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Seeking shelter from a pounding rainstorm in a remote region of Wales, several travellers are admitted to a gloomy, foreboding mansion belonging to the extremely strange Femm family. Trying to make the best of it, the guests must deal with their sepulchral host, Horace Femm and his obsessive, malevolent sister Rebecca. Things get worse as the brutish manservant Morgan gets drunk, runs amuck and releases the long pent-up brother Saul, a psychotic pyromaniac who gleefully tries to destroy the residence by setting it on fire. Written by
Doug Sederberg <firstname.lastname@example.org>
After the introductory credits there is a 'producer's note' (but it comes before EVERYTHING, including the studio logo, on the version shown by Turner Classic Movies): 'Karloff, the mad butler in this production, is the same Karloff who created the part of the mechanical monster in "Frankenstein". We explain this to settle all disputes in advance, even though such disputes are a tribute to his great versatility.' See more »
Tales about sinister, creepy mansions were already clichéd by the time director James Whale directed THE OLD DARK HOUSE--and instead of presenting the piece as a straight-forward thriller he mixed the film's very atmospheric cinematography with a wild strain of parody. The result is a movie with a bizarre camp humor that foreshadows Whale's slightly later and even more bizarrely camp THE BRIDE OF FRANKESTEIN.
The plot, very based loosely on a J.B. Priestly novel, is perfunctory, existing only to throw together an ensemble cast of already-famous and soon-to-be-famous stars. Five motorists are trapped in the wilds of Wales during a horrific storm and are forced to seek shelter at, of course, an old dark house... but their unwilling hosts are a neurotic Ernest Thesiger, his religious fanatic sister Eva Moore, and their hulking, deformed, and mute butler Boris Karloff. Before the night is over the storm-weary travelers experience everything from a hellish meal to religious lectures--not to mention assault, attempted rape, mysterious cackling, a bit of arson, and a touch of homosexual hysteria (courtesy of Thesiger, Moore, and a surprise male character who is actually played by a woman) thrown in for good measure.
The cast is exceptional; in addition to Karloff, Thesiger, and Moore, we have Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, and Lilian Bond, and they wring the most from the covertly wicked script, with Eva Moore ranting about "laughter and sin," Thesiger inviting Raymond Massey into his room "to see a few things," and one of the most socially awkward meals ever put to film. But the film's real power is its cinematography: when they say old DARK house, they really mean it, and the look of the film is just as disorienting for viewers as for the characters; particularly noteworthy is the scene in which Moore lectures Gloria Stuart, with their faces distorted by the bedroom mirror, and the sequence in which Karloff pursues the white-clad and wind-whipped Gloria Stuart with mayhem in mind.
Viewers who expect "Universial Horror" fare will probably be disappointed by THE OLD DARK HOUSE, and director James Whale would create a still more memorable combination of horror and high-camp with THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTIEN. But THE OLD DARK HOUSE is an overlooked jewel of unusual quality: a sardonic parody of a famous theme, well played, filmed and scripted. Recommended.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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