“The Old Dark House,” James Whale’s comic horror film, may not have invented a particular subgenre in which a group of travelers find themselves trapped in a mansion haunted by weirdos, but its title named one.
Released for Halloween 1932, this film adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s novel was the witty forerunner to less elegant vehicles for the Bowery Boys and Bob Hope; TV sitcoms like “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters”; and, most notably, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
“The Old Dark House,” now in an excellent 4K digital restoration, opens on a dark and stormy night with a bickering young couple, Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart) and her husband, Philip (Raymond Massey), and their insouciantly wisecracking friend, Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), motoring through rural Wales. After the weather forces them to abandon their car, they seek shelter at an ominous-looking house. The hulking creature that opens the door (an unrecognizable Boris Karloff) would scare anyone back into the monsoon.
The film initially pits these characters against a bizarre threesome: Karloff’s sinister, bulked-up butler named Morgan, and a creepy brother-sister pair, Horace and Rebecca Femm, each loathing the other while hinting of dark family secrets. (Horace, the more hospitable of the two, is played by Ernest Thesiger, the waspish Dr. Pretorius in Whale’s 1935 film “Bride of Frankenstein”; Eva Moore, an English actress and suffragist, plays the morbidly religious Rebecca.) Presently, another couple arrives out of the storm — a flirtatious chorus girl (Lilian Bond) and a boisterous local aristocrat who, as embodied by Charles Laughton, is a force of nature to rival the weather.
As the night goes on, more members of the Femm family appear, including Horace and Rebecca’s 102-year-old paterfamilias (credited as “John Dudgeon” albeit played by the actress Elspeth Dudgeon) and a cackling pyromaniac (Brember Wills). Meanwhile, Morgan gets soused and, eyes rolling up into his head, begins chasing Margaret who has since changed into evening dress. The New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall thought Ms. Stuart’s gown “a trifle out of place” but “a stunning creation” nonetheless.
The film historian William K. Everson suggested that “The Old Dark House” is best seen twice, the better to dispose of the plot and enjoy Whale’s atmospheric lighting and musty Victorian mise-en-scène. In addition to assorted nut-cases and scaredy-cats, “The Old Dark House” is well-stocked with warped mirrors, gargoyle banisters and a canine statue suggesting the Egyptian god Anubis.
Haunted-house movies generally have something to do with a guilty past, whether that of a particular family, as in “House of Usher,” or that of a nation (see “The Shining”). Priestley’s novel was a critique of Britain’s post-World War I society. A bit of that sentiment remains — Mr. Douglas’s jaunty character is revealed to be a traumatized veteran — but, some amusing parody of the British gentry aside, “The Old Dark House” is essentially about its own plot devices and narrative sleight of hand.
While not as epochal as Whale’s “Frankenstein” (1930) or the equal of his two great horror comedies, “The Invisible Man” (1933) and “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), it’s an extremely credible entertainment that, creaking along at a smart pace, applauds itself with shrieks, thuds and thunderclaps.