Monday, October 17, 2011
The Old Dark House
The Old Dark House
James Whale is most famous for the first two Frankenstein movies, as well as The Invisible Man. Those movies contributed to Universal’s cache of monsters and began fruitful franchises which ultimately crumbled when consumed by the comic juggernauts known as Abbott and Costello. Although he directed musicals and dramas, he is most known for his horror movies. And while Bride of Frankenstein is one of my favorite movies ever, The Old Dark House remains my favorite James Whale movie.
The plot is now familiar to modern audiences as it is credited with birthing an entire subgenre of horror. Travelers get stranded in a storm and find refuge in a large mansion populated by a family of fucking nuts. They get separated and crazy shit ensues. The cast is impressive: Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, and Ernest Thesiger (who played Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein). The sets are limited, but the design of the house is deceptively complex. One main room with a vast fireplace, a long hallway with open windows and curtains constantly blowing in the stormy winds, seemingly endless narrow staircases that keep climbing and climbing and climbing. And Whale shoot it all with that fantastic sense of dark humor: a crazy old woman gives a speech about god while reflected in various cracked surfaces, the shadow of one character emerges from the shadow of another, one character walks past a hand on the stair rail – giving a disjointed impression. He even casts a young woman to play the part of an old man, which creates a weird kind of uneasiness all in itself.
The sound is rough (it’s an old movie), but it’s shot with a modern sense of humor. The movie is never particularly scary, although Karloff is certainly creepy as the mute butler who gets drunk and menaces the ladies. Thesiger is great fun- nay hilarious - as the effete (appropriately named Femm) man of the house who mocks his sister’s “tribal customs” of saying grace, or tossing a bouquet in the fire just because she cared about it. There are more than few creepy moments, but the levity and dark offbeat comedy is what really stands out. It suffers from a lot of people-falling-in-love way too fast and some of the chicks constantly need rescuing, but it never feels slow or dull. The ending is way too fucking cheery, but by that point it doesn’t matter.
I first saw this movie on Halloween night, 1998. I was watching it in my dorm room with a friend and the phrase “Have a potato,” bizarrely became a standard in our pantheon of inside jokes. An absolute, underrated blast. It’s remained a movie I love to throw on whenever there’s a nice, loud storm outside. The quintessential black-and-white trapped in a house horror film.