The Old Dark House
During a particularly treacherous thunderstorm in rural Wales, a series of travellers are forced to seek refuge in an eerie and isolated house. Their hosts are an elderly eccentric pair of siblings and their mute brute of a butler. As the night unfolds, the stranded party realise that the house has other residents and that they are far from being out of harm’s way.
This is The Old Dark House, a film with a premise that is as familiar and generic to us all as the title itself. Based on J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel Benighted, this 1932 Universal production is essentially the originator of this particular horror sub-genre. Directed by the great James Whale from a screenplay by playwrights R.C. Sherriff (whose WWI play Journey’s End Whale directed for the British stage in 1928 and for Hollywood in 1930) Benn W. Levy, the film manages to create its conventions whilst simultaneously gently lampooning them, and all long before The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This perhaps was the genius of James Whale. An openly gay man at a time when such sexual orientation was largely kept secret, Whale’s approach to horror was often highly camp and it is this knowing indulgence in the excess of both the horror and the comic that has kept The Old Dark House such a surprisingly fresh and modern experience, when so many of its imitators down the years have flopped, palled or fallen into obscurity. Whale knew that the human desire to be scared, and the collective experience an audience shares in paying to sit in a darkened theatre for the pleasure, was inherently funny and he enjoyed playing towards those parameters – making them laugh one minute, making them jump the next. Sometimes, the laugh could even arise from the scare itself and to that end, The Old Dark House has many deliciously dark comic moments.
But the film isn’t just about sniggering up your sleeve. The Old Dark House establishes the creepy old house cliche as a metaphor to the human psyche, exploring fear and repression much like the tradition of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ analogy that existed from feminist Gothic literature. Couched in those terms, it’s somewhat ironic that Whale cast a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon – credited here as John Dudgeon in a gender-bending pre-code stroke of subversive genius – to portray Sir Roderick Femm, the bedridden 102 year old patriarch of the house discovered in the film’s latter stages (indeed the family name Femm could arguably imply the feminine) The film understands that the best way to illustrate the notion of banishing dangerous thoughts to the back of your mind is to depict a bogeyman equally contained in the hidden quarters of their own abode, in this case the eldest son of Sir Roderick, whom our stranded party of city dwellers – the witty WWI veteran Roger Penderal (Melvyn Douglas) and his married friends Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart), along with the second party of guests, the garrulous Northern industrialist Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his cheery chorus girl friend Gladys ‘DuCane’ Perkins (Lilian Bond) – will eventually discover.
This metaphor is expanded further when you consider the Freudian implications. In the ’20s and ’30s, many of the Hollywood elite had become fascinated with psychoanalysis and the teachings of Sigmund Freud and several horror films from the era seem influenced as a result. The Old Dark House is no exception and several of the characters seem to represent Freud’s concepts. Eva Moore’s Rebecca Femm is the superego whose fearsome puritanical streak represents a moral conscience indicative in her disapproval of the guests she provides sanctuary for; when acknowledging the silky low cut gown worn by the beautiful blonde Margaret she sniffs “Fine stuff, but it’ll rot”, before turning her attention from the fabric to the neckline above to chastise her further “Finer stuff still , but it’ll rot too!” For Rebecca, this attractive and sophisticate young urbanite represents everything she has spent of her life fearing and condemning – even Margaret’s marriage to Philip seems worthy of contempt in Rebecca’s mind, where celibacy equals purity; “Young and handsome, silly and wicked! You think of nothing but your long, straight legs and your white body, and how to please your man! You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you?” she chides at a later point. Her brother, Horace (Ernest Thesiger) is more socially agreeable, inviting the soaked and stranded party into his home, but he seems acutely and fearfully aware of the possibilities that lurk in the sanctuary he provides them and his motives may be more selfish than first suspected. He serves as the film’s ego, a centre point between the excesses of his sister and their unusual manservant Morgan – the film’s id. Played by Boris Karloff, this hulking quasi-tamed savage of a butler is prone to drink and aggression and serves to provide the initial fears for our house guests, who are unaware that Morgan is, in fact, the keeper of a greater danger; the pyromaniac elder Femm brother Saul (Brember Wills), a cackling malevolent goblin of a man deemed so volatile by the family that he is serving a life sentence in his own quarters.
It is Horace, the ego of the piece, who welcomes the stranded travellers and, in doing so, reins in the impulses of the superego (Rebecca) and the id (Morgan), destroying the danger they contain and releasing Horace from much of his anxieties. As such, the newcomers are the outside influences Freud believed were required to impair the superego and id. The cast play their parts very well; the marooned house guests are suitably urbane and initially flippant in the face of the dusty eccentricities and peculiar mania they stumble upon. Mervyn Douglas is a particularly good leading man, though his naturally slouched manner and quickfire witticisms do not initially set him out as one. As such, he has the most interesting of character journeys, finding the steel he clearly once possessed in the trenches of France when his feelings blossom for Lilian Bond’s engaging show girl. Raymond Massey is ostensibly Douglas’ straight man for much of the film, whilst Gloria Stuart as his wife embodies her duty as the desirable damsel in distress with natural aplomb. Perhaps the liveliest of the group is (unsurprisingly) Charles Laughton as the bluff north country businessman. In his Hollywood debut, looking and sounding surprisingly like Peter Kay, Laughton delivers his lines in a thick northern accent that refuses to make allowances for the US moviegoers of the day. The suitably named Sir William Porterhouse is clearly fond of a good drink and wastes no time in making himself at home, but beneath the brash bonhomie lies a simmering rage for the way in which his late wife, a homely Manchester girl, was snubbed by his wealthy peers and associates. His relationship with Gladys is not a deep one – as evinced by how quickly a genuine love match develops between her and Penderal – rather, a respite from the grief-fuelled anger he possesses. Taken in that context, this is a character with far more emotional depth than the average comic relief lush – his drinking perhaps holding a darker origin. Using the psychological metaphors inherent in the script, Porterhouse represents his natural strong emotion just as much as the Femm siblings represent fear and cowardice and shame and righteous indignation respectively, and Margaret represents a desire that is implicitly stated in the silent menacing lust Karloff’s Morgan repeatedly eyes her with. This may not be Karloff’s most impressive character, but he plays the part of the ‘monster’ with the same degree of professionalism and dedication that he brought to each role he undertook. What sets it apart, however, is Whale’s skill at wringing suspense from such obvious repressed emotions within the character. The Old Dark House is proof that Whale was the master at intelligent, witty thrills and chills.
THE OLD DARK HOUSE PLAYS IN CINEMAS FROM APRIL 27TH AND REISSUED ON 21ST MAY FROM MASTERS OF CINEMA