While traveling through the Welsh countryside, married couple Philip and Margaret Waverton and their friend, Penderel, get caught up in a severe thunderstorm that eventually causes a landslide to block the road behind them and, fearing that the road ahead is possibly blocked as well, they seek shelter at a large, sinister-looking house off the road. After being let in by a creepy, scarred, mute man who turns out to be the butler, Morgan, they're introduced to the Femm family, particularly elderly brother and sister Horace, who presents an air of snobbishness and jitteriness, and Rebecca, a half-deaf, religious fanatic who is clearly the dominant one. Despite Rebecca's initial protests, the three of them are allowed to stay the night but quickly learn that they may have been better off wading out the storm in the car as, in addition to the house's dark and eerie nature, they soon learn of how disturbed their hosts' family is from the stories they're told of its history, as well as when Rebecca's fanaticism makes Margaret a target and Morgan begins to drinking heavily, which puts him in a very unpredictable and dangerous state of mind. While having supper, they're joined by two more wayward travelers, Sir William Porterhouse, a businessman with a sad past, and his friend, chorus girl Gladys "DuCane" Perkins, who becomes enamored with Penderel. As the night goes on, events become more sinister when the lights go out and Horace is strangely reluctant to go upstairs and fetch an oil lamp; when Philip does so instead, he discovers a tray of food left outside of a closed door and, after saving her from the crazed Morgan, he and Margaret meet the family's 102-year old patriarch, who describes the house as "unlucky" and warns them of his eldest, Saul, an absolute madman who's locked upstairs and would burn the house down if he's ever released... which is exactly what Morgan intends to do.
Despite how obscure this movie is, I'm sure the one thing people know of it is Boris Karloff's role as Morgan, the Femm family's creepy, mute butler, which is the most publicized aspect of it. His look is definitely memorable, with the scar on his nose and above his right eye and the thick beard (no doubt the handiwork of the legendary Jack Pierce), and the way he groans and moans is very unsettling, especially when you first see him when he opens the door for the Wavertons and Penderel; character-wise, though, there isn't much to Morgan. He's basically just a big, lurching brute, spending the first half of the movie serving food to the Femms and their guests and then getting dangerously drunk in the kitchen, at one point smashing the window to frighten Gladys outside, and later menacing Margaret, whom he's displayed an interest since they arrived (note the way he looks at her when he's serving them their food), in a memorable scene where he lunges at her and overturns the dining room table, at one point sneering at her in a very creepy manner, and chases her up the stairs until Philip knocks him unconscious in a fight. You learn that he becomes this way whenever he gets drunk, which he tends to do during times like this stormy night, and when he gets really plastered, he lets loose the dangerous Saul Femm. In fact, as Sir Roderick Femm tells Philip and Margaret, Saul is the only reason they keep Morgan around. Since there's not as many layers to Morgan as there were the Frankenstein monster, it's not surprising that Karloff was never fond of this role, and the only time he ever gets to do anything other than be a voiceless menace is when he silently cries over Saul when he's been killed and carries his body away in his arms, showing that, despite Saul's claims that he beat him, there was something of a bond between the two of them. And finally, I have to ask why they felt it necessary to put a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie verifying that Morgan is played by the same actor who played the Frankenstein monster. Did they really believe people would think there was another actor by the name of Boris Karloff playing this role? Yeah, he was billed only as a question mark in the opening credits for that film but still, his name was revealed in the closing reiteration of the cast.
While maybe not a forerunner of the "haunted house" genre, as there are no ghosts to be found, The Old Dark House, along with the 1920's film, The Cat and the Canary, can certainly be called one of the creators of the "creepy old house" trope that has now become so commonplace that it became a staple of Saturday morning cartoons, as the Femm house does indeed live up to the film's title. Relying on mostly non-electric lights (Horace mentions at one point that they generate their own electricity but aren't very good at it), one of the few rooms that is kind of well-lit is the dining room, where most of the film takes place, and even then, it has a very rundown, lived-in feel to it that isn't exactly comforting. The other rooms in the house are even more unsettling, like Rebecca's dimly-lit bedroom with a mirror in it that has multiple panes, the long, dark hallways, accentuated by the curtains blowing in the wind through the open windows, and the twisting staircase leading up to the very dark second floor, which is occupied by Sir Roderick in his tomb-like bedroom and the room up top where Saul is kept locked away (honestly, the only place that's not creepy is out in the stables with the constantly-crowing rooster). It's such an eerie place that you almost wish it were haunted to give it an extra edge, although the thought of being stuck in this place with an unhinged family is still very effective.
As I've been saying this whole time, good actors aside, atmosphere is what The Old Dark House truly excels at. For one, the film is very well-photographed and the black-and-white gives it a very evocative, creepy look (these kinds of movies virtually beg for monochrome, don't you think?) Like a lot of horror movies made around this time, German Expressionism was a major influence in its visuals, with lots of shadows and very deep, dark areas. Two major examples of this are when we first see Morgan, as he slowly opens the door and his face stands out from the blackness within, and when Margaret is left by herself in the dining room and we see her accosted by Rebecca, all done through their shadows on the wall. I also like how Margaret is nearly always dressed completely in white, making her stand out from the darkness around her, like when she panics when the window in Rebecca's bedroom suddenly blows open and she runs down the dark hallway outside in a panic. As he often did in his films, James Whale also came up with some interesting shots for the time, like the reflections of Rebecca in the bedroom mirror when she's scolding Margaret for her "sinful ways" and when Margaret herself is reflected several times in it when looks at herself, as well as when Gladys look through the kitchen window from the outside to see Morgan getting drunk, with him smashing his hand through the window to get at her at one point. Sound also plays a major role. Like many films around this time, there's no music score save for the opening and ending credits (the opening music itself is a weird, quirky little piece that well suits the movie that's about to begin) and as a result, you can constantly hear the storm raging outside, with crashing thunder and howling wind, which sometimes sounds like moaning. There are moments near the end when you can hear Saul's maniacal cackling upstairs, as if the film's sounds weren't already spooky enough. Even the setting itself is uncomfortable, not just for how looks but also how it feels, with things often feeling damp and wet when people come in from outside, soaked to the bone, and there's a feeling of coldness due to the lack of electricity, with the only source of heat being the fireplace in the dining room. After the night is over and the storm has passed, everything is still damp when Margaret and Philip leave to fetch help, making me kind of go, "Ugh," since they have to walk through the wet grass and mud to reach the car.
Sometimes, atmosphere is enough to completely over to a movie's side and other times, I need a little more, and as you've grasped from what I've already said about this film, it's not entirely successful in my eyes. For me, it's a movie with a great setting, atmosphere, and some very memorable characters but, story-wise, it's a tad bit weak. After the set-up of the house and the introductions of the Flemm family, the film feels like it doesn't quite know where to go with it and there are sections where I find myself sitting around, waiting for something to happen, like Morgan's sudden attack on Margaret or when Saul is let loose and begins setting fire to the house during the climax. And while I enjoy the characters, I don't care so much for some of their interactions with each other, like Penderel and Gladys' very rushed romance or Margaret, as beautiful as she is, doing little more than acting frightened when she's menaced by either Rebecca or Morgan. It's only 72 minutes long, so it's not a tough sit at all, but it is one that leaves me wishing there was more meat to it.