May 3, 2016
VHS Week Day 2: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)
On a brutally stormy night, five rain-soaked travelers seek shelter in a gloomy Welsh manor that's home to the wildly eccentric Femm family. In short order we're introduced to brother Horace, who seems more afraid of dangers lurking within the house than those without; sister Rebecca, who warns against "fleshly love" and all manner of blasphemy; towering, mute, disfigured manservant Morgan; withered, bedridden patriarch Sir Roderick; and...whomever is locked away in a tiny room on the top floor.
Winds howl, floorboards creak, candlelight flickers, and shadows loom large as the night wears on. Horace grows increasingly fearful and paranoid as he refuses to wander upstairs. Tales of murder, suicide, and sinful siblings abound. Despite a warning that Morgan can't touch alcohol as he's a violent drunk, Morgan gets drunk. Then he unlocks that door on the top floor.
Yes indeed, The Old Dark House is at times truly suspenseful, a classic...well, a classic old dark house picture. It's particularly remarkable that with this film, James Whale simultaneously creates a genre and provides a cheeky take on the same. Sure, sure, there are frights lurking about here and there. but even more prevalent are the laughs: it's as much a black comedy as it is gothic thriller. (Incidentally, Whale would perfect this combination a few years later in Bride of Frankenstein.)
The Femm house is full of secrets and weirdos alike, and the result is a film that feels way ahead of its time. Gender-bent casting (though billed as John Dudgeon, it's Elspeth Dudgeon who portrays Sir Roderick), gay subtext, talk of sex and sin, piousness and atheism render The Old Dark House positively transgressive. It never quite approaches camp levels, but it teeters on the brink. Actors have a grand old time with the material, in particular Ernest Thesiger, who would reunite with Whale and give a memorable performance in Bride. Here, as Horace, he's an absolute delight who manages to make "Have a potato" a line worth quoting forever and always.
While The Old Dark House is certainly lauded, it also tends to be a bit overlooked when the great Universal horror films are discussed. It's the sibling locked away in the rafters, the oddball who doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the family...but really, that just means that it needs–and deserves–even more love and attention. Have a potato!