FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

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!


J. Skel LaTour said...

I need this movie in my life.

Stacie Ponder said...

It's so good. Definitely more on the "comedy" side of the "horror/comedy" spectrum, but that's not a complaint. A real delight, this one!

Stacie Ponder said...

Like everything else in the world, it's on YouTube.

J. Skel LaTour said...

Good lookin' out, Stacie. You're the queen!

AE said...

This movie is so good aauuugh! I love the scene where the old lady freaks out Gloria Stuart about how she won't always be young and beautiful, and then Gloria sees herself in the distorted mirror. That is Carnival of Souls-level existential scariness and it's so perfect. (Plus we all today saw Titanic and know Gloria Stuart aged into a pert old biddy who would have just given that old lady a saucy eye twinkle.)

I also love the couple getting drunk/falling hastily in love in the car, even though it seems to have wandered in from a different movie. The whole thing is so much fun to watch. I will HAVE a potato, thank you!

Stacie Ponder said...

"IT'LL ROT!" That whole bit was so great. And that dress was so sexy, it was really surprising...but that's pre-Code for you, I guess. According to legend, Curtis Harrington is the one who saved this film from mouldering forever in the Universal vaults. Apparently when it was initially restored, Kino released a laserdisc version that had, amongst other goodies, a commentary track from Stuart. James Cameron heard it and that's what led to her being cast in TITANIC.

AE said...

Wow! I never thought I'd say this, but good for James Cameron.
(And yeah, I love that dressing for dinner basically involves changing into The Slinkiest Nightie.)

highwayknees said...

The black comedy aspect here is like that of another film: Arsenic and Old Lace. In fact it has a very similar role by Karloff in it. Although for pure "quirk" factor TODH beats that film hands down!