The Best Movie Critic + review

The Old, Dark House

Horror movies are a lot like classic Hollywood musicals: they all follow the same handful of familiar plots. But it’s not about the destination, it’s about the ride. I am a fan of the “stranded motorist” horror subgenre. You know the one where a young couple gets lost in a storm or runs out of gas and goes knocking on the wrong door. From Texas Chainsaw Massacre to House of 1000 Corpses to last year’s Human Centipede, the stranded motorist should be familiar to anyone who hasn’t lived in a cave their entire life. Even non-horror movies like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (not horror) have riffed on this trope. In 1932, riding on the success of his famous Universal Studios adaptation of Frankenstein, James Whale made the grandfather of stranded motorist horror movies, The Old, Dark House. The movie has its flaws but manages to convey an overwhelmingly creepy mood and some genuinely startling reveals. If you're interested in the origins of slasher and “deranged, isolated family” horror, The Old, Dark House is invaluable.

The Old, Dark House starts just like any other stranded motorist movie. A terrible storm. The road’s washed out. A group of your travelers are forced to stay the night in an old, um, dark house occupied by an unsettling clan with a few too many secrets. There are many notable actors in The Old, Dark House. Let’s start with the travelers: Straight-laced Philip Waverton is played by Raymond Massey, famous (to me) from such roles as the American lawyer in Heaven in A Matter of Life and Death, abolitionist maniac John Brown in the Michael Curtiz/Errol Flynn flick Santa Fe Trail, and my personal favorite, the war deserter who utters the immortal line, “Put up yer dukes, Nazi” in 49th Parallel. His wife Margaret is played by Gloria Stewart, better known as old-Rose from Titanic. She is of course not old in this movie, and I have to admit, 20-something Gloria Stewart was a total fox.

On the other end of the “total fox” spectrum are the Femm family, owners and inhabitants of the titular old, dark house. The Femms are the movie's real star attraction. The way James Whale slowly reveals the family and the house is inspired - like peeling back layers of a rotten onion. The unwelcome house guests first meet the gaunt, nervous Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger, best known as Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein). Horace is the most harmless of the Femms, but he's manipulative and slow to reveal his family's dark secrets. His elderly sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore) is a frightening religious zealot - the scene where she corners poor Margaret about her "sins of the flesh" is perhaps the first harbinger of the bizarre, fucked up shit to come. The infamous Boris Karloff - Frankenstein's Monster himself - shows up here as the Femm's butler, Morgan, a deaf and dumb (and uber-threatening) alcoholic. Whereas Frakenstein's Monster is a beast with a gentle heart, Morgan is a beast with a, er, rape-y heart.

The old, dark house has four floors, and as the stranded motorists ascend each level, they meet a new, more sinister Femm. The introduction of the Femm family patriarch is one of the more memorably unsettling sequences in early horror. Allegedly, James Whale couldn't find a old man who looked old enough to play the rotting Rodrick Femm... so he cast an old lady. Yeah, you read that right, in 1932 Rodrick Femm was played by Elspeth Dudgeon, an elderly woman. She has wispy whiskers and shit. It's totally uncanny, and no one but James Whale would have had the balls. If Rodrick Femm wasn't the main inspiration for Grandpa from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I'll be a monkey's uncle.

And that's not the worst of it. The door to the top floor of the old, dark house is padlocked from the outside. What's behind that door? I'd be a jerk to ruin it.

For those of you who aren't playing along at home, James Whale was infamous as one of the first openly gay personalities in early cinema. Some biographers - such as James Curtis, who's biography of Whale I'm currently reading - attempt to downplay the impact of Whale's sexuality on his moviemaking. Well I flat out disagree. I think Whale was smart and playful about the ways he incorporated his sexuality into his movies. Casting against gender was a clever move; Whale was never afraid to destabilize sex for shock value. What's more, Whale casts Charles Laughton* as another stranded motorist who shows up a little bit later with a female companion. We learn from the companion that Laughton's character pays her for her company, but doesn't do anything with her. "You know what I mean by 'anything,' don't you?" she asks suggestively. Laughton struggled with his own homosexuality throughout his life, and his role in The Old, Dark House must have hit close to home. It's nearly clairvoyant casting on Whale's part. Whale's playfulness and willingness to improvise and go with the flow of sexuality in his movies is a huge part of what makes him such a perennially interesting and relevant director.

Okay, so The Old, Dark House isn't perfect. It suffers from the same poor pacing and awkward camera placement that so many early sound films do. As great as Whale is at generating unnerving atmosphere, he's just as gifted at breaking it down for some irrelevant romantic fluff subplot. The "thrilling conclusion" is slightly less than thrilling, a total head-scratcher compared to what came before. But I plumb don't feel like spending any time talking about where The Old, Dark House gets it wrong when it gets so many things right. The twisted, blasphemously bizarre Femm family is years ahead of their time. I could see them as compelling villains in a 70s or 80s slasher movie with barely any tweaking. Though the movie occasionally flounders, there are moments and implications in The Old, Dark House that I just can't shake. This is a fascinating, must-see movie for horror fans.

-Ben

*I didn't realize that Laughton was in The Old, Dark House when I started watching it. That makes for two weeks of Laughton movies in a row. I think that means that my second "3 movies by cool people" series is about Charles Laughton... and it's already 2/3 finished! Join me next Monday for the thrilling conclusion!

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The Old, Dark House + review