Thirty years before Vincent Price made The Masque of the Red Death and over eighty years before Jennifer Kent made The Babadook, James Whale brought the Gothic mode of cinema out of a stuffy, rat-infested cellar and onto theatre screens. With Frankenstein he set his reputation in stone before proceeding to enshrine it with the likes of Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House. Thought lost for many decades, the British Film Institute recently restored the latter in 4K for an eagerly anticipated re-release.
Phillip Waverton (Raymond Massey), his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart) and their ex-soldier friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) seek shelter from a terrible storm in the Welsh mountains. They find it in the Femm household. There the devout Rebecca (Eva Moore), bat-like Horace (Ernest Thesiger) and hulking mute manservant Morgan (Boris Karloff) host them as best one can be hosted in a decrepit mansion battered by rain and full of dark secrets. The Waverton’s and Roger’s are quickly followed by Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and Gladys Perkins (Lilian Bond). From there unfolds a comedy of manners and haunted house story worthy of Billy Wilder and Edgar Allan Poe respectively.
The Old Dark House is a pre-code film which means that it was made in a brief five-year period between 1929 and 1934 where censorship guidelines known as the Hays Code were poorly enforced. The lack of enforcement made getting away with scenes of intense violence and those of a sexually suggestive nature quite easy. Shots of men fighting like its 3 a.m. outside Coppers or women changing from a decent full body dress into – shock, horror! – a nightgown were common.
Director James Whale used the weak enforcement to his advantage. After 1934, fight scenes involved a great deal of cutaways or were made to look like two mannequins having an argument. In The Old Dark House, Whale clearly encouraged the actors to go hell-for-leather in attempting to make it look like they were seven pints deep and the bouncer was distracted. Elsewhere in the film Gloria Stuart’s Margaret treats the camera to a great deal of ankle, shoulder and knee exposure. Reader, I tell you, the Victorian geriatric in me fainted dead away.
Beyond its explicit violence and arousing ankle shots The Old Dark House has a lot going on for it. It’s not all sex and violence. The story is suitably gothic and the lighting and set design set the mood wonderfully. A superbly chilling piece of shadow puppetry in the middle makes the twisting third act seem quite disappointing by comparison. It’s as if screenwriters R. C. Sherriff and Benn W. Levy were going for something supernatural and then switched gears completely. There’s a good ghost story waiting to be told here.
Although most of the actors speak as if their lives depended on it in the classic transatlantic accent, it’s Boris Karloff as the grunting, massive Morgan that steals the show. Playing a hairier but less human Frankenstein, his presence is enough reason to watch the film even when the dialogue is quite heavy-handed and doesn’t address class issues and post-war trauma as well as Frankenstein does.
The Old Dark House never reaches the highs of Whale’s other iconic horror output. Yet, it comes damn close. The script feels like it was in between drafts and some of the acting, particularly from those playing the semi-villainous Femm family, looks amateurish compared with the Hollywood pros also in the picture. However, despite its flaws The Old Dark House deserved to be rescued from history’s dustbin even if the 4K restoration didn’t do much. Better to keep and therefore remember these films as they were.
The Old Dark House in 4K is available exclusively in the IFI from April 27th