FRIDAY 26 OCTOBER
Doors: 7.30pm Film: 8pm
The Old Dark House (PG)
James Whale had just directed Frankenstein when he turned his talents to this gothic yarn, based on a JB Priestley novel.
A raging storm forces five weary travellers to take refuge in a remote mansion in Wales. But inside lurks an eccentric family and countless dangers. It is a funny and highly atmospheric film, boasting a terrific cast that includes a bluff, hearty Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff as the sinister butler.
Stunningly restored in 4K, this film is great creepy fun to get you in the Halloween mood.
The great scary-movie ancestor is rereleased: James Whale’s 1932 drama The Old Dark House – a film that was part of Universal Studios’ deliriously successful run of horror films in the pre-Hays Code era when scares were in their unevolved infancy, and it was still acceptable to show a lady changing down to her underwear.
This one did much to invent the creepy-house setting (along with Castle Dracula) and set a benchmark for the self-satirising absurdities of horror – featuring tropes such as the bizarre Munsterish family with its grotesque semi-wolfman butler answering the door to terrified strangers seeking refuge from the storm.
Revisiting this film is a time to ponder its origins in a novel by JB Priestley (adapted by RC Sherriff and Benn Levy) and to see a literary lineage of the horror film, quite apart from Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. You can see how the creepy brother Saul, lurking at the top of the house, is in a line that stretches from Charlotte Brontë’s madwoman in the attic to Thomas Harris’s imprisoned Hannibal Lecter, cunningly persuading people to do his bidding. And there’s a touch of Evelyn Waugh’s butler Philbrick from Decline and Fall as well.
Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart play Philip Waverton and his wife, Margaret, bickering in the front of a car: they have got hopelessly lost driving through dark and rainy Wales. In the back is their debonair and cynical pal Roger Penderel, played by the suave Melvyn Douglas. They hammer on the door of a forbidding and gaunt old house, and find themselves confronted by the bizarre butler (Boris Karloff) whose employers are spindly, sinister old Horace Femm and his cantankerous and frankly unhinged old spinster sister Rebecca, a hilarious double-act from Whale repertory regular Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore, their gargoyle faces lit and distorted like Bacon portraits in the flickering parlour fire.
Rebecca in particular seems enviously and erotically (but disapprovingly) obsessed with Margaret’s gorgeous clothes and equally gorgeous flesh, and mutters unnerving anecdotes about her own sexually licentious sister, now dead. Another couple take shelter: the boisterous self-made captain of industry, Sir William Porterhouse (played by the teddy-bearish Charles Laughton) and his companion, the former chorus girl Gladys (Lilian Bond) whose artless loveliness is to melt Roger’s cynical old heart.
It’s an old dark film, and it creaks in more ways than one: the lack of a musical score is perhaps disconcerting. But it is performed with tremendous gusto and theatrical dash.
Director: James Whale
Writer: R.C. Sherriff, J.B. Priestley, Benn Wolfe Levy
Starring: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton
Running Time: 71 mins
Rotten Tomatoes - 100%
The Guardian - ★★★★
Time Out - ★★★★★
The Independent - ★★★★★
The Times - ★★★★★
Mark Kermode Review