give himself the creeps, with his countenance like that of a neutered version of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera.
That said, Horace pales next to his sister, the forceful, religious tub-thumper Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore), whose near-deafness gives her ample opportunity to chew the ears off anyone within a half-mile radius. With a voice like a frenzy of knitting needles, Moore gives the film much of its clout as Rebecca takes relish in recounting the torments that have befallen her sinful family. Moore is most effective in her scenes with the elegant Stuart, berating her for her satin dinner dress (“Fine stuff, but it’ll rot.”) and for taking pleasure from her own flesh (“Finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too!”), in scenes quite frank for their time. Rebecca is the house personified, all granite and rectitude, her simpering brother more like the flowers he casually throws onto the fire: “My sister was on the point of arranging these flowers,” Horace notes, with pleasure.
More Visitors - Or Victims?
The storm, a ferocious presence throughout the film, soon brings two more bedraggled travellers through the door, business magnate Sir William Porterfield (Charles Laughton) and his companion, Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond). Laughton, the most British presence in a peculiarly British sort of Hollywood film (of the main cast, only Douglas and Stuart were American), is every inch the stereotypical brash and bellicose Yorkshireman, his accent clattering against the grim stone walls as if he’d picked up a suit of armour and thrown it down a stairwell. Despite Sir William’s bluff vehemence and fondness for singing of the delights of roast beef, Laughton is allowed to give the businessman a softer side; we learn he is a widow, whose wife died of a broken spirit after a humiliation at a society party (it is made clear the Porterfields are not typical ‘society’ people) and his rage at this has fuelled his upward success in the world. Gladys, played with an earthy bounce and intelligence by Bond, is happy to admit to her status as a kept woman, but points out Sir William is more lonely than lustful, often wanting only someone to talk to at the end of the day. Gladys soon forms a romantic attachment to Mr Penderel, and Sir William is faced with letting his companion leave his side for a more fulfilling life with a man she loves.
This is providing our five heroes make it through the night alive, of course. Femm Mansion is home to repressed passions and strange appetites, which the combination of storm and strangers threaten to bring to the surface. There is Morgan’s lust, caged by his mute, grotesque form, with drink his only solace. Horace almost shivers with forced self-containment, while Rebecca, for all her moralising, indulges herself gluttonously at the memorable dinner sequence, as a counterpoint to Horace’s squeamish parsimony (should you throw a dinner party after watching this film, you too will find yourself offering your guests to “Have a po-TA-to!”). One could also include Penderel’s cynicism at life, covered by his often facetious wit, carefree by nature as he no longer really cares about anything, or the kept nature of Gladys, who confines herself to expecting no better in life than to be the glorified pet of a rich businessman.
A Film of Fun and Fear
Played mostly for laughs at this point, the shocks increase as the night’s storm deepens. After dinner, Morgan drinks himself into a rage, and in a scene more shocking in 2014 than in 1932, attacks Mrs Waverton with what must be intent to rape. Such scenes were common in horror films for decades and went by without any real onscreen verbal acknowledgement of the implication of such actions; here, Margaret’s only comment after being rescued by Philip is to agree with her husband about how horrible the Femm’s house is. A modern day viewer would expect rather more to be made of such a crime.
Philip, played with Massey’s customary measured calm, has knocked Morgan unconscious and with his wife, gains access to a locked bedroom, where they meet one of the mansion’s captives, the bedridden 102-year-old patriarch Sir Roderick Femm. Adding to the film’s oddness, Sir Roderick is played by a woman (Elspeth Dudgeon) under a false name (‘John Dudgeon’) and wearing a false whiskery beard. Through this meeting, we learn of another family member held prisoner, on the top floor of the house, a crazed pyromaniac named Saul (Brember Wills) whose release would doom the Femms and their mansion. Morgan in the meantime has recovered and released the selfsame Saul as vengeance.
Needless to say, a film that begins with a flood ends with a fire. While Morgan goes on the rampage in one part of the house Saul, a scratchy, mole-like character given to quoting the Bible, confronts Penderel. After almost convincing both Penderel and the audience he is sane, Saul confesses his desire to sacrifice the house to the flames to please God; he sets the room ablaze and attacks Penderel. Saul is killed, but is mourned by Morgan, who holds his body is such a way that we feel caring for Saul must have been the one redeeming feature of the mad butler’s existence.
Missing, Presumed Dead?
By the morning, the fire is extinguished, the storm has passed and the travellers go on their merry way, with Penderel and Gladys engaged to be married. However, this was not to prove the end of the story of The Old Dark House. Although the film proved a huge hit in England, perhaps unsurprising given its morbid humor and homespun cast, the film did poor business in the US, lost by elements such as the class distinction served by Sir William’s ‘working class boy made good’ story. Aside from the occasional revival, the film was little seen beyond its initial run and was even excluded from Universal’s sale of its classic horror films to TV in the late 1950s. The film was withdrawn altogether from public view once a remake, co-produced by Colombia Pictures and Hammer Studios, was announced; production commenced in 1962, directed by William Castle, but the finished product went unreleased until 1966. By this stage, the original was feared lost, but film director and James Whale fan Curtis Harrington located a single copy of the 1932 original deep in the Universal archive. This is the copy available to us now to watch and while it could do with some restoration, is still perfectly enjoyable.
Despite its age, The Old Dark House has aged well compared to contemporaries such as Dracula (1931) which modern audiences can find staid, with its stagey production and slow pacing. The use of verbal wordplay helps, as does a skilful director making the most of strong set design; the use of doors, windows, narrow staircases and distorting mirrors give a lively, looming feel to the film. Another reason for its fresh feel lies in the fact that this is a horror film which relies on psychological, rather than paranormal scares. There are no vampires or ghosts in The Old Dark House; the creaking mansion is haunted only by the living. We imagine what this house has seen, and its past becomes our imagination.
The film is not without its faults. The romantic subplot drags a little, but such was the movie conventions of the time; even the freewheeling Marx Brothers films had to suffer such saccharine distractions. Despite the Welsh setting, no-one sounds in the least bit Welsh (as Penderel says in response to Morgan’s guttural moans, “Welsh ought not to sound like that!”) Gloria Stuart doesn’t get much to do other than be the decorous subject of menace, and the lack of a clear hero takes some of the focus out of the film. We don’t find out how the fire was put out, or whether Morgan survived (Horace and Rebecca survive and see off the guests the next morning). These are quibbles however, and The Old Dark House is essential viewing for any true horror enthusiast, or those interested in the pre-code Hollywood era.