Directed by: James Whale, Starring: Boris Karloff, MelvynDouglas, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton. Horror/Comedy, US 1932, 72mins, Cert PG.
Released in Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) on 21st May 2018 in the UK by Eureka Entertainment.
“Have a potato!”
Watching THE OLD DARK HOUSE for the first time courtesy of this stunning 4K restoration Blu-ray was quite a sentimental experience for me. My late father would often recall the film with a wistful fondness whenever I asked him about horror films he’d seen in his youth. (He was 12 when the film was released, but I’m not sure exactly when he first saw it). Considering all the splatter and gore I made him sit through with me on VHS in the 1980’s it’s hardly surprising the poor man looked back with fond nostalgia for the more gentile horrors conjured up by James Whale!
The first thought that strikes me upon watching the film is that the actual horror is somewhat perfunctory. Yes the classic elements are all in place, a stormy inhospitable night, a remote cut-off location with a spooky old dark house, a facially scarred menacing mute butler (Karloff), and a family secret locked away in the attic. Yet the stagey dialogue (screenplay by Benn W. Levy based on the novel ‘Benighted’ from J.B. Priestley) is positively bristling with pithy exchanges and a liberal sprinkling of camp – the latter of which is mostly provided by Ernest Thesiger and his wondrously expressive nostrils as Horace “Have a potato” Femm. Like a gothic Kenneth Williams, the flickering flames and candle-light accentuate his bird-like features alarmingly well. Credit where it’s due then to Whale and his cinematographer collaborator Arthur Edeson (FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN), who wring every drop of gothic atmosphere from their cavernous mansion with billowing drapes and bolted rooms of mystery.
The plot, a gossamer thread upon which Whale spins his theatrical web of camp comedic social satire, is a classic established trope of the horror genre. A group of stranded travellers, married couple Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and gooseberry Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), abandon their car after torrential rain causes a landslide forcing them to seek shelter at the Femm ancestral home. Once ensconced around a warming fire and tucking into a hearty plate of beef and potatoes, they are joined by Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his chorus-line companion Gladys (Lilian Bond) who are similarly stranded. Their somewhat reluctant hosts are the twitchy nervy Horace (Thesiger), his deaf, religiously fanatical sister Rebecca “No beds!” (Eva Moore), and Boris Karloff’s grunting alcoholic butler. Upstairs lurks the 102 year-old father of Horace and Rebecca (played by actress Elspeth Dudgeon) and behind a further locked door lurks the other Femm family member, Saul (Brember Wills), a pyromaniac in true ‘Jane Eyre’ fashion.
After his hugely successful adaption of Mary Shelley’s ‘Modern Prometheus’, James Whale was given near carte blanche with this picture and he seems to have jolly well run riot with his humorous sensibilities. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of pure gothic horror. A stunning scene of shadow play and a bone-chilling description by Eva Moore of a how a sibling died in agony provide genuine menace in amongst the near-farcical comings and goings on.
It’s a splendidly entertaining spritely 72 minutes, ripe and rich in both dialogue and atmosphere, and gorgeously restored in this pristine 4K restoration which makes a visit to THE OLD DARK HOUSE irresistible.
Extras: Limited Edition O-Card, an exclusive video essay by critic David Cairns, audio commentary by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, audio commentary by Gloria Stuart, audio commentary by James Whale biographer James Curtis, Daughter of Frankenstein: A conversation with Sara Karloff, an archival interview with director Curtis Harrington about his efforts to save The Old Dark House, trailer and a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by critic Philip Kemp.