The Old Dark House

| October 20, 2017

Director James Whale is remembered best today for having helmed the Universal horror classics, Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and even Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which I often hear hailed as perhaps the greatest sequel ever made. In between Frankenstein and Invisible Man though, Whale directed a horror film that may have faded from mainstream consciousness, but is every bit the evidence of Whale’s incredible talent as the aforementioned trio of Universal Monster movies. As you no doubt have guessed by the title of the article, that film is The Old Dark House (1932), starring Whale’s Frankenstein collaborator Boris Karloff and one-time Dr. Moreau, Charles Laughton.

Like so many stories, The Old Dark House begins on a dark and stormy night. Travelers on a flooded road seek refuge in a rundown old mansion lest they find themselves washed away by the torrential rainfall. They find more than shelter in said mansion though. Sure, they find warmth, shelter, and some of them even find love in the company of their fellow stranded travelers. They also find themselves subject to whatever madness grips the household’s inhabitants: the Femm family and their hulking, brutish, mute manservant, Morgan (Karloff).

The Old Dark House is pure atmosphere, focused far more on putting the audience on edge than telling a traditionally coherent or straightforward narrative. You get the impression that literally anything could be lurking the house, in some cellar below or behind the mysterious locked door upstairs, near which Horace Femm daren’t go. What awaits the uninvited houseguests, trapped with the Femms while the storm rages? The film makes us wait, relishing in our unease.

The threat facing the Femms’ guests is palpable from the moment Morgan opens the front door. What it is and where the danger lies is anyone’s guess though, and that’s what makes The Old Dark House such a compelling work of horror. The twists the story takes as the houseguests learn more about their weird hosts find our suspicions shifting from one character to another, and even hints at the potential intervention of some sort of supernatural force. And it all culminates in a handful of impressively brutal fights (for the era at least) and a high stakes/high tension showdown between level-headed war veteran Roger (Melvyn Douglas) and the maddest of the Femm madmen, who would watch them all die.

It’s an incredible film that not nearly enough people know of, much less talk about nowadays. And that’s a shame, because it’s some of Whale’s finest work, and an impressively nasty monstrous turn for Karloff, who’d so recently made a name for himself as a gentle giant of a monster. If you haven’t seen it and you’ve a love of all things horror, I can’t recommend The Old Dark House enough, especially now that the film has undergone a new 4k restoration.

This 4k restoration will be released by the Cohen Film Collection on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms on October 24, 2017 just in time for your Halloween viewing, and the restored version is nothing short of stunning. Having seen the film ages ago myself in a version that can only be described as “passable,” revisiting The Old Dark House on the Cohen Blu-ray was like watching an entirely different film. The clarity is incredible and, barring a couple missing frames in two spots, I didn’t spot a single issue with the visual presentation of the film—no scratches, debris, or anything.

Special features on Cohen’s release of The Old Dark House include a fifteen-minute interview with Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara Karloff, which could have run for an hour or more and I’ve been all the happier for it; a seven-minute archival interview with Curtis Harrington, who’s credited with saving the film; a feature-length audio commentary track by actress Gloria Stuart; a feature-length audio commentary track by James Whale biographer James Curtis; and the 2017 rerelease trailer.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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