You may not be grateful for this, but if it wasn’t for films like The Old Dark House, you’d never have got Scooby Doo.
Time: 72 mins / Bonus features over 1 hour
You can imagine the start: to quote another famous cartoon dog, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and an open car with 3 drenched passengers struggles to get over the Welsh hills. Then a landslide maroons them, where the only shelter is the spooky, eponymous house. When the window of the door slides back, it slowly reveals the wild, scarred and lupine face of a dumb butler – just one of the house’s weird inhabitants.
Another, the sallow and skeletal Horace Femm, is a highly nervous man with an unspecified criminal past; his bitter, part-deaf sister Rebecca is a religious obsessive; their brother Saul (“The worst, you know, we have to watch him”) is a homicidal pyromaniac; and their 102 year-old bedridden father, explains, “"This is an unlucky house. Two of my children died when they were 20. And then other things happened. Madness came.”
Another couple arrive (strangely, as the road has been blocked off behind and ahead) – Charles Laughton as a self-made man, with his trophy girlfriend – and the mood lightens, largely due to Laughton’s large comedic presence, accentuated by a broad Yorkshire accent.
(The mood is quite light throughout, if you watch it looking for the copious continuity errors. But perhaps we can make allowances – it was 1932.)
This is a beautifully crisp 4K restoration of a well-lit, genre-defining horror-comedy with the iconic Boris Karloff as the butler, fresh from his role as Frankenstein and with the same director, James Whale.
Based on a novel by J.B. Priestley, the plot is hardly complex: while the five guests stay overnight, waiting for the storm to subside, the butler lets alcohol turn him wild. There is grave danger of rape and murder. The film’s abrupt ending is different from Priestley’s original.
The novel was a social satire of post-war society, but you’d hardly know it from Whale’s well-paced 72 minute account, which simply majors on suspense and black humour.
The film was nearly completely lost and its salvation was a personal project for Universal employee Curtis Harrington.
As usual with Masters of Cinema re-releases, this is loaded with quality extras: 3 audio commentaries (from a film critic, one of the actors and the director’s biographer); the story of saving the film; a 15 minute interview with Karloff’s daughter and a highly informative 38 minute featurette on the movie. The latter includes an ingenious section. Unused text from the novel is read out, while stills of the relevant character are animated, almost as if speaking those words. This really deepens our feel for the story, as these are effectively deleted scenes from the novel.
This is a movie well-worth saving, as it catches a genre at a crucial stage of development, but this is no dry academic achievement; it is highly entertaining for mostly the right reasons.