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The Old Dark House (1932)

Although James Whale was a key horror director of the 1930s, his reputation has soared to unexpected heights in the past several years. Whale -- whose personal life was memorably examined in the semi-fictional film, Gods and Monsters (1998) -- is best remembered for his iconic horror trinity, Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). These films continue to score with today's audiences through Whale's gift for dramatic framing, and, even more importantly, his wholly unexpected sense of humor. But there's another, less celebrated Whale movie from the same period that's arguably even a little funnier than those pictures.

The Old Dark House (1932), which co-stars Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, and Charles Laughton is just plain loopy, although Whale filmed it well before the haunted house genre was ripe for such a sarcastic deconstruction. Today, the initial set-up is just about as hoary as they come; most viewers will instantly recognize it as the one used, for maximum cliché effect, in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and countless haunted house parodies prior to that - from The Gorilla (1939) starring The Ritz Brothers to The Black Cat (1941) with Basil Rathbone to The Horror of It All (1963)!

It doesn't take long to develop a sense of déjà vu. A group of travelers, caught in the kind of torrential downpour that's most often seen in the movies, seek shelter in a gothic mansion that's populated by a group of oddly hospitable weirdoes. After a night filled with unnerving banter, dark family secrets, and, of course, attempted murder, the travelers retreat to their cars. There's even a psychotic relative locked in an upper room, but revealing much more than that would spoil the fun.

The old dark house's rain-drenched "guests" are played by Douglas, Laughton, Gloria Stuart, and Lilian Bond. The house-dwellers are Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, and John Dudgeon...although Dudgeon's actual identity isn't so easily pinned down. But we'll get to that. This was the first time Karloff received top billing in a picture, after the publicity stunt of being billed simply as "?" in Whale's hugely popular Frankenstein. The credits of The Old Dark House even helpfully specify that, yes, this is the same "Karloff" you're thinking of.

Unfortunately, even with all the mocking dialogue and evocative chills, The Old Dark House's box office didn't approach Frankenstein's. As a frightening butler, Karloff's full potential to terrify isn't really tapped, to be honest, but his swaying intimidation did inspire cartoonist Charles Addams to create the character that would later come to be known as Lurch on TV's The Addams Family.

After its mediocre theatrical run, The Old Dark House was put on the shelf at Universal and, until 1968 - unavailable for bookings. That year, Whale's protégé, director Curtis Harrington, helped find the negative and convinced Kodak to return a print to its original brilliance. When the film was once again viewed in its original form, critics hailed it as a lost masterpiece. That might be overstating the case a little, but it still bears the mark of one of the studio era's more insistently unique directors. Schlockmeister William Castle (The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, both 1959) even attempted a remake of it in 1963 with Tom Poston, Robert Morley and Janette Scott but it was quickly forgotten.

Two interesting tidbits: When director James Cameron watched a laserdisc release of The Old Dark House, he was so taken with Gloria Stuart's amusing audio commentary, he wound up casting her in a little film he was planning called Titanic (1997). As for John Dudgeon- that's not a man at all, but an actress named Elspeth Dudgeon who was cast and billed as a man solely for this picture! And she gives an utterly convincing performance. So what's the story? Were all the other male performers in Hollywood unavailable at the time? Was Dudgeon pulling the wool over her producers' eyes? No one seems to remember. But Linda Hunt would be proud.

Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Director: James Whale
Writer: Benn W. Levy and R.C. Sherriff (based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley)
Cinematographer: Arthur Edeson
Editor: Clarence Kolster
Art Designer: Charles D. Hall
Special Effects: John P. Fulton
Makeup: Jack P. Pierce
Cast: Boris Karloff (Morgan), Melvyn Douglas (Roger Penderel), Charles Laughton (Sir William Porterhouse), Gloria Stuart (Margaret Waverton), Lilian Bond (Gladys DuCane), Ernest Thesiger (Horace Femm), Eva Moore (Rebecca Femm), Raymond Massey (Philip Waverton), Brember Wills (Saul Femm), Elspeth Dudgeon (Sir Roderick Femm).

by Paul Tatara



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