Just as Bela Lugosi followed up on his role of Dracula with Murders in the Rue Morgue, Boris Karloff would have his turn in front of the camera after scaring audiences as The Monster in Frankenstein.
Once more he would team up with James Whale, who would be on hand for directorial duties, and his craft is well toned in this cross between light-hearted drama and haunted house horror.
It certainly takes its time to get the wheels moving as it sets up the multiple of characters that descend upon the strange house and its odd occupants to shelter from a passing storm.
There’s the argumentative couple who we first meet and the dialogue feels stilted and all due respect, as thought they are lifting the lines off the page instead of embodying it.
It’s only when Melvyn Douglas arises from the back of the car with his upbeat banter that you start to think, ‘thank fuck for that’, even if it does come across as a little overbearing.
When they arrive at the house, they are greeted by the mute butler ably played by Karloff, who it turns out, does not make a happy drunk.
Boy, we’ve all met one of them, haven’t we?
Alongside Karloff, we also meet a couple of the Femm family, the neurotic Horace and his sister, Rebecca, who is not only partially deaf, but a bit of a grumpy cow.
There is something deliberately off beat about this movie and because of this, the audience play into the hands of the director, who leads through our uneasiness, which can’t seem to shift, despite the presence of the charismatic performance of Charles Laughton in his first Hollywood film, and a romantic interest thrown in for good measure.
Gladys even remarks on how there is something odd about the house and is reluctant to go back inside.
Of course she does, and in doing so, the audience is greeted by more oddities and peculiarities.
Karloff’s Morgan has hit the bottle by this point and has gone on the rampage.
The arguing couple are no longer doing so and appear to show genuine care for each other.
In this state of enlightenment, they meet the patriarch of the Femm household, a bed-ridden Sir Roderick, who despite being billed as John Dudgeon was actually played by Elspeth Dudgeon, because apparently Whale couldn’t find a man who looked old enough to play the 102 year old.
The problem is that it clearly looks like a woman with a few tufts of hair to form the guise of a beard.
Is that supposed to make her look more “manly”?
The result is that it took me further out of the movie than I already was.
What does pull you back in though, is the introduction of another brother, who has been locked in a room upstairs, and for good reason, for he’s clearly insane and is played with clear mania and glee by Brember Wills.
Said brother, Saul is also a pyromaniac and when his appears on the screen, the level of menace and sinister is heightened because of it, a testament to Wills’ performance.
There are some ingredients in here to make the movie a worthwhile viewing and yet, some say that William Castle’s version that came about in 1963 is arguably a better adaptation.
What is strange though is that in a Top 100 horror movie list as conducted by Time Out magazine and selected by authors, directors, actors and critics of the genre, The Old Dark House reached No. 71, a fact that I find hard to believe when there have been so many glorious movies in the horror realm that trump this film.
But it’s our diversity in taste that keeps us united and divided in our love of horror.
It keeps us debating and talking, to challenge each other and find common ground.
And some cases, change our opinions or go back to review those films again.
- Paul Farrell