Five travelers end up stranded at our title location after a fierce night-time storm makes driving the English hillsides too dangerous. The family that lives there is less than hospitable, with secrets that make the evening increasingly frightening. The Old Dark House is one of the grandfathers of what is now a classic horror sub-genre. Director James Whale (Frankenstein, Waterloo Bridge) makes it a stylish, suspenseful, and spooky affair that deserves a place alongside Universal Pictures’ other, more well-known horror films from the decade.
The ensemble cast is tremendous. Boris Karloff headlines, but he’s actually a bit underutilized as the house’s deformed, mute butler — a character who becomes quite dangerous when drunk. While Karloff, hot off the success of Frankenstein, may have boosted ticket sales with his name, his cast members are even more engaging. Melvyn Douglas maintains a delightfully droll sense of humor, even when the storm threatens to wash his car down the hillside. Charles Laughton is memorable as a boisterous playboy with a chorus girl (Lillian Bond) in tow. Some of the film’s most charming scenes are when Douglas and Bond develop feelings for one another. You might expect Laughton to become jealous, but in a fashion most fitting of the subversive James Whale, Laughton’s fine with the relationship. Bond even tells Douglas that she’s never had sex with Laughton — he only wants her around for ‘show’. (Both Whale and Laughton were gay men working in deeply homophobic times.) Also of note is Gloria Stuart (Oscar nominee for 1997’s Titanic) who, as one of the house guests, grounds the film tonally and emotionally. She plays it straight, reacting to the horror believably enough to give the rest of the players leeway in their more tilted performances.
Then there are over-the-top scene stealers Eva Moore and Ernest Thesiger as the sister and brother who own the house. Moore is deaf, so everyone must shout at her. Half the time she doesn’t answer the question asked, instead spewing some religiously themed warning of doom at them. Whale presents her as a creepy figure, frequently appearing out of darkness, in successive closeup shots that lead us to believe we might want to take her more seriously than her houseguests do. Thesiger is less frightening, a more comically bizarre character, much like the Dr. Pretorius character he would later play in Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein. This is a man who can elevate unsuspecting dialogue to comic heights. If you don’t believe me, just watch him offer his guests potatoes at dinner.
The screenplay never lags, balancing plot with character in a winning fashion. It even has a few surprises up its sleeve as the family’s secrets are revealed. Given the ripe setting of a ‘dark and stormy night’, Whale hits a home run with the atmosphere. The candlelit scenes punctuated with flashes of brilliant lightning strikes are beguiling. Even more importantly, you can tell the entire cast is having a good time with the material. Whale and his collaborators’ lively sensibilities keep this film from being a cheap, rote exercise in genre filmmaking. I’ve seen The Old Dark House three times now, spread over decades. I can honestly say it’s one of those films that only gets better with repeated viewings.
With Raymond Massey.