In the same week as the third Avengers film arrives in cinemas it is worth remembering that while the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most successful demonstration of such that neither the teaming up of established box office stars nor the concept of marketing an ongoing series of films under a uniting banner is a recent idea.
Universal studios having attempted to relaunch their “Dark Universe” last year with The Mummy, their original long-running monster movie series ran continuously from The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 to The Leech Woman in 1960, taking in the classic characters of Dracula, Frankenstein and his monster, the Wolf Man and more recent creations such the “Gill Man” of the Black Lagoon, but many were standalone such as 1932’s The Old Dark House.
Underappreciated upon original release, for many years The Old Dark House was thought to have been lost in the intervening years until it was rediscovered within the Universal vaults in 1968 and it was following this that it began to establish it’s reputation as one of the finest of Universal’s ninety films made in that period thanks in no small part to it being a long-unseen work of the highly regarded director James Whale who had died a decade before.
Now presented as a new 4K restoration for a limited theatrical release prior to its premiere on Blu-ray later in the year, The Old Dark House was Whale’s fifth film, released the year after Frankenstein and before he moved on to The Invisible Man and his masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein, and it stands as an illustration of his skill with both the technical and artistic aspects of filmmaking.
An adaptation of J B Priestley’s 1927 novel Benighted, the source material of the acclaimed novelist and dramatist shines through in the snappy dialogue of the script adapted by R C Sherriff and Benn W Levy, both playwrights themselves.
It is a dark and stormy night as bickering married couple Philip and Margaret Waverton and their travelling companion Roger Penderel find themselves lost and desperate and made far from welcome by the master and mistress of the house, the decidedly odd siblings Horace and Rebecca Femm.
Reuniting Whale with the star of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff plays the alcoholic butler Morgan, another physical role of heavy makeup and monosyllabic grunts as he intimidates the unexpected late-night arrivals who take shelter at the isolated house in the Welsh mountains, a sinister presence from the moment he first opens the heavy wooden door.
Horace played by Ernest Thesiger who would provide another haughty performance for Whale as Doctor Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein, his hostility is exceeded by Eva Moore as his shrill elder sister; an experienced stage actor like Thesiger, she was also active in the women’s suffrage movement, a defiance she channels into Rebecca who takes no nonsense and declares that there shall be no beds for the unwanted guests.
Those visitors are Gloria Stuart and Raymond Massey as Margaret and Philip and Melvyn Douglas as Roger; Douglas’ career only grew over time with multiple award nominations for his role in 1979’s Being There followed by appearances in two noted horrors, The Changeling and Ghost Story, while Massey’s prolific career included Things to Come, Arsenic and Old Lace, A Matter of Life and Death and a long running television role on Dr Kildare.
Here every inch the glamorous satin-clad starlet, Stuart’s enviable career of the thirties waned in the following decades but she is now best known for her surprise return to the screen in her late eighties as the elderly Rose in the framing story of James Cameron’s Titanic, one of the most successful films of all time.
The camera prowling up and down the dinner table, observing the different approaches of the diners to their sparse meat and potatoes, The Old Dark House is itself the principal character, magnificently designed and lit, a sprawling elaborate and encompassing monstrosity of multiple linked levels, firelight, flickering shadows and distorted reflections, all flawlessly presented in the new restoration.
Late arrivals at the house are Lilian Bond and Charles Laughton but the script quickly establishes their characters and worldview, the experienced ensemble cast easily carrying the humour of their parts, considerably more sophisticated than Universal’s experiments of a decade later when Bud Abbott and Lou Costello would meet Frankenstein, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde among others.
Despite a finale which is somewhat clumsy, The Old Dark House is still more accomplished and satisfying than most of its contemporaries and it presents a template which has echoed through cinema for eighty years, from the plot of The Rocky Horror Picture Show to the grotesque characters of The League of Gentleman, something which would no doubt have pleased the unorthodox Whale no end.
The forthcoming Blu-ray containing three separate audio commentaries by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, by Gloria Stuart and by James Whale biographer James Curtis as well as a video essay by filmmaker David Cairns, a Conversation with Sara Karloff about her legendary father and more, regardless the best place to experience this classic film would undoubtedly be, as suggested by the title, in an old dark picture house.