It’s the stuff of Gothic fiction: travelers get caught in a torrential rainstorm in the middle of nowhere; they seek shelter in an isolated house; they soon come to realize that the inhabitants of the house are slightly mad if not downright homicidal. The story line has been used for centuries. Rocky Horror Picture Show uses it. But The Old Dark House is the first to use it in a talking picture, and it certainly competes with Rocky Horror Picture Show as the most over-the-top bizarre horror film of all time.
Here, we begin with three people – a married couple named Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their friend Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) – driving through a remote section of Wales in the midst of a howling storm. They’re reluctantly allowed into the old dark house of the spectacularly neurotic Femm family: Gladys, a squat, unsmiling religious fanatic (Eva Moore); her gaunt, effeminate brother Horace (Ernest Thesiger); and their mute, alcoholic servant Morgan (Boris Karloff). As we learn later in the film, there are two other members of the family living there: Sir Roderick, the bedridden 102-year-old patriarch of the family (John Dudgeon, theoretically); and Saul, the third brother (Brember Wills), who is padlocked and bolted into his bedroom.
In the middle of supper, another stranded couple enter the house: Sir William Porterhouse, a brash, boastful millionaire with an enormous chip on his shoulder (Charles Laughton) and his female companion, an earthy chorus girl named Gladys (Lillian Bond).
In the course of the night, it’s clear that all is not well in the Femm household. The storm blows down the power lines; there’s a large lamp on the landing of the first set of stairs, but Horace is terrified of going up there. The Wavertons discover Sir Roderick in his room at the top of the stairs, where he giggles a lot and warns them about his family. By the climax of the film, Penderel and Gladys have fallen in love, Morgan has attempted sexual assault on the two younger women, and Saul has been released from his room and is trying to set fire to the house. And in the last couple of minutes, it’s pretty clear from Horace’s attitude that it was just another night with the Femms.
The amazing thing, apart from the sheer style and speed of the film (it runs about 70 minutes), is how intentionally funny much of it is. The Femm family is so outrageously odd that it’s impossible really to be frightened by them, although Karloff’s portrayal of Morgan is pretty convincingly bestial. Mr. and Mrs. Waverton are pretty dull; Penderel is a typically superficial leading man of the time, always ready with a joke; Sir William and Gladys are an incompatible couple, but there’s nothing particularly outstanding about either of them. Apart from a couple of creepy moments (such as when Mrs. Waverton is standing at an open door and a hand comes slowly from behind her to drag her back into the house) and an action-packed finale, this is basically a comedy of manners, in which a group of civilized strangers are thrown in with a family of lunatics who all loathe one another.
James Whale’s previous film, Frankenstein, was an enormous success and had made a star of Boris Karloff (who, there and in this film, is listed in the credits simply as KARLOFF). Three years later, he would direct Bride of Frankenstein, which has the same kind of wit and unashamedly gay sensibility as The Old Dark House. The two films also share three cast members: Karloff, Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, and Elspeth Dudgeon as a gypsy’s mother.
And therein lies a mystery, because John Dudgeon, who was credited as playing Sir Roderick Femm, was, in reality, Elspeth Dudgeon, a London-born actress who appeared, usually uncredited, in many films after settling in Hollywood. No one seems quite certain why Whale and Universal listed her as “John” in the credits, but, since they showed the credits at the beginning and at the end of the film, it was clearly intentional.
It’s not technically a British film – it was filmed in Hollywood by Universal Pictures, and two of its stars (Douglas and Stuart) are American-born – but that’s only a technicality. The Old Dark House is based on a novel, Benighted, by the English author J. B. Priestley. Its screenplay is by the English writer and director Benn Levy. Most of its actors are British. And its director, James Whale, was born in England and worked there exclusively until coming to America in 1929, when he was forty years old. What’s more, although the film was received tepidly in America, it was a major success in Britain.
One of the interesting things about this film is that its cast consisted of an unusually large percentage of actors near the outsets of their film careers who would go on to become major stars. There’s Boris Karloff, of course, who was already a star thanks to Frankenstein, and whose role is relatively small in The Old Dark House.
Melvyn Douglas started out as a Shakespearean actor, became a busy leading man during the 1930s and 1940s, returned to the stage in the 1950s, and then became a star again in the 1960s and 1970s as a character actor, winning an Oscar as Gene Hackman’s crotchety father in I Never Sang for My Father.
Gloria Stuart (who, I have to admit, is attractive but boring in The Old Dark House) starred in films between 1932 and 1946. She was brought out of retirement in 1997 to play Old Rose in Titanic, which got her an Oscar nomination, and died in 2010 at the age of 100.
Charles Laughton’s career as a film star began in 1932, the same year as The Old Dark House, when he appeared as Nero in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Sign of the Cross. The following year he won an Oscar starring in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and his reputation as a star and a brilliant actor never really faded until his death in 1962 at the age of 63. (His wife, Elsa Lanchester, played the title role in Bride of Frankenstein.)
Then there’s Raymond Massey, who was a Canadian by birth but whose early film and stage career was primarily based in England. He specialized in historical figures, such as Cardinal Richelieu in Under the Red Robe and King Philip II of Spain in Fire Over England, and become renowned in the U.S. for playing (and becoming somewhat typecast as) Abraham Lincoln on stage and in films. The playwright George S. Kaufman once said, “Massey won’t be satisfied until he’s assassinated.” Massey’s children, Daniel and Anna, both became highly respected actors in England.
But my favorite of the cast might be Ernest Thesiger. Born in London in 1879, he had intended to be a painter but ended up in the theater (although he remained friends with many of his fellow artists, and there’s a drawing of him by John Singer Sargent below). He fought and was wounded in World War I – apparently he originally hoped to join a Scottish regiment so that he could wear a kilt – and, when asked about the war, he said, “My dear, the noise! And the people!” He was an internationally renowned expert in embroidery, about which he published a book entitled Adventures in Embroidery. His cousin Frederic was Viceroy of England from 1916-21.
Like his friend James Whale, Thesiger was openly gay at a time when that was illegal in England, although he was also married (apparently happily) to a woman for over forty years. (The same was true of Charles Laughton, who was more discreet about his sexual orientation.) Thesiger appeared in over sixty films. Most of them were made in England, but he’s most famous for his remarkable performance as Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein. That role is not a million miles from Horace Femm: both characters are haughty, prim, fussy, sarcastic, malicious – the epitome of what the English would call “camp”.
I liked him as a child, although I knew nothing about him, because he was in two of my favorite films: Bride of Frankenstein and the 1951 Alastair Sim version of Scrooge, in which he played the undertaker. By that stage of his life, he was modeling his appearance and mannerisms on those of his good friend Queen Mary of England.
As for director James Whale, he directed some of the most famous films of the 1930s: Journey’s End, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Show Boat, The Man in the Iron Mask. He retired from directing in 1941 after a couple of major flops and committed suicide in 1957. His life became the subject of a very good film starring Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters.
After its first showing in 1932, The Old Dark House was considered lost until the horror-film director Curtis Harrington rediscovered it in 1968. There’s another film called The Old Dark House, filmed in 1963 in England with a mostly English cast. It’s a spoof, and it’s awful.