Directed by: #JamesWhale
It's easy for us, now, to look down upon films like The Old Dark House. The relatively poor production design, overly dramatic editing, sound design and acting, can all be seen as products of a bygone era. But the influence these films have had, and continue to have, on modern cinema is irrefutable.
I've long suggested the overcast and rainy gloom of Britain's moors, fens, woods and fields, make for an outstanding horror-movie setting. And it's a point which has been well maintained by filmmakers over the years. Notable examples include An American Werewolf in London, The Woman in Black, Black Death, and more recently, Ghost Stories. But The Old Dark House is quite possibly one of the first. Either way, It's certainly one of the finest and most influential.
The film opens in the heart of the rain and windswept Welsh countryside, as Margaret and Philip Waverton (Gloria Stuart and Raymond Massey), together with their friend, Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), are battered by heavy storms along a lonely rural road. Wet and miserable inside their leaking car, and narrowly missing a landslide which blocks the road behind them, the trio happens upon a farmhouse which looks about as welcoming as Dracula's castle. But needs must, and with nowhere else to go, they're forced to seek shelter.
The farmhouse is home to the eccentric Femm family; headed by brother and sister, Horace (Ernest Thesiger) and Rebecca (Eva Moore). The legendary Boris Karloff stars in his first credited role as Morgan, the butler, while Charles Laughton and Lilian Bond also feature as Sir William Porterhouse and Gladys, two lost travellers who also arrive at the house seeking refuge. With such an eclectic mix of top of the range classic movie actors, you know you’re in for an entertaining display.
Now, despite my previous statement on the issue of production design, The Old Dark House is a fantastic looking film. Yes, at times, doors will wobble when slammed and supposedly solid brick walls will bend when leant against. But this was a fairly cheap production; costing only $250,000 (roughly $3,700,000 today).
The cinematography, however, is really quite marvellous. Arthur Edeson – who also worked as the cinematographer on Casablanca and All Quiet on the Western Front – had just finished creating the iconic gothic-horror visuals of another James Whale classic, Frankenstein. And it's clear from the similar aesthetics which permeate The Old Dark House, that Edeson had really brought to bear the experience he'd garnered from working on Frankenstein.
The opening scenes of the lashing rain on the lonely rural road, conjure an immediate feeling of isolation and helplessness. While the farmhouse – which is basically its own character – makes for a foreboding visage as it first pulls into sight. And that sense of unease is only heightened as we move inside and meet its bizarre inhabitants.
I think it's fair to say The Old Dark House never got the praise it deserved. At least not at the time of its release. Perhaps coming out around the same time as Frankenstein didn't do it any favours. Perhaps, for some reason, audiences of the day just weren't receptive to it. Whatever the reason, it's a real shame.
The Old Dark House is a masterclass in atmosphere building and a pioneer of horror film-making. The film had the nous to parody the genre conventions it helped to create; assisting in defining the horror genre, and giving rise to classic horror films such as The Haunting and The Innocents. The Old Dark House is a long-lost gem, made by one of the finest directors of his day. And now, thanks to the efforts of Curtis Harrington – who rediscovered the movie after it went out of circulation – and the recent 4K restoration and re-release, this piece of horror-movie history can be yours to own on Blu-ray.