Review: The Old Dark House
Blu-ray & DVD: The Old Dark House (1932)
Good LORD. Where do you start with a film like The Old Dark House?
Based on J.B. Priestley’s novel ‘Benighted’ this is definite ‘one off’ of a film. Anyone familiar with the work of James Whale will recognise his nod to German expressionism and Bauhaus, but this is a horror comedy, and it seems that although the story follows Priestley’s origin story closely, Whale gave us a peek into his own life experiences, growing up poor in Dudley (of all places), as a war veteran and also as an openly gay man through some of the content (Gladys’ background), and indeed the stars (Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger).
Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey), his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart), and Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) become lost while driving at night in a heavy storm through Shrewsbury (which is very near 60MW Towers!). Eventually, and after some astonishing real and model special effects (you can’t see the join) they arrive at an old house in the Welsh countryside. Here the scene is set; three friends, lots of quips and a miserable wife seem to be a recipe for a zany comedy, until the door is opened in true ‘close up shots, that get closer… and closer…’ of the great Boris Karloff, who although playing a giant, alcoholic, violent mute Butler called Morgan (yes, really) gives yet another staggeringly nuanced and sensitive performance as a raging Welsh madman. Now you may think that I am being sarcastic, but Karloff in my opinion (along with dear Peter Cushing) were trapped by their own fame to endlessly play ‘horror characters’, while both were incredible actors, worthy of much more praise than they ever received. Watch Karloff clutch Saul (Brember Wills).
The threesome are given shelter by Horace Femm (Thesiger) and his sister Rebecca, a wonderful Eva Moore, who I don’t recall ever seeing before. She is perfect as the highly moralistic, religious harridan of the house. Small with beady eyes, she takes Margaret to her bedroom, and while Margaret somewhat surprisingly strips off to her very sexy silk shimmy and stockings (this was Pre-Hays) Rebecca tells her about the Femm family, who were sinful and godless, and her 102 year old father Roderick still resides upstairs. She then sticks a finger into Margaret and accuses her of being sinful as well. This is a very disturbing scene, unsettling because of the unwavering threat from this small welsh witch-woman, who doesn’t appear to be jealous or desirous of this beautiful young smooth woman, but rather hates her for herself.
Sir William Porterhouse (the amazing Charles Laughton) arrives with his girlfriend, a chorus girl (prostitute?) Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond) who are also seeking refuge from the storm. Laughton is a self-made man and appears to be paying Gladys for her company, and Gladys admits her real name is Perkins – she’s nothing special.
There is a fight, the appearance of mad brother Saul (Wills) and a ‘Hollywood’ resolution for the visitors. To discuss more would give the whole story away.
There’s no doubt that the 72 minutes running time is jam-packed with a million film study essays. This is a film that has so many layers, both in style, content and history, that it is really unmissable. It isn’t just for fans of old horror films, it’s more far reaching than that.
Huge congratulations to Masters of Cinema/Eureka on the restoration of this film. It looks glorious, the sound and picture are truly awe inspiring for a film made in 1932.
This release also comes with a slew of extras, all of which are really interesting. Some extras can be a little ‘dry’ but the interview with Sara Karloff and David Cairns documentary about the film are fantastic.
An absolute must buy – and I’ve now watched it 3 times and loved it more each time.
- Limited Edition O-Card (first run only) featuring artwork by Graham Humphreys created especially for the 2018 UK theatrical release.
- Gorgeous 1080p presentation from the Cohen Media Group 4K restoration (with a progressive encode on the DVD)
- Uncompressed LPCM audio (On the Blu-ray)
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
- An exclusive video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns
- Feature length audio commentary by critic and author Kim Newman and Stephen Jones
- Feature length audio commentary by Gloria Stuart
- Feature length audio commentary by James Whale biographer James Curtis
- Daughter of Frankenstein: A conversation with Sara Karloff
- Curtis Harrington Saves The Old Dark House – an archival interview with director Curtis Harrington about his efforts to save The Old Dark House, at a time it was considered to be a lost film
- Trailer for the 2018 UK theatrical release
- A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp; archival material and an abundant selection of unseen imagery and ephemera.
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