#18. The Old Dark House (1932)

old dark house 1932

Nature of Shame:
No shame. Just a brilliant new restoration on the big screen at the Hollywood Theater — Dormont, PA.

Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1930’s
Pre-1970’s

99% of all movies merely exist. They’re created to make money. They play in theaters. And then they disappear. Sometimes people remember them. Sometimes they don’t. There’s no sense of divine intervention or immaculate conception; they come about as the result of a screenwriter sitting at his desk wondering what someone might want to see.

And then there’s James Whale’s The Old Dark House. The Old Dark House doesn’t give a damn.

old dark house 1932

The Story

At face value, The Old Dark House descended from “the wayward travelers stranded in a spooky house” boilerplate. One might easily mistake it for any of a dozen other films where doors creak, lightning crashes and a damsel leaps into the arms of her rock-solid man-hero.

We’ll skip ahead to the part where the wayward travelers (Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart) learn that their host, Horace Femm, a man with twitchy, cavernous eyes, is on the run from the law, and his overbearing, bible-thumping, disapproving sister Rebecca Femm believes all modern humans are condemned to rot in hell. Oh, and then there’s Boris Karloff’s Morgan, the alcoholic mute butler with a streak of sociopathy. You apparently couldn’t even get good help in 1932.

While it’s true that The Old Dark House is filled with long shadows, billowy drapes and mysterious voices, the film differentiates itself because screenwriters R.C. Sherriff and Benn Levy populated the film with properly bizarre and often untethered moments. You’ll never look at a bowl of potatoes the same way again.

Credit owed to Universal’s Carl Laemmle. Laemmle fancied himself a lover of film, a champion of the artist’s vision. Uncle Carl admired Whale’s and Levy’s Waterloo Bridge (1931) and brought them together again to work on an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s Benighted, a novel about post-World War I disillusionment. Sherriff came on to add that touch of comedy to the script.

 

Despite garnering mostly popular reviews, The Old Dark House fared poorly at the American box office. According to the booklet accompanying the Kino Lorber DVD, poor word of mouth sunk the film after its initial weekend. Rialto Theater in New York City pulled The Old Dark House only ten days into its initial three-week run.

Disappeared from the public conscience, the film maintained a critical reputation as a stunning example of the gothic style of early Universal horror. After Universal lost the rights to the story in 1957, William Castle remade the film in 1963. The original became a forgotten commodity and potentially a lost film. Whale’s friend, director Curtis Harrington (Queen of Blood), went on a quest in 1968 to assure the film’s survival. He discovered a print in the Universal Studios vault and persuaded the George Eastman House to finance a new print and a restoration of the nearly destroyed first reel.

Even though we can still enjoy the perverse pleasures The Old Dark House (in a newly and beautifully restored Blu-ray from Cohen Media to boot), it saddens me as a lover of classic film that something so singular very nearly disappeared forever — despite being the product of a revered filmmaker such as James Whale. What other treasures have slipped through the cracks from directors we never had the pleasure of knowing? What other films debuted decades ahead of their time only to be met with public confusion and disinterest? These are no new epiphanies; certain films just rekindle old standard film-lover woes.

Final Old Dark House Thoughts:

Top to bottom, The Old Dark House wriggles beneath under your skin — not in that lingering gonna-haunt-your-dreams way. You’ll be thinking about The Old Dark House for days after viewing, whether its your first or your fourth. It’s all the little things that add up to something unforgettable.

the old dark house staircase

The old woman dressed as an old man because Whale couldn’t find an old man worthy of playing a frail character of 100+. #HaveAPotato. Gloria Stuart making shadow puppets as if she had merely found some downtime on set. Melvyn Douglas taking time out to woo Lillian Bond in the garage while chaos ensues inside the house. The ornate and shadowy staircase and bannister. Boris Karloff’s hulking and mischievous servant, falling off the wagon and glaring through broken windows. I could come up with 100 reasons why The Old Dark House is worth your time, but then what would be left for you to discover? Or discover all over again?

 

30Hz Movie Rating:

 

Availability:  

old dark house blu-ray

 

Buy this brand new Blu-ray immediately. The film will never look better and this is an essential film in any self-respective classic horror lover’s collection. Check that. It’s an essential in any self-respecting film lover’s collection.

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2017 @CinemaShame / Hooptober Shame Statement
31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews.

#1. Caltiki The Immortal Monster (1959) / #2. The Devil Doll (1936) / #3. The Velvet Vampire (1971) / #4. Mill of the Stone Women (1960) / #5. The Initiation (1984) / #6. Poltergeist (1982) / #7. Night of the Lepus (1972) / #8. The Black Cat (1934) / #9. The Raven (1935) / #10. Friday the 13th (1980) / #11. Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) / #12. Body Snatcher (1945) / #13. Dismembered (1962) / #14. From Hell It Came (1957) / #15. Symptoms (1974) / #16. Eating Raoul (1982) / #17. Spellcaster (1988) / #18. The Old Dark House (1932) / #19. House (1985) / #20. House II: The Second Story / #21. Christine (1983) / #22. Suspiria (1977) / #23. The Invisible Man (1933) / #24. Spider aka Zirneklis (1991) / #25. The Wife Killer (1976) / #26. Cannibal! The Musical (1993) / #27. The Wicker Man (1973) / #28. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) / #29. Night Creatures (1962)