Each year sees the re-release of older films but this week sees a film that was first out in 1932 and is still better than some of the stuff that studios vomit onto cinema screens. The Old Dark House is based on a J B Priestley novel even though they misspell his name in the credits) and is directed by James Whale , who had helmed the hugely successful Frankenstein the previous year with Boris Karloff in the monsters most iconic screen incarnation. But once again Karloff is mute as a butler who appears to have been cross bred with a werewolf.
The Old Dark House centres on……well an old dark house and doesn’t disappoint on that front with a decidedly stagey yet impressive studio interior suitably gothic for a tale that veers between horror and comedy sometimes not always intentionally. It’s here that five travellers arrive in a thunderous storm and torrential rain in an opening scene in what looks authentically uncomfortable filming conditions. For a Hollywood film which has always appeared wilfully ignorant of any other country outside the US this is based in Wales which the film openly acknowledges even going as far as to include a couple of throwaway jokes about the Welsh language.
Seeking refuge from the weather it’s Karloff’s mute butler who lets them into the house where they meet Horace and Rebecca Femm a pair of bickering siblings with her obsessed with all things Biblical and unusually the script has some digs at theology which seems to somehow sneaked under the censors moral radar which was so alert to that type of thing at the time.
It’s there that they find out about the history of the house with a sister having died there and a lunatic father locked in the attic. As a chamber piece this is entertaining and it all starts to ratchet up when Morgan the butler gets tanked up on falling down water. Lurching at the women and fighting with the men it’s like our Editor at the office Christmas party (‘You’re Fired!’ – Ed) and things come to a climax when he releases the father from the roof top room.
At only 72 minutes long this is one of those films that if it were on TV on a wet Sunday afternoon it would pass the time amiably enough. Featuring a mostly English cast its the early appearance of Charles Laughton in one of six films he made in 1932 which gives little inkling of the heavyweight roles he was going to become known for later in his career because here he plays a cheery Northerner that must have had US audiences wondering if he was speaking in a different language. At the other end of the scale is Gloria Stuart who appears to have had the wardrobe budget all to herself as she swans round the set in a designer dress and spouting dialogue in such a stilted manner that it sounds like she learnt her lines phonetically. It’s matched only by some fabulously contrived moments with possibly the best being a love scene between Lilian Baird and Melvyn Douglas struggling with dialogue that by today’s standards is hilariously dated with such lines as, ‘he likes people to think that he’s ever so gay’ and the magnificent three word wrangle, ‘And I you?’
But this is all part of its charm and by today’s standards will provide more chuckles than chills with the appearance of a bed ridden pensioner looking like a deep frosted Catweazle. With Hollywood constantly remaking film like Jumanji , The Old Dark House would be ideally suited to a reboot with a decent director like James Wan who can conjure up scares for which this would be so ideally suited. Until then sit back and enjoy a film that manages to be both gothic and camp.
Here’s the trailer…….