It was a dark and stormy night. In Wales. Welcome, traveller…
With FRANKENSTEIN (1931), THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), visionary director James Whale made some of the most inventive and stylish films of the thirties, but in his “lost classic” THE OLD DARK HOUSE, he set about parodying the conventions of the haunted house sub-genre even as he invented them before our very eyes.
It’s a sign of the studio clout Whale must have had in this period that he was able to import a cast of largely British solid theatrical talent rather than being forced to dip into Universal’s reserve of contract players. Amongst those weary travellers who become stranded in the remote Femm family house, Charles Laughton makes his memorable motion picture debut as brash Yorkshire industrialist Sir William Porterhouse, along with Melvyn Douglas as disillusioned war veteran Penderel and Gloria Stuart, there to wander around in an inappropriate evening dress. They stumble into the sinister and possibly inbred world of the Femms, surely the inspiration for half a dozen League of Gentlemen characters. Whale’s old theatre friends Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore are introduced first as brother and sister Horace and Rebecca Femm. These two ghouls are creepy enough, see especially the bedroom scene with Gloria Stuart where Whale shoots Moore through distorted mirrors from rapidly changing angles as she rants at the young woman about the “sins of the flesh”, but even they seem terrified to go upstairs in their own house, implying that there are members of the Femm family even worse than they hiding on each floor, with the biggest madman of them all lurking in (where else?) the attic.
Fresh from the success of FRANKENSTEIN, and perhaps in return for the credits in that movie reading only ‘The Monster – “?”‘, Karloff the uncanny receives top billing here as the grunting man-mountain of a butler Morgan. However, he is given far less to do than he had in his breakthrough, essentially reduced to what in other Universal horrors would be considered the henchman or stooge role; even his growls and mumbles are dubbed by another actor. There’s a great moment, which has become a horror movie staple, when we see him through a kitchen window and he lunges towards the camera, smashing his fist through the glass to get at us (or, in the film, Gloria Stuart in her evening dress). But his biggest action scene, stalking the hapless Stuart round the dining table, is a direct lift of the bridal room scene from FRANKENSTEIN. To confine Karloff to the margins was commercially irresponsible of Whale, and no doubt contributed to the film’s poor showing at the US box office, and the beginning of its slide into “lost classic” status.
The real star of the show is Ernest Thesiger, who steals every scene he’s in as the skeletal and haughty Horace Femm: de facto head of the household mainly due to his elder brother being clinically insane and his father being 102 years old and also clinically insane. No other actor could ever imbue the line “Have a potato” with so much contempt and malice. There’s a strange moment where Horace mentions quite openly that he is wanted by the police, then nothing much is made of the line and it’s never mentioned again. One obvious theory given Thesiger’s marvellously camp performance is that the implication is he is wanted for acts of homosexuality, still very much illegal in the UK and the US at the time. Critic Kim Newman suggests the possibility that he is a draft dodger, in opposition to the character of Penderel.
Perhaps because of the tragic and lonely circumstances of Whale’s death and their use as the driving force behind the drama in Bill Condon biopic GODS AND MONSTERS (1998), there is a tendency to think of Whale’s sexuality as being a personal demon that he struggled with all his life. In James Curtis’s excellent Whale biography ‘A New World of Gods and Monsters’, a picture is painted of a man who was perfectly comfortable being openly gay, but whose real preoccupation was escaping his working class background. Born into a small terraced house of seven children in Dudley, Whale went to great lengths to affect the air of an English gentleman which apparently convinced most of his Hollywood peers. THE OLD DARK HOUSE plays as much as an English comedy of manners as a haunted house horror. Half the fun is in watching the appalled dinner guests desperately trying to maintain their manners and a peculiar Englishness in the face of the increasing weirdness of their hosts. This is the thing that people so often miss about Whale’s horror films beneath the subtext and the Christ metaphors: they’re supposed to be funny, and they are, especially this one. The five trapped travellers were intended by writer of the original novel J.B.Priestley to represent a cross-section of post-war British society: the bluff capitalist, the returning jaded soldier (another theme close to Whale’s heart due to his service in the first World War, see his debut picture JOURNEY’S END (1930)) and the cockney chorus girl trying to hide her roots played by Lilian Bond, which must surely have resonated, albeit secretly, with Whale.
For a while THE OLD DARK HOUSE was considered a lost film after Universal sold the rights for an awful sixties remake which technically required them to destroy all existing prints. Even when a copy turned up in the seventies, since it no longer belonged to Universal it never took its place in the official Universal horror line with Whale’s other genre films and the likes of Paul Leni’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927), even though most of that lineage owes it a great debt. Pour yourself a gin and enjoy. It’s only gin… I like gin.