The Old Dark House (U) | Home Ents Review

Dir. James Whale, US, 1932, 71 mins

Cast: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore

Review by Colin Dibben

This pristine 4K presentation of the comedy-horror classic looks so good that the years melt away, and allow the brilliant tone of this film – uncanny, arch and witty – to shine through.

A married couple, Philip and Margaret Waverton (Massey, Stuart) and their louche companion Penderel (Douglas) get caught in a storm and seek shelter in a creepy old house in rural Wales.

The house is owned by an elderly, aristocratic brother and sister, The Femms, (Thesiger, Moore) who depend on their immense and brutish butler, Morgan (Karloff) to get things done.

Grunting Morgan gets drunk and takes a violent shine to Margaret, but he’s not the only problem facing the travellers, now joined by the bluff Sir William Porterhouse (Laughton) and Gladys, a chorus girl (Bond): there’s someone dangerous locked in the attic.

Will all members of the ensemble cast make it to morning?

The Old Dark House is a creepy comedy of characters and manners, an ironic shaggy dog story and a beautifully shot and edited film.

The wonderfully over-the-top acting by Thesiger, Moore and Karloff is effective because it is delivered through sharply cut sequences that make great use of close-ups, after establishing shots that themselves use angular contrasts of light, dark and shadow across the interiors of the house.

Moore’s character, Rebecca Femm, is exemplary in this regard: her every bark is at the same time the shriek of a sharp edit: “No beds! They can’t have beds!”, “Laughter and sin!”, “They can’t come in!”. It’s hilarious – and it’s also great editing.

Meanwhile, her sinisterly dapper brother, Horace, proposes a toast (neat gin, of course): “To illusion!”

The scene in which R. Femm corners Margaret and tells her the story of her wicked sister’s long, painful demise – the whole sorry tale accompanied by shots of Femm’s face, then Margaret’s and finally Morgan’s, reflected in a warped mirror – will leave jaw-dropped anyone who has an interest in the technical aspects of montage and editing. It’s powerful stuff.

The camera work is every bit as good as the editing: the camera pans and flows, registering details of character foible without exaggeration, but setting up the camp-plus close-ups.

I’m not sure who is responsible for all this spot-on stuff. Director James Whale was a hands-on guy, but the career of the cinematographer Arthur Edeson (Casablanca, All Quiet on the Western Front, Frankenstein, The Maltese Falcon) suggests he knew a thing or two too. Editor Clarence Kolster also; although both these guys are uncredited in the credits.

James Whale was given money and artistic licence to do what he wanted after the huge success of Frankenstein. He certainly found an exemplary way to link film style innovations and a storyteller’s ability to create and sustain mood.

Perhaps the last 15 minutes tend towards straight melodrama, and the love stuff between Douglas and Bond is a bit drippy; but the Old Dark House is as crisp as a chilled glass of champagne in a dark crypt.

The Old Dark House is out in a dual format edition on 21 May 2018.

Colin Dibben

Author: Colin Dibben

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