Old Dark House (10/20/1932) A high water mark for a genre already entrenched in literature and film. Whale slathers his own special sauce all over what was already a dark psychological chamber piece. The black humor was much too high brow for an American audience who were expecting cheap thrills. Marketing Karloff as the monster of the piece was quite a bait and switch, I understand the audiences disappointment. It is basically a tower of dark chocolate petit fours. The real monster of the piece is the torrential storm, violently combining five unsuspecting strangers together with five certifiable nutjobs. Karloff wins the prize for WORST BUTLER IN CINEMA HISTORY, he’s Rebecca Femm’s weapon of choice to keep the men in her family in line. Introduced as the owner of the house, it makes you wonder why her brothers were excluded, but then we meet the brothers and we KNOW why. If they weren’t imprisonoed in that house with her as their jailer, they’d be in prison.
Rebecca’s NO BEDS fixation, can be taken a couple of ways, in her religious zealotry she may not want anyone having sex under her roof, or the most likely, she just doesn’t want to do any more laundry. The set certainly may look more like a hotel than a house but we don’t want anyone disappearing upstairs into the bedrooms, we want the action captured where we can see it. Stuart can’t even find respite when changing her clothes, the bedroom contains a horror story and a bunch of fun house mirrors. I am still not sure why she opens the window, but it does seem to blow her out of the room down a corridor lifted straight from Paul Leni. At this point it is the case of the disappearing camisole and the magically appearing earrings, but that’s insignificant. Whale wanted her to appear as a flame for Karloff to chase around and the transformation accomplishes that, as well as give us something pretty to look at.
The plot is merely to make it to morning sane and alive. Giving us a very deliberate satire of the dinner/house party, which was what people DID before television replaced the roaring fire. The utterly Whalesian dinner scene is a masterpiece, each bit of business is contrived for a reason. Rebecca cutting bread and then skewering it to send it round the table, only for it to find its way back to her, she’s the master here. She relishes her pickled onions from the relish dish, imply that she IS the pickled onion at the table. Thesinger weaponizes “Have a Potato” though avoiding them himself.
At midnight, we join the after dinner conversation, just AFTER the dinner party game of ‘TRUTH’ has commenced or concluded–perhaps making all that follows “the DARE”? The rest of the film and book are a sequence of unfolding secrets, upping the stakes once we start bringing the family secrets down from the upper floors. A drunken troll of a butler upending the remains of dinner, chasing a blonde flame which he will snuff out if he catches. It takes all three guests to wrestle the bad butler into the servants hall, when the real danger-boy is sliding down the banister. Pyromaniac Saul (read SOL – hint hint nudge nudge) gives Melvyn Douglas whiplash with his personality change, challenging him to another parlor game of placate the knife wielding looney. Yes that’s why Perkins didn’t clear up the Roast Beef ensemble on the floor. Seriously that was SO English, any self respecting American housewife would have had that mess picked up before they locked themselves in the closet. Rebecca knew what was coming, Horace knew what was coming, they both locked themselves in their bedrooms. Perhaps they didn’t figure Saul was gonna burn the place down this time. But from what the bearded lady upstairs has foretold, they deserved it.
I could go on picking pieces off this dish and holding them up to the light, but reams and reams have been written about this film…and will continue to be. I have lost track of the number of times I have seen it. I’m not even sure how many times I have seen it today. It follows Priestly’s book pretty closely, but in another director’s hands it would have been a lackluster film. This is the film that makes us take a closer look at ALL Whale’s other films.