Welcome to Week 2 of our all Horror/Sci-Fi themed weekly marathon of movies here at the Insomniac Cult Movie Theater. That’s right, folks! All this October, I’m heading into my vast movie library to find the best of deep dives and obscure classics that will hopefully give you some ideas on films you can watch on these spooky autumn evenings!
Of course, the nicest part about this whole project is the fact that I’m watching these movies during normal hours and not as a result of soul crushing sleeplessness. And added benefit is that I also get to watch these movies with my wife, Nicole, given she’s usually an early bird and is often passed out like a champ when I’m struggling through my forays into nocturnal cinematic exploration.
As a result, for this week’s entry, I thought the two of us would finally tackle the final movie in the “James Whale” classic horror filmography. As I’ll mention in more detail in the background, the Mrs. and I have been big fans of Mr. Whale’s other entries as a director to this genre, including The Invisible Man and both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. In fact, the watching of Bride of Frankenstein is one of our annual Halloween season traditions as both of us agree it’s one of the finest examples of quality movie making in the monster/horror genre out there.
However, given that today’s movie is the only entry that really isn’t part of the Universal Monster Movie collection proper, it’s often times over looked by fans. In fact, I didn’t even realize this movie existed until I was doing research for my Invisible Man article on this blog, and just happened to revisit the listing of all the films James Whale had directed. In fact, as I’ll go over in second, today’s movie was considered lost for a considerable number of years, which added to its obscurity.
However, like a dog nosing around in previously hidden rabbit hole, the fact that I didn’t know about this picture only added to my curiosity surrounding it. And after I read a bit of the synopsis about it possibly being the cinematic impetus for the entire “Haunted House” sub genre, I knew we had to give it a shot.
So after some search I did manage to secure a copy of this picture from our local library, and so here we go with our dark and stormy trip to a murder mansion in South Wales…
The Old Dark House
The Old Dark House is a 1932 Pre Hays code horror produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. from Universal Pictures and directed by the legendary James Whale. As I mentioned before, this producer/director team also worked on the first two Frankenstein movies and the Invisible Man. Carl Laemmle also worked on Universal’s adaptions of The Mummy and Dracula.
I would consider it to be the first of the “horror house” sub genre of movies in which a young couple becomes isolated from society while traveling and preyed upon by the strange inhabitants of a house where they are forced to stay the night.
However the odd thing is this story is actually originally based on a novel from 1927 called Benighted, which is not a horror novel but instead deals more with the disillusionment of the generation caused by their involvement in World War I. So in fact the original base material as more in common with “The Sun Also Rises” than “Hostel”.
More confusing is the fact that once it was adapted in a screenplay by RC Sherriff (who also wrote The Invisible Man script), there were additional elements of comedy added to the story, which further separates this film from what we know from this horror sub genre made famous by movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes.
The story seems as old as the hills in terms of movies. A young couple, Phillip and Margaret, and their war weary best friend, Roger, are trapped when the road their car was traveling on is blocked by a landslide caused by a fierce thunderstorm. They seek shelter from the storm at an old rundown manor house owned by the Femm family, a rather odd group of creepy shut ins who seem like relics from some bygone age.
The two main members they are introduced to are Horace Femm, a skittish older gentleman, and his nearly deaf spinster sister, Rebecca Femm. They also have a brutish scar faced butler named Morgan who can’t speak and evidently becomes a pretty mean drunk when he’s on the bottle.
Although the Femm family originally wants nothing to do with the travelers, they acquiesce the allowing them to stay the night and share supper with them. They also then allow another pair of travelers in the stranded Sir William Porterhouse and his companion, Gladys, to also stay, again despite initial reservations.
However, things start to get out of hand, when Rebecca starts comparing Margaret to her slutty sinful tart of a dead sister, Morgan starts drinking and making violent advances on Margaret, and Phillip finds a locked door at the top of the mansion, which seems to imprisoning someone. The couple then meets the 102 year old patriarch of the Femm family, Roderick, who reveals that he has a third child living at the manor named Saul. Saul is evidently a pyromaniac and will burn down the house if he’s ever released from his room, something which Morgan often attempts to do when he gets drunk.
Well, Saul is eventually released by Morgan, and after revealing that the other two Femm children killed their sister, he indeed tries to burn down the house. He’s killed by Roger who after a brief tussle falls from a second story balcony with him. Luckily, Roger survives the fall and asks Gladys to marry him. Yeah, I forgot to mention they have someone of a quick and intense relationship together during their night at the Femm house…or something. I’ll get to that in my reflections.
This movie is boasts another wonderful film appearance of the legendary Boris Karloff, who first became famous for playing the aforementioned Frankenstein before going on to an incredibly historic movie career.
However, just like the original Frankenstein, he doesn’t get to speak in this film either, so we don’t get to enjoy any of those wonderfully melodic yet eerie tones that we know so well from him given our yearly viewings of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. Still though, his screen charisma is unquestionable, and his chilling presence as the mute butler, Morgan, has to be one of the high points of this movie overall.
Speaking of other famous actors from this film known for other cult horror movies, we also get a deliciously devious on screen performance by Ernest Thesiger as Horace Femme, the brother in the Femme family tree, who fans of Bride of Frankenstein will immediately notice also plays the part of the sinister Doctor Pretorius.
This is also the first on screen role for Charles Laughton who had a tremendous film career in his own right, but fans of my blog will recognize as playing the evil Dr. Moreau from the original film adaption of that HG Wells classic novel entitled Island of Lost Souls. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really get a great part in this particular film as a morose dumpy comic relief type character of Porterhouse.
Raymond Massey also appears has the husband role of the couple trapped in the dark house. Although he has many films to his credit, I know him best from his role in the movie adaption of another HG Wells novel entitled Things to Come, a title hopefully some of my Sci-Fi readers with instantly recognize. Maybe I should do that film on this blog…hmmmm….
In closing, the final interesting bit of casting comes from the wife of our trapped couple in the platinum blonde bombshell of Gloria Stuart. Although Gloria mostly spends this film slinking around the decrypted mansion in a silver evening gown/negligee providing titillation and oddly inappropriate sexual tension with Boris Karloff’s butler character, many modern movie fans will better know Gloria as being the old lady version of Rose from James Cameron’s blockbuster disaster pic, Titanic.
Yup, she’s the one we most famously know as the dumb old broad that threw the priceless sapphire into the ocean at the end of the ocean instead of y’know hanging on to it and providing a solid future for all of her grandchildren.
Oh well. She was the oldest living person to ever receive an Academy Award nomination however for that role in the category of Best Supporting Actress, so I guess she did something right.
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
Throughout the course of my life, I’ve seen many movies. Some of them have been terrible. But there is a select few which I have condemned to a special ring of film hell that I call “the worst movies ever made”. Old Dark House might be the new crown prince of that cinematic cesspool as I will say that it has to be without a shadow of a doubt one of the greatest disappointments in terms of film making that I have ever seen.
And it’s a special kind of disappointment I’m talking about. It’s not that the movie is of bad quality or something. Like cheesy special effects or MST3k style acting or dialogue. I could actually forgive those kinds of flaws and laugh them off as Joel and the bots would have done, embracing the badness in a way that makes it fun and good.
But this movie. This should be an uber competent movie. It’s got a terrific director, decent acting, atmospheric setting…everything you need to make one hell of fantastic film.
But it’s so god damn boring.
I’ll repeat that because I just want to be clear. It’s so god damn boring.
And pointless too. sheer mind numbing pointlessness. And contradictory. And tedious. And…well I think you get the point.
The worst part about is that this movie is truly the granddaddy of all of these way-fared travelers stories in the horror genre because it does set up so many of the elements that would be used in other films of this ilk. Just to prove my let’s recap some of them in a checklist:
- Young couple trapped by storm or other unusual circumstance.
- Decaying or dilapidated mansion, manor, etc. in which they seek shelter.
- War weary former solider/police officer etc. forced to fight again for his survival.
- Beautiful blonde woman spending most of her time in some sexy outfit which is there to entice the audience but is completely impractical for survival in a horror movie.
- Horribly scarred or disfigured strong man who means to do everyone harm.
- Spinster crone like female (aka a witch).
- Effeminate predatory male.
- Mentally ill serial killer type character (Saul in this case).
- Corpse like older family member kept in house (in some instances an actual corpse)
- A Dark Family secret.
- A mysterious locked door keeping said secret.
Okay, I think you get the point.
In any case, this movie has all these elements, puzzle pieces if you will, and yet nobody seems to be able to arrange them in the correct way to actually deliver a coherent, suspenseful horror movie. One of the biggest offenders in this regard is the notion of creating a tense atmosphere by keeping the horror movie building to a crescendo through carefully selected scenes that will evoke strong emotion timed one after another.
Instead the movie wastes so much of its time, on story lines that don’t go anywhere like the terrible subplot with Roger & Gladys’ drinking whiskey and romancing in the stable, watching everyone eat a roast beef dinner, or everyone yakking existentially around the fireplace about why it’s necessary or not to spend your days trying to make money. And that’s a critical piece given the movie is only 71 minutes long so it’s not as if it has time it can waste. Perhaps if this was 40 minutes longer, you could meander a bit with these questionable subplots, but when time is short, you have to be super judicious with where you spend it. Again this is especially true in horror, were timing is critical in order to trigger that all important “fight or flight” instinct in the audience by keeping them in a constant state of suspense.
Another problem is that elements have to arranged in a way that again builds to a end goal. This is particularly important with the development of the “bad guy” of your horror movie, so let’s focus on Boris Karloff’s character of Morgan for a second.
If Morgan is your big bad of the movie, the monster if you will, he has to be built as such right from the beginning. Unstoppable. Uncaring. An Agent of Death. But he’s not here. Heck he’s not even the main bad guy as that’s Saul’s job. However even if he were, he’s not written well enough to accomplish that.
His motives aren’t very clear (does he beat everyone in the house sadistically or is it just a drunken butler?) , his violence not very threatening (nobody is killed by him), and he’s easily beaten (Phillip knocks him out with a well placed lamp). Plus if his primary task in life is keeping Saul (who is the real “villain” of the movie) imprisoned, why the hell does he let him out when he gets drunk?!? Just for kicks?!? To watch him start a fire for a few seconds and then beat the tar out of him for fun?!? That does sound rather wicked, but we never get an explanation if that’s the case. It all just seems random.
One thing horror can’t be is random. It can be surprising yes, but random, no. Everything has to be deliberate.
And speaking of Saul, if he is the main bad guy, he has to be introduced as a threat much earlier in the film. Like while Margaret is getting accosted by the witch crone of a sister about how sinful she is at the very beginning of the movie (which is distressing so it puts the audience in that “correct” frame of mind), Phillip should have found the locked door that contained Saul. Like first 5 minutes stuff. That builds suspense from the start. Then we could speculate as to what’s behind the door and why the rest of the Femm family won’t talk about it. Then we can build Saul up as a threat in our minds that should not be unleashed, so when he finally is, we are properly on edge.
Plus speaking of the Femm family, why the hell are they so happy to let everyone and their brother in for the night after originally being so standoffish? What was the point of that!?! It’s not as if they are killers inviting people to their doom or prisoners in their own right trying to desperately warn people away. They are just like “Oh…you can’t stay here. Oh..you can’t…Eh who cares” Again that’s not how you build suspense or set up the dire consequences for actions horror needs.
Those are just some of the examples I thought of as I was writing this, and trust me there are a ton more. Sincerely, all this movie seems to do well is getting in it’s own way and tripping on its own feet.
Final Grade: F
This is the first “F” I’ve ever given on this blog, and maybe that’s a bit harsh, but it’s hard to see this movie as anything but an abject failure. Perhaps it’s because I had unfairly high expectations for it. However, I don’t think that was wrong on my part given that some of my favorite movies of this era have been classic horror movies directed by James Whale. I mean, when you makes movies like Bride of Frankenstein or the Invisible Man, you start looking like you know what you are doing.
So to then get this mess of a picture, with so many odd and conflicting choices for a horror picture, from the dialogue to the pacing, it’s hard not to be super critical about it.
In fact the only thing that kept me from turning off this movie entirely other than writing his entry was the fact I was hoping that it was going to get better. That there would be some twist ending or something that would have made all the frustration worth wile. Something like the fact that Morgan really wasn’t mute and was trying to save Margaret from being killed by the Femm Family like their sinful sister was, or that Saul wasn’t actually the bad guy, but it was Horace Femm all along.
Sure, some of those suggestions would have be stretches in the plot fabric but at least they would have been interesting and given me something to talk about.
But in the end, the only good thing I can say about Old Dark House is that it gave other filmmakers the tools to make good horror movies in this sub genre.
And that’s being generous.