vital-graph: the old dark house

this is the inaugural entry in what will be an ongoing series where i want to discuss the films that matter most to me. the only criterion that they will share is that they are indispensable to me, my desert island selections. some are established classics, some are definitely not, some occupy the grey space in between...

no better time than halloween to roll out this first choice, the one film i have watched more than any other, james whale's the old dark house (1932).

in the midst of establishing their dominance in the realm of early american horror cinema, universal studios picked up the rights to j.b. priestley's 1927 novel benighted, published in the states a year later as the old dark house. it's a darkly comic book, rife with the class-consciousness that permeates so much of the greatest work, literary and otherwise, from the UK. it ends on a decidedly more downbeat note than the film and the disillusionment of the post-world war one generation is much more keenly felt throughout. it's a distinctly different experience from the film and i recommend it highly as well.

my battered and beloved paperback copy from 1945.

universal turned over the reins of production for this adaptation to james whale in the wake of his success with frankenstein (1931) and it was most certainly an inspired choice. he was at the peak of his powers in the early thirties and few, if any, were as adept as him at combining deep black humor with literate eccentricity and gothic atmosphere. the alchemy of this particular production was so potent that he essentially defined a genre, and not for the first time either.

the film begins with a trio of travelers navigating the welsh countryside in a downpour so vicious they would be better off with a boat rather than their touring car. it is a deluge approaching biblical proportions and tempers in the car are frayed. after narrowly escaping a landslide (a nice piece of miniature work), in the distance they spy the lights burning in the titular house. sensibly, they stop to ask for shelter. it's the last sensible thing that happens for the next seventy minutes.

they are greeted at the door by the mumbling and menacing morgan, played by boris karloff, who is so unrecognizable from his previous turn as frankenstein's monster that there is a message prior to the film assuring you, the viewer, that this is indeed the man you came to see. here he is the drunken, savage and mute butler. he bids/grunts them entry and there we are introduced to the skeletal horace femm, the urbane and timorous half of the sibling pair that maintains the household. "my sister was on the point of arranging these flowers", he says, as he throws them into the fire and if it wasn't obvious before it certainly is now - we are through the looking glass. the other half of the sibling pair, the rigid, zealous and somewhat deaf rebecca femm, bursts in shrilly soon thereafter. if you're paying attention you may notice that she intimates that there are no beds available for our weary travelers. after a quick change of clothes for mrs. waverton, dinner is served!

another pair of travelers arrive, the nouveau riche sir william porterhouse and his chorus girl companion, setting up our collision of class quite nicely. charles laughton, in this role, is almost the storm's equal in terms of bluster but is shut down quite handily by ernest thesiger's delivery of the most unexpectedly funny line of the film - "have a potato". the after dinner conversation begins to strain the civility of the assembled and provides the excuse for our shifting groups to explore the house and take up the lackluster romantic subplot. in the meantime, morgan is in the kitchen drinking himself into a violent stupor and stumbles back to the dining room with bad intentions only to be subdued. while he is sleeping it off, the secrets of the house slowly begin to reveal themselves. mr. and mrs. waverton discover the ancient, invalid patriarch of the femm family upstairs and are treated to another take on the femms' twisted family history. meanwhile, downstairs, the newly lovestruck penderel crosses paths with the black sheep of the family, saul, who, with his knife-throwing and pyromania, makes the rest of the femm clan look positively stable. saul's attempt to burn down the house is thwarted but not without casualties. amidst the wreckage of the house, an uneasy calm settles as day begins to dawn and the only thing that is sure is that no one is going to be the same after so much quality time with the femm family.

there are two reasons this film has lodged itself so firmly in my head and my heart. the first is the consummate skill with which it is executed. the production design is striking. the sets are a mass of nearly impossible angles, even the shadows have shadows. there is a wonderful segment where gloria stuart is playing at casting shadow puppets on the dining room wall which shockingly transform into one of our hosts. the expressionist touches even extend as far as ernest thesiger's nostrils.

the cast is top notch. the film is the american film debut of ernest thesiger, charles laughton and raymond massey and the entire ensemble is photographed beautifully in a series of carefully composed and ever-shifting groups that subtly highlight the cycle of peculiar relationships that evolve and devolve over the course of one long evening. the sound design is elegant and clever. there is only music over the credit sequences so the sound of the storm raging outside functions as the score, with thunder providing punctuation for some scenes and rising winds accompanying the more tumultuous sections. everyone involved, not just whale, were at the top of their game for this one.

the other reason it sticks with me is because this thing is so far ahead of its time. the class-consciousness that was central to priestley's novel is actually overridden by persistent questions of morality and sexuality throughout the film. the femm family lives in a house divided. on one side you have the blasphemous and flamboyant horace and wicked and worldly roderick, on the other you have the pious rebecca and the mad saul. it is a division that will eventually be reconciled only by fire and death. james whale's perverse sense of humor is on display with the casting of noted british stage actress elspeth (billed as "john") dudgeon as the family patriarch. you also have the luminous gloria stuart showing a fair amount of her lovely, alabaster skin for 1932.

the way the cast completely gives themselves over to the offbeat material also provides the film with its longevity. it's such a strange combination of suspense and odd comedy but they seem to wholly believe in it. they don't treat it like a B picture, that's certain. ernest thesiger thoroughly inhabits the character of horace femm. every line is fraught with multiple interpretations, at least two of them hilarious. every arched eyebrow is withering. of all the cast, though, brember wills' portrayal of saul is probably the most committed, the most pivotal. he's only onscreen for a few minutes but his transformation from victim to madman is staggering. he simply cannot hold the mask of sanity together and the way he lets the crazy progressively show through the cracks is riveting. i would be hard pressed to think of a better example of maniacal glee in cinema. in the middle of the fight with melvyn douglas he bites his throat (a scene that was edited out of the 1939 reissue). he is completely out of control and it is perfect. he'd definitely rather light a candle than curse your darkness.

and, even though it probably makes me crazier than saul on some level, i wish i could live in this movie. the thunder and the rain, the fire and the brawls, the old matrons and the chorus girls - i love it all. i love it because it's never obvious, it's meticulous but it never does the thing that is expected. i've seen it dozens of times. i will, most likely, see it dozens more before i am through and it will always surprise and delight me. it will always welcome me home.

get your hands on a copy when you can!


  1. I wish I could go home right now to watch this movie. Thanks for another top-notch entry!

  2. A fine reminder of a great spooky film. I really dig "old dark house" movies from the "pre-Code" era (Stuart's fleshly display probably wasn't extraordinary for 1932!) because you can almost convince yourself that the past was really like that. Whale's film and Roland West's THE BAT WHISPERS are high points of the genre.

  3. true about stuart and her disrobing. i just tend to think of her as more virginal than that. damn you, will hays!

    and "the bat whispers" is definitely a gem. some great miniature work in the beginning of that one also. and chester morris' eyebrows are almost as out of control as saul femm.

    there's so much more to say about "the old dark house" but i didn't want to make the piece unwieldy and a mile long. a few other things, some trivial, some not so:

    karloff's character is the basis for lurch from charles addams' cartoons. if you are familiar with "the addams family" then you have a headstart on the eccentric nature of this film.

    tons of subtext in the outsider status of the femm family, too. is that james whale's well-hidden lower-class childhood bubbling up? is it a reflection of his outsider status as a gay man in the repressive environment of the u.s. circa the early thirties? if horace is as satisfied with himself as he seems, why is he such a fearful man? what happened so many years ago to divide the family so completely and what keeps them, so divided, under the same roof?

    i could just go on and on, but i won't. suffice it to say that, as entertaining as it is, it is just as equally rewarding in other ways.

  4. not to mention how much it is an antecedent to "the texas chain saw massacre" in so many ways. travelers stumble upon a country house resulting in the longest night of their lives. inhabitants are operating outside the social norm, skewering the idea of traditional family. central family dinner sequence. decrepit patriarch in storage in the attic. who will survive and what will be left of them?!

  5. Great piece on a great film.

    Looking forward to seeing what else is Vital-graphic.

  6. thanks, bryce. the vital-graph list is long and (sometimes) illustrious.