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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Old Dark House (1932) review


Boris Karloff (Morgan), Melvyn Douglas (Roger Penderel), Gloria Stuart (Margaret Waverton), Charles Laughton (Sir William Porterhouse), Lilian Bond (Gladys), Ernest Thesiger (Horace Femm), Raymond Massey (Phillip Waverton), Eva Moore (Rebecca Femm), Elspeth Dudgeon (Sir Roderick Femm), Brember Wills (Saul Femm)

Directed by James Wales

"This is an unlucky house. Two of my children died when they were 20. And then... other things happened... madness came! We are all touched with it a little, you see."

The Short Version: The architecture of James Wales classic spooker has been a blueprint for the dozens of old dark houses that followed in the ensuing years; although the silent THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) laid the foundation. The dark domicile itself is a mere backdrop to some of the kookiest kinfolk this side of the Addams Family. Karloff is top billed, but resigned to a supporting role as a hulking, mute butler who may or may not have "did it". He's not the only madman in this house of horrors, though. A group of five weary travelers do not enjoy a night of rest and relaxation in this Old Dark House.

Lost in a nasty rainstorm, a clutch of travelers stumble upon an isolated mansion. Living inside this gloomy estate are the eccentric Femm family and their brutish mute servant, Morgan. As the night progresses, and the storm rages, the five guests discover a number of terrifying secrets locked away within the Femm household.

There had been similar movie before it, but THE OLD DARK HOUSE from 1932 is arguably the benchmark for the dozens of like-minded movies that ensnared weather-beaten travelers over the decades. If you've seen Wales' other horrors he helmed around this time -- FRANKENSTEIN (1931), THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933), BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) -- then you're in for a ghoulish treat here.

For a film of this vintage, there's a remarkable degree of tension retained all these years later. As usual with Pre-Code horror films, the visual design is of a standard that seemed to evaporate several years later. Arthur Edeson's photography is just as eerily foreboding as his work on FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN. The lighting (and lack thereof) creates the perfect mood -- heavily accentuated by a sonic assault of deafening thunder and howling wind. Additionally, the use of shadows are integral to the macabre aesthetics dominating the entirety of Wales' 72 minute spook show.

There's a thick air of sexuality and sardonic humor running through THE OLD DARK HOUSE. This being a Hollywood Pre-Code movie (before censorship was officially enforced), there are some questionable lines of dialog, and shots in the film -- some of which were removed from the picture when it was re-issued in 1939. When the first three visitors enter the Femm's moldy mansion, Rebecca Femm repeatedly spouts off that they "can't have beds"; and takes an immediate dislike to Margaret's (Gloria Stuart) beauty and slinky clothing after delivering an unsettling monologue about lust and sin in her house.

At a later point in the picture, Mad Man Morgan the butler (Karloff) gets a little too much Captain in him and tries to assault Margaret. Close ups of his face and palpitating lips hint at the possible rape attempt running through his mind.

Based on a novel by J.B. Priestley, THE OLD DARK HOUSE further benefits from a sterling script that's generously peppered with witty lines of dialog (both blackly and comically so), and a fine cast with which to deliver them. Thesiger's utterance and inflection of "Have a poe-tay-toe" sticks in the mind as each line meticulously reveals the murderous nature of the denizens of the Femm's morbid mansion; the way they move, the way their facial features maneuver and contort reveal a deliciously diabolical underpinning of evil. Wales movie oftentimes feels like it's parodying genre conventions despite it being in its infancy. This is especially true during the last few minutes.

The film has no musical score (save for the opening and ending credits), but the bombardment by the near nonstop thunderstorm, clashing lightning and rain provide just the right melody for your listening enjoyment. Further complimenting this sepulchral package are the gaggle of ghoulish characters.

Boris Karloff is top billed, but he's more of a supporting player. Still, his makeup heavy character, the mute "monster" Morgan the butler, is akin to the lumbering menace of his Frankenstein monster as seen in the 1931 classic. Reportedly, Karloff's look (courtesy of the usual arcane brilliance of Jack Pierce) inspired Charles Addams' butler from his Addams Family cartoons. Karloff is exceptional as the hulking servant; and he reinforces the old saying that "the butler did it". Of course, you have to see the movie to know whether he's going to "do it", or not.

Looking all skeletal and zombie-like is Ernest Thesiger, the memorable Dr. Pretorius from the classic BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). Thesiger is delightfully kookish, as is his off-kilter sister Rebecca, who frequently warns of bad things to come; and in this house, bad things are assured.

It wouldn't be an 'old dark house' movie without locked doors, musty hallways, and hidden passages. One of these locked rooms houses the elder Femm patriarch (played by a woman), the cackling Sir Roderick. The makeup for Roderick is arguably the most effectively hideous appliance from Pierce's varied work here. The way the 102 year old madman moves his mouth, the unkempt hair, and his unnerving cackle is a perfectly grotesque image.

Lastly there's Saul Femm -- whom we hear about off and on via repartee between Horace and his sister; another mad, and murderous member of this bizarre family. He's not revealed till the last ten minutes, but when he is, his appearance is anything but threatening -- at first glance. The actor playing him moves in an almost unnatural way; this is aided by facial movements that alert the viewer that something is not at all right in Saul's head. What comes next is the personification of goosebumpery.

Unspooling almost exclusively from a single locale, the staginess of THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) is one of its best qualities. It's never boring -- the extremely quirky characters residing within the title abode will not allow it. Coupled with so many classic trappings of later, similar movies, Wales delivers a knockout tale of terror perfect for a dark and stormy evenings worth of entertainment.

This review is representative of the Kino Video DVD.

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