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USA 1932
Directed by
James Whale
72 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

The Old Dark House

No doubt the passage of time has made this Gothic horror tale seem odder than when it was first seen. Based on the novel, 'Benighted', by J. B. Priestly, its greatest strength is the zesty script by Benn W. Levy and R.C. Sherriff (the latter uncredited) and the equally delicious performances by the first class cast.

Raymond Massey, Melvyn Douglas and the little known Gloria Stuart play three well-to-do friends caught in a heavy thunderstorm in the Welsh countryside. In classic style they chance upon a gloomily decaying house whose door is opened by a misshapen mute butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff, who also gets top billing), and they are welcomed by the strangely mannered Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) and his fanatical sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore). During a dinner which consists largely of potatoes (“Have a potato” is one of the best lines of the film) and pickled onions, another couple also seek shelter, Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton in his first American film) and his lady friend, chorus girl Gladys Perkins (Lilian Bond). Meanwhile, upstairs is the bedridden paterfamilias, the 102-year-old Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon, billed as John Dudgeon) and locked in another room. his demented oldest son, Saul (Brember Wills).

The film is a riot of histrionics, a kind of black comedy long before the term existed, made even stranger by Whales’ elliptical approach to story-telling, something probably compounded by a relatively small budget. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson (who was DOP on The Maltese Falcon, 1941 and Casablanca, 1942) gives the film a suitably creepy look that borders on the expressionistic, notably in a marvellous scene involving distorting mirrors.

Whale is best known for his Frankenstein films but this is an offbeat gem from the margins of American film of the time.




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