Review by Glenn Andreiev
Based on the novel “Benighted” written by J.B Priestly
Screenplay by Benn Levy
Cinematography by Arthur Edeson
Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Directed by James Whale
Cast: Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Ernest Thesiger, Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton,
Raymond Massey, Lillian Bond, Eva Moore.
Universal 1932. BluRay release by The Cohen Film Collection
Beautiful, youthful, frightened Gloria Stuart stares ahead as Boris Karloff’s grimy hand reaches above her and shuts the door. We horror movie fans gloated over this image from the 1932 film THE OLD DARK HOUSE in Famous Monsters Magazine and in horror movie books, but we wondered, why isn’t this enticing looking film ever on TV?
The film was made at a major studio, Universal, by James Whale, a leading horror film director, and boasted a top drawer cast of familiar faces – Karloff, Raymond Massey, Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Lillian Bond. It should be readily available. I remember finally seeing THE OLD DARK HOUSE in a Manhattan film revival house, via a contrasty 16mm print that was way too dark. I thought, well, it’s supposed to be an old dark house, maybe it’s okay. My initial VHS bootleg of the film was just as murky. A later DVD release of the film fared a little better.
Now comes the Blu-ray release by The Cohen Film Collection, the same people who recently rescued JAMAICA INN, Alfred Hitchcock’s pirate and musket thriller, from Public Domain hell.
Thanks to The Cohen Group, THE OLD DARK HOUSE hasn’t looked this grand since it’s initial release 85 years ago. Now we can see that Arthur Edeson’s black and white cinematography rivals the work he previously did on Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN. We see immense shadows, the creepy art direction. This new crispness also shows off Boris Karloff’s hideous make up and menacing facial gestures. Here Karloff is Morgan, the mute, brutish alcoholic butler. When he has terrified Gloria Stuart all to himself, this new clarity gives us more detail, as well as the shivers.
THE OLD DARK HOUSE is the direct ancestor of all the “the bridge is out, you have to stay the night” creepy old haunted house films. There would be no ROCKY HORROR without THE OLD DARK HOUSE. During a violent rain-storm, a group of travelers find shelter in an old Welsh estate. The inhabitants of this creepy abode could never pass a sanity test. They are bickering siblings played to the hilt by Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore. Like his Dr. Pretorius in Whales’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Thesiger’s Horace Femm is a prissy intellectual shut-in. Eva Moore is his sister Rebecca, a hateful fanatic. This beautiful Blu-ray shows off, for the first time, the set direction in Rebecca’s bedroom – a mass of decaying Victorian era clutter. Rebecca skitters around the house like a bug, yelling about her drenched guests “No beds! They can’t have beds!”
Extra supplements on the Blu-Ray explain how THE OLD DARK HOUSE fell out of circulation, and into obscurity. It could have become a lost film. We learn how cult horror director Curtis Harrington was persistent in saving this film from decay. Harrington, who made macabre thrillers, like NIGHT TIDE and GAMES, also talks about his friendship with Whale here.
THE OLD DARK HOUSE is chock full of eccentric characters, including Saul, a pyromaniac brother kept locked away upstairs, and Roderick Femm, the bed ridden father who doesn’t seem to care if the his bonkers children all murder each other and burn the house down. It’s quite amusing that Raymond Massey and Charles Laughton, both noted for playing melodramatic villains, are the sane heroes here.
Previous poor quality prints, coupled with the fact that it has no supernatural monsters, have often relegated THE OLD DARK HOUSE to the back of the line of Universal horror films. It is a wonderful showcase for Boris Karloff and James Whale. It is also, very often, a funny and creepy gem. It is easily one of the must-have Blu-rays of the year.