The Old Dark House is a strange film about strange people doing strange things. Director Whale and screenwriter Benn W. Levy rarely let the film get a set tone–unless one counts the consistent mix of comedy and horror. It’s not straight comedy; the comic elements tend to be either absurdly strange or pedestrian. Husband and wife Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart bickering over his driving until the storm becomes too dangerous for an argument, for example.
Whale goes for peculiar horror elements–relying on his cast to be creepy enough in their performances sometimes, but other times utilizing for practical effects in scenes without a cast member having to do much. The editing, from Clarence Kolster, is spectacular. Whale often goes for a visceral reaction, like when Boris Karloff’s vicious manservant preys on Stuart.
But just like the mix of light comedy and horror, Whale and Levy take the time to deepen even Karloff’s character. All of the characters end up getting some depth, both the “regular” people and then the crazy family living in the titular house. The film’s both cynical and hopeful, with Lilian Bond’s chorus girl having an arrangement with industrialist Charles Laughton, but not one with expectations.
Because Laughton’s messed up, just like almost everyone in the film. Melvyn Douglas’s drunken, mildly broken World War I veteran is ostensible lead–it’s between him and Stuart–and the film subtly implies his problems.
It’s a deliberately, beautifully made, beautifully acted (Ernest Thesiger mesmerizes) film. Truly fantastic.
Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Benn W. Levy and R.C. Sherriff, based on a novel by J.B. Priestley; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Clarence Kolster; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Boris Karloff (Morgan), Melvyn Douglas (Penderel), Charles Laughton (Sir William Porterhouse), Lilian Bond (Gladys), Ernest Thesiger (Horace Femm), Eva Moore (Rebecca Femm), Raymond Massey (Philip Waverton), Gloria Stuart (Margaret Waverton), Elspeth Dudgeon (Sir Roderick Femm) and Brember Wills (Saul Femm).