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The Old Dark House

I stumbled upon this week’s film recommendation many years ago. It was back in the days of the BBC’s ‘horror double bills’, when two horror films, usually one Universal and one Hammer or Amicus, would be shown late on Saturday nights on BBC2. Often, as a horror-starved kid, I’d be desperate to watch the more recent colour movies, not the older black-and-white films of the 1930s and 1940s. Sometimes, though, those creaky old chillers delivered far more than those relatively modern films drenched with overly bright red blood. THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) was a film I thoroughly enjoyed back then, and it’s one I regularly rewatch today.

Driving through a ferocious storm, five travellers seek shelter in an old and remote house in the Welsh countryside. There, they find themselves at the mercy of the bizarre and eccentric Femm family. Though no one is entirely happy with the situation, a dry and relatively safe night progresses until other, previously unmentioned, family members make their presence known.

Read more: The Old Dark House

There’s so much to unpack about THE OLD DARK HOUSE that it’s hard to know where to start. Based on J B PRIESTLEY’s 1927 novel BENIGHTED, it set the blueprint for haunted house movies, whilst at the same time somehow managing to pastiche the very genre it’s defining. This is in no small part due to the excellent (and often gently hilarious) script, and the conflict between the cast of increasingly bizarre characters. The film (which was remade by Hammer in 1963) was directed by JAMES WHALE, fresh off the huge critical and financial success of FRANKENSTEIN, and prior to repeating that success with THE INVISIBLE MAN. Considering its relatively small size, the cast is terrific. BORIS KARLOFF is unforgettable as Morgan, the Femm family’s mute manservant. The group of stranded travellers includes such luminaries as RAYMOND MASSEY, MELVYN DOUGLAS, and CHARLES LAUGHTON. GLORIA STUART, who decades later went on to play the elderly Rose in JAMES CAMERON’s TITANIC, is also excellent.

The film is only 72 minutes long, but it rattles along at such a pace that it feels half that length. The brittle interplay between the travellers and the family who begrudgingly agree to shelter them from the storm is engaging and the production design is excellent. The decrepit, decaying gothic mansion is almost a character in its own right, and the constant soundtrack of the swirling, moaning wind and rain outside leave you ill at ease. Released in the pre-Code era, it benefits from an honest, liberal approach that would have been impossible under the anti-immorality crusade that came a year later and resulted in far stricter censorship and studio oversight.

Despite strong reviews, when THE OLD DARK HOUSE was originally released it was something of a flop, and it was many years later before it finally received the level of acclaim it always deserved. It’s a beautiful film, drenched with atmosphere, that both created and defined a genre at the same time. I think it’s interesting that the film threatened to derail James Whale’s career in the same way that director TOD BROWNING was affected after following the huge success of DRACULA with FREAKS. Ah, FREAKS… now there’s a film I need to write about here.

As usual, this is a recommendation not a review, so I’ve said next to nothing about the plot. If you’ve not seen it, I definitely recommend getting hold of a copy of THE OLD DARK HOUSE. If you can, try and find the 4k restoration of the film that was released in 2018.

Thanks for reading.

Over the years I’ve recommended many films, books, and podcasts. You can find a full list of them here.

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