You could almost attribute the invention of the sub-genre involving travelers trapped in a house with a bunch of demented folks to James Whale. While there are no chainsaws or torture devices anywhere, you could see where the seeds were sewn for films like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Haunting.” Whale’s film “The Old Dark House” presents glimmers of dark comedy and some pretty funny one-liners but through and through it’s an atmospheric and very creepy tale about a travelers trapped in a house with a psychotic brood. During a horrific rain storm, a group of travelers in the country side of Wales find themselves soaking wet and seeking shelter from the cold water barreling down on them.
They happen upon an old dark house where it’s watched over by a weird grouping of family members. Among them is the weird Horace Femm, his overbearing and incredibly demanding Rebecca who inexplicably hates one of the women that have walked though her door, and of course their butler and manservant, the giant Morgan. He’s a deaf mute prone to getting drunk, and Femm warns against giving him liquor lest he go on a violent rampage. Despite Rebecca’s complaints, the guests are invited for dinner, including a dancer and her male friend. Things go from bad to worse when a drunken Morgan unleashes a tirade of violence, releasing the family’s imprisoned brother Saul, a psychotic pyromaniac.
What I love about Whale’s film is that it’s mostly bereft of a score, as it relies a lot more on the thunderous clapping of the wind and rain outside the house. There are so many scenes that creep up on us and the music would feel much too busy. One of the better moments of the movie that are absolutely spooky is when character Margaret (Gloria Stuart) begins creating shadow puppets against the castle wall, as well as Morgan unleashing his psychotic brother. Merely the shot of his hand sliding down a banister from behind a corner will surely send shivers up your spine as it did me.
Karloff once again builds a character that is mostly silent and must emphasize his personality and pathos through movement and facial expression. As Morgan he’s the inadvertent monster who is a victim of his addiction. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Brember Wills who is excellent as the horrifying Saul, as well as Eva Moore. “The Old Dark House” is a great horror film with a comedic edge and filled with atmosphere and suspense; it’s a stellar compliment to Whale’s “Frankenstein.”
The new release from Cohen Film Collection is from the Kino DVD; there’s a Feature Length Audio Commentary Track by Actress Gloria Stuart, who is fun to listen to, there’s a Feature Length Audio Commentary by James Whale Biographer James Curtis, who garners a lot of great insight and trivia in to the production. There are long stretches of silence, but nonetheless it’s a good commentary. “Daughter of Frankenstein: A Conversation with Sara Karloff” is new, which features an interview with Boris Karloff’s daughter, who discusses her dad’s career in film, and in general. “Curtis Harrington Saves The Old Dark House” explores what Harrington had to do to save the film. Finally there’s the theatrical trailer, and a new gallery. The blu-ray release offers an insert booklet with excerpts from David Del Valle’s interview with Curtis Harrington.