Something of a flop on its initial American release (although doing somewhat better here in Britain, supposedly breaking House records at the Capital Theatre in London), time has been kind to The Old Dark House, having since become something of a classic for fans of Gothic Horror Cinema, not to mention a rediscovered Gem for lovers of the work of James Whale. It’s rather sad then that after its pathetic box office takings it spent the next Thirty to Forty years sat forgotten on a shelf in the Universal Vault, gathering dust and unseen by anyone, considered a lost film despite its phenomenal UK takings. Perhaps spurred on by its continued British reputation as a classic, Hammer and William Castle in 1963 chose to remake the film leading to even more interest in the forgotten original. Eventually in 1968 Curtis Harrington was able to track the negative down and convinced Kodak to attempt a restoration- causing an immediate revaluation. Almost fifty years since it’s rediscovery it’s a reputation that still persists amongst horror fans and is often hailed as the best of its type giving birth to an entire sub genre of horror entitled ‘Old Dark House’ Movies. Despite all that though, personally I think it’s important for another reason- it’s one of the first Horror Comedies and even after all this time it somehow manages to be one of the few to get the balance just right.
Its setup having now become something of a Cliché, with a group of travellers getting stranded in a storm and being forced to run to a spooky ‘Old Dark House’ (pardon the pun) for shelter, it’s unusual how this film still manages to make it somewhat unique. We spend our opening minute or two with a bickering couple in the front of a car, immediately I was somewhat disappointed. Of course I know that Old Dark House beat its copycats too it but it’s a sequence that (even when I saw this film for the first time) I’d seen a hundred times (see my Dolls 1987 review). I simply could not contain my laughter when a third passenger is revealed, led snoozing across the back seat. This is where we are introduced to the character of Penderel, who, as the husband and wife go through every cliché in the book, is almost the voice of the audience cracking joke after joke and making rather humorous sarcastic comments about the situation. It seems highly likely that although the ‘Old Dark House’ cliché was not prominent in cinema at the time that due to the popularity of plays in the same sub genre that Whale is poking fun at the audience’s expectations and at the ridiculousness of the entire situation.
The genius however is that Penderel, played with expertly with both depth and humour by Melvyn Douglas, is so much more than simple comic relief. Halfway through he reveals himself as a Veteran of the First World War, one of a generation left disillusioned and broken by the horrors they had seen. It’s at this point that his character changes somewhat and aside from being a simple funny man, his sarcasm is given some history- being a result of his detachment from society. He then morphs and becomes the Hero of the piece, the man we all root for and even his quick decision to marry a girl some short hours after he has met her doesn’t appear out of character or ridiculous.
The rest of the cast are on top form too, with special mention having to go to a favourite of mine- Ernest Thesiger as a nervous and deliciously creepy old man, along with Charles Laughton who gives a humorous if touching portrayal of a working class Northern Man embittered by his desire for money and the loss of his wife. Famously the film stars Boris Karloff as the Butler Morgan but if anything this was one of the few elements that left me cold. His portrayal of the Mute butler, whilst still an excellent performance, is a little bit too similar to his portrayal of the Frankenstein monster for my liking. Morgan is also one of the most underdeveloped characters and seems to do things for no reason at all, why on earth do they keep him to protect them from the mad brother if he secretly has some sort of admiration for him and there’s a fear of him letting the brother loose? Speaking of the Mad Brother, having never heard of the actor ‘Brember Wills’ before, I was particularly impressed with his interpretation of a pyromaniac, giggling and cackling as he sets about his work but having something of childlike innocence about him at the same time. His short scene is easily the most terrifying and tense part of the film.
Finally I have to give special mention to the deliciously creepy atmosphere created by the film, the use of lighting in particularly give a real sense of dread and foreboding. All in all the Old Dark House certainly lives up to its reputation, a few plot holes and minor niggles aside it’s well deserving of its reputation and a perfect film for those cold, dark winter nights.