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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 <email@example.com>
This film was not included in the "Shock Theatre" package with the other Universal horror films. See more »
After Horace drops the glass flower vase on the floor and it shatters, no effort is made to clean it up, nor is Morgan told to do so, yet the rest of the characters walk around as if there's no shattered glass covering the floor. See more »
The fact is, Morgan is an uncivilized brute. Sometimes he drinks heavily. A night like this will set him going and once he's drunk he's rather dangerous.
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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 »
It is fully to James Whale's credit that he didn't lunge automatically for the horror genre's jugular after the lurch-away success of Frankenstein. Following his cynical romantic drama Impatient Maiden the urbane Brit next adapted JB Priestly's 1927 novel "Benighted' (or 'Cursed') for the screen.
Though Priestly felt Whale had jettisoned the novel's psychological aspects along with the title, The Old Dark House does in fact adhere closely to the source material, with verbatim dialogue and even lighting effects ripped directly from the text. It must be said that the film, stark and stagey and suffused with dread, is extremely odd; it's also very funny. (Whale even sends up his own back catalogue with one character shrieking "He's alive!"); while its influence on the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Thundercrack, for example, is clear - another instance of one cult film paying dues to another.
The plot is simplicity itself: on a dark and stormy night in the wilds of Wales, five rain-lashed travellers, including bluff industrialist Sir William Porterhouse (Laughton, in his first US film), his 'escort' Gladys DuCane (Bond), and playboy Roger Penderel (Douglas), seek refuge at the Femm family mansion.
The Femms make the Addams' look like the Waltons. There's wry, effeminate Horace (Thesiger), who diffuses any sticky situation with the repeated exhortation "Have a potato." While his shrewish sister Rebecca (Moore, wonderful) is a deaf religious maniac who takes particular exception to Gladys. "You're silly and wicked. You think of nothing but your long straight legs and your white body and how to please your man. You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don't you?" Then there's the wizened, androgynous family patriarch, the 102-year-old Roderick (played, bizarrely, by Elspeth Dudgeon), and assisting, their mute alcoholic butler, Morgan (Karloff), given to random acts of violence and sworn to on no account unlock the Femm's dirty little secret from the attic - a cackling pyromaniac basketcase called Saul. As with Chekov's "hanging gun" dictum, we can be sure we'll meet Saul (Wills) by the third act.
This being a Whale film, those searching for subversive undercurrents will be sure to find them. One character refuses to come out of a closet, Gladys reveals that "Bill likes people to think he's gay" and the line "My feet were wet - among other things" is her none-too-subtle remark following Penderel's romantic overtures. However, the most obvious reading of the film is as a wry indictment of British manners, and of starched-upper lips in the face of adversity.
Each party (a cross-section of post-war Britain) has something to hide, and nobody is being straight with one other: as Porterhouse observes, "We've been sitting around for two hours talking, and what have we learned about each other? Nothing." There's genuine pathos in Laughton's performance as a lower-class businessman gone to seed ("When you've started making money, it's hard to stop") and in his peculiar relationship with his paid-for companion Gladys, the failed chorus-girl. ("If I were better at my job, I probably wouldn't be weekending with you.") In the Femms and in their visitors we might deduce the insanity of recent history manifested in a fractured, isolated nation still suffering the psychic fall-out from the Great War. And yet even as Whale skewers the woes of a generation, he strives for a happy ending; day follows night, as inexorably as peace, however fleeting, follows conflict.
Such themes may have soared clean over the heads of 1930s Americans; though owing something to the Gothic tradition (and especially The Cat And The Canary) The Old Dark House - free from supernatural trappings - stiffed on release with US audiences who might understandably have expected something a jot more 'monstrous' from the great Whale.
In fact, had the print not been discovered in 1968 mouldering away, unloved and all but forgotten, in the Universal vaults by Whale's friend and fellow director Curtis Harrington, The Old Dark House might never have seen the light of day again. There's something to be said for mucking about in vaults.
On the 2006 Network DVD edition, there's a jolly commentary with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, the pair bringing their wealth of knowledge of the genre to bear on the subject. "People have dinner, somebody goes upstairs, somebody dies" is a typical Newman aside, before he launches into an erudite exposition. "I think Whale obviously had a chip on his shoulder about the state of Post-War Britain," thinks Newman, while launching into a further discussion of Whale's homosexuality: "It's not a homophobic film, because it's in love with camp culture." Jones, meanwhile, finds it "hard to believe Ernest Thesiger wasn't gay". It's also mooted that Horace may be on the run "because of some public indecency, perhaps homosexuality," although Newman thinks he may simply be a draft-dodger.
Of the cast, Newman gets the impression that "Karloff and Whale weren't on great terms," while revealing that Laughton and Whale definitely didn't get on; "they had different approaches to class, and sexuality and acting. Whale was very rude when he came over to Laughton's for dinner."
Both concede the on-set tea breaks must have been interesting; all these actors had fascinating lives. Newman observes that "each time you meet a new member of the Femm family they get progressively insane. Even the name suggests there's something of the sexually ambiguous about them." Jones admits they might be reading too much into it through hindsight. In summary, it's noted that, as with all old Hollywood films, "any injury can be treated by a bandage round the head."
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