When I saw William Castle’s 1963 remake in the early 2000s I had a vague memory of, perhaps, bumping into it when I was a kid, the opening credits looked familiar, but when I saw the 1932 original in 1999 I didn’t put two and two together. I had never seen the ’32 movie, never even knew it existed until then either. It was the discovery of the 1999 Kino Video DVD, in ’99, that introduced me to it. I thought it was interesting, but nothing to write home about, or add to my collection for that matter. Funny how eighteen years changes things, especially how one views a movie. Seeing it last night made a better impression on me and this time it’s going to make it into my collection.
There aren’t a lot of movies from the 30s I’m a fan of simply because the farther back you go the more primitive movie making becomes. I draw the line at silent films. Movie making at that stage is far, far too primitive to interest me. Werewolf Of London (1935) used to be the earliest movie I was a fan of, still am a fan actually, but now The Old Dark House resides in that spot.
Before I start off, despite what the title suggests, this movie is not a horror film. IMDB and Wikipedia label it a horror comedy, which in my opinion isn’t entirely accurate either. I mean, yeah, it has moments that are funny, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe as that at all. I’m not sure how I would label it other than “an odd little film” that’s part suspense, part fright and part funny. I love thunderstorms, always have, and what registered this time when I watched was the atmosphere of a group of people huddled together in this “old, dark house” waiting out a storm. I’ve kind of been there, just not in any random old, dark house, but when storms hit you kind of huddle in your home, or where ever you may be, and either fear each thunder strike or relish them. I do the latter. I can’t remember much of my first viewing of the movie, but I know this “thunderstorm huddling vibe” didn’t occur to me. Don’t know why. It just didn’t. But, anyway, I responded to that vibe this time around, which added immensely to my enjoyment of the flick.
Three travelers in the Welsh countryside, Phil Waverton (Raymond Massey) his wife, Margaret (Gloria Stuart), and their mutual friend, Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), have the bad luck to be caught one night in a massive thunderstorm that threatens to flood them out in their car. Just narrowly escaping the collapse of a hillside, they’re forced to seek shelter at the first house that comes into sight; unfortunately this abode is the home of the Femms, a secluded family that has secrets, and the most dangerous one is locked up in a room on the top floor. His name is Saul and he’s a pyromaniac who claims he’s being kept in that room because he knows what his brother and sister did to their other sister when they were young. They murdered her! The now aged siblings, Horace (Ernest Thesiger) and Rebecca (Eva Moore), still occupy the house, and so do their 102-year-old father, Sir Roderick (Elspeth Dudgeon), who is bedridden and concealed in his own room. Boris Karloff plays their mute butler, Morgan, who’s prone to violence when he gets drunk and thunderstorms tend to make him want to get drunk. It’s a perfect storm of pending doom for these three travelers, but they’re not the only ones stuck out in the storm and seeking shelter. After being welcomed in by Horace, and meeting Rebecca and Morgan, two others show up, Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his traveling companion, Gladys Perkins (Lilian Bond).
All of them spend time breaking bread with the Femms and getting to one know one another. Gladys and Roger make a love connection during the course of the movie, but once the lights finally go out is when the “fun” begins. Morgan is set-up to be the one they all need to be careful of, which is partially true, and once drunk he has a tendency to go up to Saul’s locked room and unlock the goddamn door. Horace warns everyone what happened the last time this happened, Saul tried to burn the house down, well, wouldn’t you know it history is about to repeat itself. The men all have a violent encounter with Morgan as they try to wrestle him back into the kitchen, but the damage is already done—Saul’s out! And it’s an interesting initial turn their first encounter is with him. Roger is the first to meet him and upon first impressions he comes off as the victim, claiming he’s been locked up because of what he knows, rather than what he’s done and who he is. It all seems like a pretty good twist, since the other Femms come off as “strange” as well, but the longer Roger interacts with Saul the more he, and we, realize he’s as crazy as Horace and Rebecca claim he is. This encounter results in Saul trying to knife Roger and set fire to a tapestry on the wall on the second floor. Both men go over the landing, but only one is killed in the fall, for a moment we think they both have, but only Saul has finally met his maker.
It may not be a happy ending for the Femms, or, maybe, it is, now that I think about it, but it’s certainly a happy ending for the travelers, especially Roger and Gladys. Morning comes and we see them all get the fuck out of the Dodge. At least they now have one hell of a story to tell once they get back home.
This movie was based on a novel released in the UK in 1927 called, Benighted, by J. B. Priestley, when it made its way to the U.S. it was retitled, The Old Dark House, and according to James Curtis in his commentary it’s incredibly faithful to the novel aside from the inserted comedy. Apparently the novel is more of a fright tale.
As I mentioned The Old Dark House has only had one other DVD release and that was back in 1999, now in the age of blu-ray the Cohen Media Group has given the movie a new 4K restoration that’s set to come out on October 24! Buy it here on Amazon!
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 1.37:1 high definition full frame—2.0 English LPCM—English SDH subs only.
I no longer own the 1999 DVD so have nothing to compare this transfer with, but this new 4K restoration looks pretty damn good regardless.
Extras included . . .
- Audio Commentary With Gloria Stewart
- Audio Commentary With James Whale Biographer James Curtis
- New Interview With Sara Karloff (14:45)
- Curtis Harrington Saves The Old Dark House (7:07)
- 2017 Re-release Trailer
- 12-page Booklet