The Old Dark House (1932)

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  • directed by James Whale
  • starring Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Brember Wills, Elspeth Dudgeon
  • Seeking shelter from a storm, five travelers are admitted to a gloomy, foreboding mansion belonging to the bizarre Femm family.

“We make our own electric light here, and we are not very good at it. Pray, don’t be alarmed if they go out altogether.”

Not being familiar with J.B. Priestly’s novel, Benighted, I was not prepared for how much of a funny edge this film was going to have. Yet, for all the sharp quips and lighthearted conversations, it was all brilliantly balanced with some very dark imagery and situations. Somehow, James Whale succeeded in presenting a film that almost lampoons the horror genre, all while the genre itself was starting to grow rapidly and come into its own on the screen. The storm raging outside, the absence of light, religious elements, long dark hallways by candlelight, secret family member trapped in the attic, and questionable decisions by our protagonists are just some of the horror staples that were employed here. The most amazing thing is that overall there is, thanks to great performances by everyone involved, a completely non-horror movie somewhere in the middle of it all—the characters have depth and motivations aside from simply surviving the night; there’s a love connection; and a great fireside scene in which the characters talked and showed their individual views of life before the severity of their situation was revealed.

The namesake property of The Old Dark House is a place with a lot of big secrets and the horror element rears its head and the clues begin unfolding every time one of the five stranded travelers ends up isolated from the others. It’s funny to realize that though there seemed to be ghosts and monsters lurking behind every corner, there are actually rational, non-supernatural reasons for everything that had gone on. For example, Boris Karloff does his best to display the qualities of a terrifying supernatural movie monster in the tradition of his own Frankenstein creation, but at the end of the day he was just a drunk, brutish servant. In a cast full of heavyweight scene-stealers, it was Horace and Rebecca that stood out the most, with Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore putting in excellent, multi-faceted portrayals of the siblings that hold the key to keeping the balance between the order and chaos of not just the house, but the entire film itself.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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