(oh and minor spoilers be ahead)
The Old Dark House was called for a long time the "Lost" Universal horror movie. It got that title because in the 1960's, William Castle did a version of the story, and for some odd reason or another it got out of circulation; thankfully a print was discovered, and we have a DVD of the film today. It's also got a special distinction of being one of the rare Universal horror movies of the period (maybe the only I can think of) that doesn't have one of the classic monsters. I actually didn't hear of the movie, despite probably looking up James Wale's filmography at some point or another, until the Cinemassacre review some time ago. Finally sitting down to watch it the simple question to pose of a movie over 80 years old: is it still frightening? In some ways, yes, very much so. In other ways, no, but that's fine.
The premise of the Old Dark House is one that I'm sure could be told around a campfire (it came from a novel, from JB Priestly) and I'm sure has been used, unintentionally I'd suppose, for many movies with terror and horror like this (Psycho being one of them): on a dark and stormy night out in the countryside, three people are driving along and just can't keep going on as they're lost, so they come upon a house which is run by Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) and her brother Phillip (Raymond Massey, who you may recall from Things to Come and/or Arsenic and Old Lace). It's not the most welcoming home - it's lit but it has some dark parts to it - not least of all because of the 'Servant' Mr. Morgan (Karloff).
|This is not.... wine.|
There's a rather awkward, kind of demented scene where Gloria Stuart needs to changer her clothes, and the old Ms Femm follows her into the room and while she's changing (we don't see that, but see more than we would being pre-Code and all) and tells the rather sad and gruesome story of her sister who died when she was 21. Often in this scene Wale and his cameraman shoot the old woman through a distorted view that's supposed to be a mirror, giving her the visage of some old witch telling of death and madness in this warped perspective. In other words, this woman doesn't really take to hints such as 'Get out of the room so I can change'; it's her home, she'll talk about her dead sister, goddamnit!
The movie has a curious opening, by the way, just before the Universal logo pops up, where a title card is shown that explains THE Boris Karloff in the case is one and the same as the "Mechanical Monster" from Frankenstein. One might expect Karloff then to be the star, but The Old Dark House is actually an ensemble picture, and he's in it about as much as he was in the 31 Frankenstein.
That said, his Morgan is a creepy, deliberately strange and off-putting presence, dressed in a raggedy suit, with a full beard, messy hair, and a scar down his face that probably has a story to it (I don't think it's told in the film, adding to the mystery). He doesn't have a line of dialog, and all the better for it - he is akin to the Monster from the previous Wale movie, but a little more like an Ape-Man or something, lunging and having more force than the stilted form of the Dr's creation. What I liked too is that by the final reel his character isn't quite *as* terrifying as before, and for good reason.
This is the sort of horror tale where there is a twist, but it doesn't come out of the blue; this is a house that is haunted not by ghosts but by a member of the family locked away in the top floor. I really liked how Wale set up this house as a place that is bigger than it might look from the outside - when one of the characters is asked by the old lady Femm to fetch a lamp, he goes at first with Mr. Femm, and he acts squirmy and 'off'.
If you just were to look at what he's saying it'd sound reasonable, but he's directed to play it as wormy, and as the audience we can't be sure about this Massey guy, that he might just pull all of the guests together and chop them into pieces (the woman too, though she'd complain more about how to chop them together). So the guest has to go up the stairs alone, but it seems like it goes longer than it should; this isn't through any trick photography, but in the pacing, and how Wale suggests that there is a really dark mystery at the top.
|Few things are scary in this world as pointing for no good reason...|
The Old Dark House is loaded for bear with creepy atmosphere and dialog that has some real kick going on. In some ways this is a very dark comedy, as we have to know from the moment the guests step in that this will not go well, so why not get a few chuckles - not least of which by Laughton, which might be expected, but the actors playing the Femms have a lot of awkward, cringe-type comedy as they have mad, terse exchanges about what to do next or if, say, to answer the door when new guests arrive. And when violence erupts, it's staged in such a way that it's messy and brutal, like someone could die at any moment from the wrong blow (except for Morgan, he's solid like a brick shithouse).
One thing keeping it from being all great is what I guess is something akin to a trope seen in certain slasher movies and the like - there's a romantic subplot thrown in there between two of the guests (Douglas and Bond); the attraction part might be alright, since they're attractive enough people for 1932 England. But they not only immediately fall for one another, but they profess to get married.... after, I don't know, twenty minutes being around one another (!) It's melodramatic nonsense that is performed with a minor wink to the audience, but not enough, and it holds up a story that is tight enough to probably (no, definitely) not need it. After all, we really want to get to the 'other' brother, Saul and, luckily, by the time we do (via Brember Wills, a character actor mostly), it's a knockout.
But you should see this movie if you want to get a fuller sense of what Universal could do if it stepped outside of their franchises; this is a spooky, chilling 'haunted' house movie without the ghosts, rather, a story about the damned, conspicuously living (and near dead) who are perfectly miserable by their lonesome, and when any outsiders arrive it's like All Systems On Alert. One might think that it's not always this ridiculously, apocalyptically stormy out, but from the look of the Femms you'd think they'd been here all along... with their potatoes...