In the 30's and 40's there arose a sub-genre of horror films that would be come to known as "old dark house" thrillers. The plots of these films varied slightly but always involved a group of people gathering at a creepy old house or mansion. Perhaps for a party or reading of a will and then strange things ensued in the house. This became such a popular film theme that even comedy stars of the day like Bob Hope, Laurel & Hardy, The Ritz Brothers, The East Side Kids, and The Three Stooges got into the act by starring in films or shorts featuring an old dark house style of plot. Today we take a look at the greatest of all of these films. The one that gave a name to this sub-genre…1932’s The Old Dark House.
The Old Dark House
Universal Pictures 1932
Cast: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton
Running Time: 71 Minutes
The Old Dark House was not the first film of this genre but it certainly became the most famous one. Directed by James Whale who also directed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, Whale would be reunited with his Frankenstein star, Boris Karloff. This was thought to be lost film until a copy was found and restored in the late 1960's.
The story finds a group of five travelers who must take refuge in a creepy old Welsh estate when they are caught in a terrible storm. The guests include Phillip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) their travelling partner Roger Penderal (Melvyn Douglas) and Sir William and his friend Gladys Perkins (Charles Laughton and Lillian Bond).
The house is inhabited by a family that would make the Addam's family look normal by comparison. There is the matriarch Rebecca Femm...a hell-fire and brimstone religious zealot with disdain for the female guests especially. Then there is her brow-beaten, timid, prim and proper brother Horace (played deliciously by Ernest Thesiger). Upstairs is their aging father sir Roderick...bed-ridden and living in fear. Then there is whatever lies behind the locked and bolted door upstairs where Horace refuses to go.
Karloff gets top billing even though he has no dialog. In one of make-up artist Jack Pierce's greatest works, Karloff is almost unrecognizable under a rough mat of black hair, thick black beard, and scarred face as the hulking, brute of a butler named Morgan. Karloff grunts his way through the role and menaces Gloria Stuart at every turn.
The movie is filled with terror and threats as the storm deepens, the lights go out, and people begin disappearing at every turn. Douglas and Laughton throw themselves into their roles and seem to be enjoying things at the expense of the rest. Stuart does a great job as the threatened damsel and is quite beautiful although Massey is rather dull as her husband.
Whale gets in his usual bits of humor under the radar, such as when Gladys who travels with Sir William tells Penderal that William give her money but "doesn't expect anything" in return. And that he wants people to think of him as being "gay". And of course, Laughton in real life was gay.
Horror and black comedy combine to make an almost perfect film.
And if you are interested in checking out some more of the lesser known old dark house type of films, check out these as well:
One Body Too Many (1944) starring Bela Lugosi.
Dead of Night (1945), based upon stories by H.G. Wells and E.F. Benson. One of the few films to be made in England during the British ban on horror films.
The Thirteenth Guest (1932) Another early classic that stars Ginger Rogers.
Fog Island (1945) starring veteran horror actors Lionel Atwill and Geroge Zucco.
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