Directed By: James Whale
Starring: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton
Tag line: "Beware the night!"
Trivia: This film was considered to be lost until director Curtis Harrington discovered a printable negative
While out driving one evening, Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey) and his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart), along with their friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), are caught in a rainstorm, and forced to seek shelter when a landslide blocks the road. So, they stop at the first house they come to, a mansion belonging to one Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), who lives with his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), his mute butler Morgan (Boris Karloff), and other members of his family. Shortly after the Waverton party arrives, Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his “companion”, Gladys (Lilian Bond), also turn up, looking to come in out of the rain. But when Femm’s homicidal brother, Saul (Brember Wills), a pyromaniac who had been locked away inside the house, is suddenly set free, it leads to a night of terror that none of the guests will soon forget.
The Old Dark House, a 1932 horror / comedy directed by James Whale, boasts a remarkable cast. Along with horror legend Boris Karloff, who’s damn near unrecognizable as Morgan, the alcoholic butler, the film also features future Hollywood stars Raymond Massey (Arsenic and Old Lace, East of Eden) and Melvyn Douglas (Hud, Being There). Ernest Thesiger, who, a few years later, would play the mad Dr. Praetorius in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, is quite good as the head of the Femm household, and Charles Laughton makes one of his 1st appearances in an American film (though, admittedly, it’s not his most dynamic performance). Yet what you’ll remember most about The Old Dark House isn’t its cast; it’s the house itself, which, under Whale’s watchful eye, seems every bit as creepy as the movie’s title would suggest. From the brilliant shot where we're shown the mansion for the first time (illuminated by the occasional flash of lightning) to the way he allows the camera to glide freely through the dark corridors of the Femm Estate, Whale makes the most of the film’s impressive set pieces while, at the same time, creating a sense of dread that becomes more tangible as the movie progresses.
In all, James Whale would direct only four horror films, each of which (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Old Dark House) is considered a classic of the genre. And even though I’m thrilled these movies are still available some 80 years later, I can’t help but wish he’d made a few more of ‘em!