Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Old Dark House (1932)

If you've read any of my past reviews of classic 1930's and 40's horror films and 50's monster movies, you'd know that my first exposure to a lot of these flicks came from old books I would find at my elementary school's library and another library near the town where my aunt, who I visited almost every Friday, lived. Indeed, that's where I first learned of this film, although I don't think it was in any of the many Crestwood House books on monsters that I read, mainly because I can't see it fitting in with any of the subjects of those individual books. Wherever I read about it, though, I definitely came out of my childhood knowing the name, The Old Dark House, but because it didn't get as much coverage as many of the other horror films of the era, I never actually saw anything of it until Halloween night of 1998, when I watched the documentary, Universal Horror, when it premiered on Turner Classic Movies (that channel was where I first saw a lot of these films, like Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man, as they showed them throughout that month). What I saw of it did look interesting, with Boris Karloff menacing the young Gloria Stuart, who was getting a lot of press around that time anyway because of her role in Titanic, but because of how obscure it was, I wouldn't see any other footage of it until October of 2009, when James Rolfe highlighted it in his third CineMassacre's Monster Madness series and gave it a fair amount of praise (he's since put it in his top horror of the "Golden Age"). Again, it looked quite intriguing, not only with the inclusion of Karloff and Stuart but also Ernest Thesiger, who I knew as Dr. Pretorious in Bride of Frankenstein. In fact, I think that may have been the year when I finally did see it when I got the Kino Video DVD of it as present from my mom that Christmas. Upon watching it, I certainly agreed with some of Rolfe's observations, mainly that, when it comes to atmosphere and the description, "It was a dark and stormy night," it's certainly a pitch-perfect example, and there are indeed some memorable, bizarre characters to be found as well. Story-wise, however, I feel that the movie is lacking, with some of the "normal" characters being rather bland, and I can definitely say that I like James Whale's other horror films (all of which are on my list of favorite horror films of all time), particularly Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, much more.

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.

Since he had just given them a smash hit, as well as having pretty much created the horror film as we know it today, along with Tod Browning's Dracula, in Frankenstein, Universal was obviously eager to have James Whale to make another horror film for them, preferably with Boris Karloff. After directing The Impatient Maiden, a drama with Lew Ayres and Mae Clarke (who played Elizabeth in Frankenstein), Whale moved on to this film, which is based on a 1927 novel called Benighted, working with past collaborators like cinematographer Arthur Edeson and production designer Charles D. Hall, both of whom had worked with him on Frankenstein, and writer R.C. Sheriff, who'd written the play, Journey's End, which Whale had made into a film in 1930. As many have noted, this is the first of his horror films where Whale infused the story with a dark, quirky sense of humor after having taken a more straightforward approach with Frankenstein. Whale apparently loved this style very much, as it reflected his own eccentric personality, and he would continue to expound upon it in The Invisible Man the following year and it would come to full fruition in Bride of Frankenstein. While I like all of his horror films, like I said in my introduction, this is my least favorite of them, since it doesn't have the strong stories that his others have and also because it feels like he was still sort of experimenting with his style here, growing ever more confident in applying it as he went further on in his career.

There's really no one main character in this film, so it's difficult to decide where to start. I guess I'll start off with the two least interesting characters: Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart). They do provide some humor at the very beginning of the movie when they're lost in the storm and acting like they're about to kill each other in their arguing, with Philip sarcastically assuring Margaret that he's never been in a better temper, adding, "I love driving a hundred miles through the dark, practically without headlights. I love the trickle of ice-cold water pouring down my neck," with a close-up of water doing such a thing to emphasize his latter point, but once they get to the house, they don't have much else to do other than observe the lunacy and more fascinating characters around them. Stuart got so much press around the time that Titanic was released that people don't realize that in these old horror films, she don't have much else to do other than be an early scream queen. She has more of a presence here than she would in The Invisible Man but her main function here is to be menaced by Morgan, defamed by Rebecca Femm, and scream as much as possible (not as much as Fay Wray, though). Philip has a little bit more to him, particularly in those scenes where his wife is being terrorized and comes to her rescue. His most sympathetic moment is when he gets into a fight with Morgan when he's chasing Margaret around the dining room and up the stairs, knocking him out, and then comforting his wife over the time they've had since arriving at the house. The next morning, they're the ones who head out to bring back an ambulance for Penderel, who'd been seriously injured in a fight the insane Saul, and they're obviously quite happy to get as far away from the house as they can.

Far more interesting is their friend, Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), who's introduced as very carefree at the beginning, not exactly being broken up when he's told that they're likely not going to reach their destination that night, commenting that nothing really happens there but something might happen where they are currently. He continues to make jokes and even sings a little tune here and there, like when the car gets momentarily stuck in a large puddle and he goes, "Stuck for the night! Stuck for the night!" in a way that sounds a bit like Here Comes the Bride and randomly says, "Bon voyage," while waving a handkerchief when Margaret asks Philip if she thinks they'll make it. He also has one of the best lines in the entire movie by far, when they first meet Morgan at the door and he eerily moans at them at them when they try to explain to him that they're seeking shelter: "Even Welsh ought not to sound like that." As the film goes on, you learn that Penderel has much more to him than simply being someone who jokes a lot. You learn that he served in World War I, which he first mentions when Horace proposes a toast that he feels would be lost on him given his youth, stating that he's exactly the right age for it and commenting (or reciting, I'm not sure), "War generation slightly soiled. A study in the bittersweet. The man with a twisted smile." Later on when they're sitting around, getting to know each other, Penderel admits that he's a "fish out of water," even though he himself has no sympathy for such people, adding, "My trouble is I don't think enough things are worthwhile." Not only is this due to what he saw during the war but also, as he reveals to Gladys, he left behind a lover of his when it was over, which explains why he's so taken with her as soon as they meet, finally finding something he feels is worthwhile. But, above everything else, he proves to be quite brave, helping Philip and Porterhouse restrain Morgan when he lets Saul out and puts Margaret and Gladys in the cupboard to keep them safe while he deals with the maniac himself, placating him but knowing full well how dangerous he really is and tries reassure him that there's nobody in there. All the while he listens to Saul rattle on crazily, he tries to find some way to subdue, trying to go for the fire-poker, and finally gets into a fight with him when he tries to burn the house down, unintentionally killing him and badly hurting himself. But, despite his injury, he proposes marriage to Gladys the next morning, which she, of course, accepts.

Like Penderel, businessman Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) initially comes across as a jolly, exuberant soul, being very vocal when he first arrives with Gladys about how terrible the weather is and how wonderful roast beef is on empty stomach, proceeding to sing a little bit about it (sound familiar?) but, also like Penderel, everybody's getting to know one another later on, you learn that all is not as it seems. He comes off as rather touchy when Penderel mentions how he's more willing to put energy into anything just to make a few pounds while he himself isn't, feeling slighted by the comment, and then reveals that he's a rather melancholy and hurt person, saying, "I don't admire meself so much. I know that money-making isn't everything... I'm a young man, see? Married to a Manchester girl, pretty as paint, the only thing in the world I cared about... well, she dies. It's this way. My directors give a party. They ask us. Red letter day for us, I can tell ya. I buy me first dress suit and Luck has a new frock. A cotton frock. It seems that Lucy didn't go too well at that party, especially with the women. They snubbed her. Nothing definite, you know? Just didn't think the cotton frock was good enough. Well, Lucy worries about, gets into her head that she's going to hold me back... Well, you may not believe it but I know that's what killed her. That's what started me making money. That's why I've smashed all those fellas and their wives who wouldn't give my Lucy a kind word. Ha, and I have smashed them. At least, most of them. Once you've started making money, it's hard to stop, especially if you're like me and there isn't much else you're good at." In spite of his obvious bitterness and how he calls Gladys out for using a fake surname, you later learn from her that he's actually a good man, paying her enough to get by and not expecting "anything" from her in return (because he's clearly still in love with Lucy), just her company because of how lonely he is. He shows his true good colors when, upon being asked if he's angry Gladys' decision to go with Penderel, who has no money at all, he says, "I think you're a lunatic, but I'm not angry," and makes it obvious that he's happy for them when Penderel tells him that he plans to propose to her and he responds, "I think it's probably the best day's work you've ever done in your life." Unfortunately, he doesn't get a chance to be much of a hero except when he helps Penderel and Philip subdue Morgan after he's released Saul and even then, it looks like Morgan manage to lock them up instead.

Like the previous two characters I've mentioned, it's eventually revealed that there's more to Gladys (Lilian Bond) than the kind of free-spirited, kind of brazen woman who dances a rowdy jig to the tune of London Bridge when Penderel give her his dry shoes in place of her wet ones. She reveals that her last name is actually Perkins rather than DuCane and that she's not afraid to reveal that she's a chorus girl, adding to Porterhouse, "If were better at my job, I probably wouldn't be weekending with you. No, I take that back. I probably would. You're nice enough. We get on but..." When she and Penderel are getting a little cozy in the car parked in the house's stables, she admits that she likes Porterhouse but doesn't love him, although she stays with him to keep his company because she understands how lonely he is. One thing's for sure, though: she's had an interest in Penderel ever since she arrived, being able to peg him as the "fish out of water" that he is early on and, rather quickly, grows to love him. Unfortunately, that's a weakness both with the character and the plot: I don't find the romance between her and Penderel to be that absorbing, mainly because of how sudden and quickly it comes about. You come to expect something like this in these old films but it is a notable problem with this movie for me.

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.

As I've been getting at, the most memorable characters, after Morgan, are the members of the Femm family. Horace (Ernest Thesiger) has two main modes: accommodating to the strangers but with an air of snobbishness about him at the same time and very jittery about what the night will bring with them trapped in the house by the storm and the danger of Morgan's alcoholism. He admits early on that he's a rather nervous man and is not too good at hiding it, especially when he has to go upstairs to retrieve an oil lamp from outside of Saul's room, making up a myriad of poor excuses and often contradicting himself as to why they shouldn't bother with it. He also lets on that he's wanted by the police, saying that he wouldn't stay at the house if he didn't have to, but exactly what his crime was is never made clear. One thing that is clear about him, though, is that there's a lot of contempt between him and his sister, Rebecca (when he first mentions her, he throws some flowers she was arranging into the fireplace), as he's often the target of her religious fanaticism. Most of the time, he ignores her but, before they have dinner and Rebecca admonishes him for attempting to carve the roast beef before they've said grace, Horace openly mocks her: "Oh, I had forgotten my sister's strange tribal habits. The beef will seem less tough when she has invoked a blessing upon it... I was merely telling your wondering guests that you were about to thank your Gods for their bounty, to thank them for the health and prosperity and happiness granted to this family, for its years of peace and plenty, to thank them for having created Rebecca Femm, and Roderick Femm, and Saul..." (Interestingly, Thesiger's later, more famous role of Dr. Pretorious in Bride of Frankenstein would have a similar low opinion of religion and Christianity in general.) Ultimately, though, whenever I think of Horace, one thing immediately comes to mind: "Have a potato," which he says in a slightly sneering voice when he's passing out the food. It's the first line and clip I ever saw of the film, so obviously, it left an impression.

Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) is simultaneously a source of comic relief and a sinister character, especially towards Margaret. Being more than a little deaf (Horace comments that sometimes, she's "quite" deaf), she often repeats things that have already been said by or asked of her, asks people to say something again several times, and often talks quite loudly. When the travelers first meet her, her first lines are, "What is it? What do they want?... What did they say? What do they want? What are they doing here? What's all the fuss about? What?!", and when she's showing Margaret to her room where she can change her wet clothes, you have this exchange between the two of them: "It's a dreadful night." "What?!" "I said it's a dreadful night." "Yes, it's a very old house. Very old." "It's very kind of you to let us stay." "What?!" "I say you're very kind." "Yes, it is a dreadful night. I'm a little deaf." "I understand." "Yes. No beds!" That last line is her often repeated line, as she's very reluctant to let them stay and when it's clear they have no choice, she makes it very clear that they can't have any beds because they have none to spare. Like I said, though, everything about her isn't all laughs, as she's so overzealous in her religious beliefs that she's one of those people who sees sin and evil in everyone around her. She not only has it out for Horace because of his lack of faith and constant mockery of it but also for her own father, whom she calls a "wicked, blasphemous old man," and for her dead sister, Rachel, who died when she was 21 and whom Rebecca describes as, "A wicked one. Handsome and wild as a hawk. All the young men used to follow her about, with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck. But that didn't save her." She goes on to describe how Rachel fell off her horse, injuring her spine, and slowly died on her bed, sometimes begging Rebecca to put her out of misery and refusing to turn to the lord, "Godless to the last." She then talks about the "sinful" women the men of the family would bring to the house and saying that everyone would tell her, not Rachel, to go away and pray during those times. (Given everything she says about her and the way she says it, it makes you wonder if she murdered Rachel while she was helpless on her bed, something that Saul claims to know. Then again, Saul is so crazy that it might have been him who did it.) That's when her wrath turns to Margaret, telling her she's wicked as well, "Young and handsome, silly and wicked. You think of nothing but your long, straight legs and your white body and how to please your man. You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don't you?" She makes a comment about how both Margaret's undergarment and flesh will rot in time, emphasizing her point by touching her above the neckline, and later on when Margaret is by herself, you see in shadow that Rebecca antagonizes her again. And it's very obvious that she doesn't care for Gladys, who she can tell is something of a free-spirit when she and Porterhouse first arrive, and is clearly glad that they're gone when Margaret and Philip leave to get help at the end of the movie (she did offer the girls protection from Morgan at one point but that's about the only good deed she does).

One character I found unsettling when I first saw him in the clip James Rolfe showed on CineMassacre's Monster Madness is Sir Roderick Femm, the 102-year old patriarch of the family. I just knew there was something about him the minute I saw him, as he sounds and looks like an old woman, even though they make it clear that he is a man, right down to his facial hair, and it turns out I was right. Despite being billed as John Dudgeon in the credits, the actor playing Sir Roderick is actually Elspeth Dudgeon, a woman, because James Whale couldn't find a man who looked ancient enough to be credible as someone who's over a hundred years old. The result is effectively unsettling because of how contradictory it is. Regardless, though, Sir Roderick, in spite of Rebecca's less than flattering description of him, is one of the friendlier members of the family, warning Margaret and Philip that they shouldn't have come but clarifying that it's not because he didn't want them, saying he was never inhospitable to guests. He tells them that it's an "unlucky" house, refers to Morgan as savage but one who they have no choice but to keep on, and tells them of how two of his children died in their 20's and that the rest of the family has been touched by madness in some way (he mentions that he doesn't think it's affected him but the way he softly cackles after saying things that aren't the least bit funny says otherwise), and ultimately warns them of Saul, the most maniacal and dangerous member of the family who they keep locked upstairs and who Morgan may turn loose if he gets drunk enough.

Speaking of Saul (Brember Wills), whom Sir Roderick says simply wants to destroy and kill, what you first see of him is his left hand creeping down the railing of the staircase as he otherwise remains hidden by the wall. He stays there for a while, while everyone else deals with Morgan, and when he finally does come down, he initially looks more like a frightened prisoner than an unleashed monster, claiming to Penderel that they keep him locked up because he knows that they killed Rachel years ago. (Sir Roderick says that he's the eldest son but he looks younger than Horace and Rebecca, don't you think?) However, when Penderel turns his back, Saul's true nature comes through when he sneers evilly at him and chuckles, telling Penderel that he wants to tell him a story and picking up a knife on the floor while continuing to chuckle sinisterly. He goes into detail about his pyromania, saying that he knows things about fire that no one else does, saying, "Flames are really knives, and they're cold, my friend. Sharp and cold, as snow. They burn like... ice." Penderel is clearly nervous as he now sees just how insane Saul is and it gets even worse when he starts rambling about the Saul from the Bible before throwing the knife at Penderel, attacking him with a chair, and attempting to burn the house down. This leads to a violent struggle between him and Penderel atop the second landing, with the two of them falling back down into the dining room, killing Saul and severely injuring Penderel.

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.

At the end of the day, it is my least favorite of James Whale's horror films but that's not to say that The Old Dark House is a bad movie, which it isn't. It has a lot of things going for it, like good actors playing, mostly, memorable parts, especially the members of the Femm family, a setting and idea that has since become quintessential horror, and really good use of atmosphere with creepy visuals and unnerving sounds that are elevated by the lack of music. But, again, it does suffer from the lack of a strong narrative, some characters who are a bit bland, and lulls in the thrills department. However, I would recommend fans of classic horror, particularly of Universal, attempt to track it down. Just don't expect a major classic like Whale's other films or any of its peers, for that matter.

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