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 »
Superb sets and photography but ultimately just a well played farce
Director James Whale and his cast probably had a good time making this film. After the opening credits there's a "producer's note": '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.'
So you're know what you're in for, at least modern audiences should. Back then it must have been quite daring to openly "expose" and perhaps even undermine the potential scariness of the film, especially Karloff's role as the butler. I think many executives at Universal frowned upon this as well, in particular Carl Laemmle Sr., but Carl Laemmle Jr. probably shared the same kind of humor as Whale, so they let him get away with it.
The film is very loyal to J.B. Priestley's novel "Benighted" and took most of the wonderful dialogs and one-liners directly from the book. As one would expect from James Whale en co, the sharply written dialog is definitely one of the highlights with the best lines being handed to Thesiger, as in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. This supposedly being a send-up of Universal's horror conventions, it's not particularly engaging as a horror film. Eerie things do happen, absolutely, but they are so bizarre and sometimes so utterly over the top, that you either stop caring about the characters or simply lose track of the proceedings at all. But no complaints about the acting, especially the incomparable Ernest Thesiger who is a standout in a first rate cast. And the sets and photography are absolutely superb as is the whole atmosphere in general, largely due to the continuously (and well timed) stormy soundtrack, which greatly adds to the fun.
Many have pointed out that Whale presents us some kind of parody of the horror movie or some kind of archetypal English household. This seems a very modern, almost anachronistic vision to me. What things did he attempt to mock or make fun of? Essentially THE OLD DARK HOUSE is a well acted sometimes very funny stagy farce with a horror atmosphere at best. He certainly had the last laugh because he probably never intended it that way, although most of the critical acclaim came after his death.
A final note on the Special Collector's Edition DVD: Besides the obligatory stills gallery, nothing of particular interest. A six-minute interview with Curtis Harrington about him saving the original copy of the film. Good thing he did it but that's all we need to know. And truly worthless commentary tracks, James Curtis comments like he's reading a list with all kinds of facts about the movie. Suitable for a booklet, not for an audio commentary.
Camera Obscura --- 8/10
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