The Old Dark House (1932): A Whale Tale

Director James Whale sat in the big chair on 23 films during his brief career, but the much acclaimed horror director only had four spooky features to his name. Three of them are considered to be horror canon especially for fans of Universal horror, 1931’s Frankenstein, 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, and 1933’s The Invisible Man. It was only recently I heard of Whale’s other nightmarish vision, a film that reunited him with Karloff.

Based on the 1927 novel Benighted by British author J.B. Priestly, the film was adapted for the screen by screenwriter R.C. Sheriff, who would write Whale’s Invisible Man, and playwright Benn. W. Levy. It begins with a trio of travelers lost during a rainstorm in the Welsh countryside. When the road gets washed out by a mudslide, they find a foreboding manor house and seek shelter from the violent downpour. They gain entry from the menacing butler Morgan (Karloff), and soon find themselves guest of the very strange Femm family. While the travelers try to make the best of their circumstances, they become endangered when Morgan gets drunk and releases Saul, an insane pyromaniac who is intent on burning the mansion to the ground.

In a way, The Old Dark House was the Scary Movie of its time. Whale’s film played with the conventions of the gothic horror film by bringing modern people into the mix. While a normal horror film would have the characters looking out for danger around every turn, the travelers who end up in the Femm’s mansion are more concerned with flirting and having a good time. Much of the humor has a dry, British wit, and at the time, it did not play well at all to an American audience. Many viewers may still find the film’s humor to be a bit obtuse. I know there were several lines of dialog that were meant to be humorous that were completely lost on me. On the whole, the film does have a very funny tone to it even through the more dramatic last act.

Apart from Karloff, who I will get to in a moment, there are several other recognizable stars in this film. Charles Laughton, who would become a major star with 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty, made his American debut with this film, and his character Sir William Porterhouse is one of the most entertaining of the stranded travelers. Making his second appearance on The Lair this week, Melvyn Douglas was much more suited for the role of hep cat Roger Pendrel than his part in The Vampire Bat, and his scenes with the lovely Lillian Bond are both humorous and sweet. Raymond Massey, who would land bigger roles in Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace and TV’s Dr. Kildare, shows up as Phillip Waverton, but he never becomes much of a character though he does get to fight Karloff. One performer I have to mention I did not recognize, but it bears mentioning that Gloria Stuart played Waverton’s wife Margaret. It was hard to recognize Ms. Stuart because her most well known role would come almost 60 years later as Old Rose in Titanic. You also get an appearance from Ernest Thesiger as Horace Fenn. Thesiger would memorably pair with James Whale again as Dr. Pretorious in 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein.

Now on to Karloff. As the film starts, even before the Universal logo, the audience is given this message, “Karloff, the mad butler in this production, is the same Karloff who created the part of the mechanical monster in "Frankenstein". We explain this to settle all disputes in advance, even though such disputes are a tribute to his great versatility.” Boris is all but unrecognizable as Morgan, the mute, alcoholic butler. The few garbled grunts that he emits betray none of the rich baritone that would become his trademark sound. Karloff is given little to do but look menacing as he does not even end up being the “big bad” in the picture. The Old Dark House was only one of eight films that Karloff made in 1932, and Morgan was far from a starring role. It was a workmanlike performance, but the film didn’t call for anything more than that.

The Old Dark House was remade in 1963 by another horror great, William Castle, and when the remake was released, Whale’s original film was withdrawn from circulation. For many years the film was thought to be lost, but when the rights to the film reverted to author J.B. Priestly, they were bought by film archivist Raymond Rohauer who saved the film and had the master print restored. While The Old Dark House will never stack up to James Whale’s other classic horrors, it is a very different kind of film from anything I had seen from the era. It will remain an offbeat film that will likely only spark the interest of Karloff or James Whale completists. It’s not a bad film by any stretch, but also not one I can recommend for anything beyond a curiosity.

Speaking of Karloff, Frankensteinia is going to be running a Karloff tribute blog-a-thon tho coincide with Boris birthday next month. As I have a lot of love for Mr. K, I'm going to be putting my 2 cents in as well. If you want more details or want to participate, check out the link above or the banner in my sidebar. It should be a ghoulish good time.

Bugg Rating

I'm afraid there was no trailer available, but I found a clip from one of my favorite parts of the film where Gloria Stuart is menaced by Eva Moore as Rebecca Fenn.


  1. For anyone interested: TCM will be showing the remake and the original on October 21st at 2:30 am and 4:00 am, both times are EST.

  2. Thanks for the tip, specs. I'm going to have to try and catch the remake.


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