Initial release October 20th 1932
Director James Whale
Produced by Carl Laemmie Jr
Screenplay by Benn W Levy
Cinematography by Arthur Edeson
Music Bernard Kaun
Released by Universal Pictures
Run Time 71 minutes
Boris Karloff Morgan
Melvyn Douglas Roger Penderel
Gloria Stuart Margaret Waverton
Charles Laughton Sir William Porterhouse
Lilian Bond Gladys DuCane Perkins
Ernest Thesiger Horace Femm
Raymond Massey Philip Waverton
Eva Moore Rebecca Femm
Elspeth Dudgeon Sir Roderick Femm
Brember Wills Saul Femm
Old Dark House opens with three travellers (Philip and Margaret Waverton, and their friend Roger Penderel ) trying to make progress to Shrewsbury in a bad rainstorm. There are hopelessly lost. The car stops and Margaret asks why. Philip, who we see is not in the best of moods says it is for a rest. They continue to bicker and Philip is accused of losing his temper. He says he has never been in a better mood and just loves driving at night. Especially with hardly any headlights and with cold water from a leaky roof dripping down his neck. It is one of the happiest moments of his life! He drives on. Roger, their backseat passenger does little to help, his only suggestion is that they will arrive somewhere, sometime and he is not particularly bothered if he never gets to Shrewsbury. A landslide almost spells disaster for them and they narrowly escape getting stuck. With Penderal merrily singing in the back of the car they soldier on. The weather gets worse, but then Margaret spots lights ahead and demands they pull in.
They have arrived at the mansion belonging to the extremely strange Femm family. They approach and knock on the door. Penderal continues his flippant manner until the door is opened by a sinister bearded figure. He tells him that they have come to ask for shelter.They can neither go forward nor backward as the road is blocked on both sides. We hear a gong and our visitors are allowed to enter the house. We meet Horace Femm, who owns the house, his mute butler Morgan and then his ostensibly deaf sister Rebecca, who comes down the stairs to meet them. When asked if they can stay, she refuses and we again hear our visitors pleading their case. They say the weather is so bad that there is every chance even the house may be under water very soon. Horace Femm, at hearing this drops the glass dish he is holding and it smashes to the floor. He panics and utters to his sister, ‘did you hear what he said , there’s a landslide, floods.The lake has burst its banks’ He adds they are trapped and must leave. His sister accuses him of being afraid.
Reluctantly the visitors are told they can stay, but also that there are no beds. Beggars can’t be choosers and they are quite happy to sit around the fire. They go to the car to collect their luggage.
They are offered a drink of gin and drink it with a background of thunder. Femm is obviously very nervous and doesn’t help matters by telling them that the servant, Morgan is a uncivilised brute and is known to drink heavily. Once drunk he can be dangerous. With this fear instilled into the visitors and the continuing background of thunder, Margaret is shown by the sister to a bedroom where she can change her clothes. With no electricity the only lighting is by candle. The sister also does everything she can to frighten and tells Margaret that the room was once occupied by her own evil sister who had fallen off her horse and hurt her spine. She had lain on the bed month after month screaming until she died. Not the nicest of welcomes?
She also tells her of their father, Sir Roderick, who lives upstairs on the verge of death. He is 102. She accuses Margaret of being evil too and leaves. Margaret goes to the window, but on opening it, is blown back into the room by a blast of night air. She cringes. She flees from the room, struggling with the door and joins her companions. The scene is set for a fun evening. Supper the sister cries.
They all sit down to eat only to be again exposed to the weird rituals of the family. Morgan serves them and we witness an interlude as the camera moves from plate to plate to show them eating. The storm continues to howl. We experience flickering lights and Morgan giving Margaret some sinister glances. There is a knocking at the door.
The knock announces the arrival of two additional stranded travellers, namely Sir William Porterhouse, a man who lives up to his name in every way, and his friend, Gladys Perkins, a woman who is openly involved with Porterhouse purely for the money. The guests continue their meal. Porterhouse is to put it mildly very much over the top as is his girlfriend. Horace Femm introduces his new guests to the others and they join them at the table.
After supper they all sit around talking about nothing in particular. They are interested in what they all think of one another. It all gets a little heated as Penderal says that very little bothers him, whereas he thinks that Porterhouse would go to great lengths to make a few pounds. Porterhouse tries to justify his wealth and his money making habits. He says that he and his late wife were shunned by their associates who looked down on them . He says this is what killed her and now he does what he does to get his revenge by smashing them. During this exchange we start to see that Roger Penderel and Gladys Perkins are obviously attracted to one another and a romance is looking very likely. Fear is also introduced into the equation with the information that Morgan has found a bottle.
Gladys goes over to Penderel who is at the window. They have obviously seen something in one another and agree that they could easily benefit from a drink. They go in search of a bottle of whiskey which Pendleton says he has in the car. Whilst he goes to the car, Gladys gets locked out and then runs scared to the garage. They start on the whiskey.
Back in the house the lights fail and we learn that the only person able to restore them is Morgan, who is by now the worst for drink. There is apparently a lamp and in a strange exchange between brother and sister we find out it is on the top landing on the little table. Horace is afraid to fetch it, so Philip volunteers to go with him. On the way, Horace makes excuses not to go, and Philip ends up going on his own. They hear a strange noise, the excuse being made that it is Morgan. Philip says that he thought the noise had come from upstairs and he glances up. Horace finally gets out of going. Philip, candle in hand, climbs the stairs and finds the lamp. Having found it, he then discovers a locked door with a food tray outside.
Back to the lovely Margaret who is on her own and using the shadows to make finger images on the wall. Within these shadows we see the sister enter and appear to threaten her. Margaret flees initially outside into the storm and then back into the house. We see a hand reach out over her head and close the door. It is a drunken Morgan who tries to attack her. We see his partly disfigured face in close up and then see him lurch towards her. He tips the dinner table over and grabs her. She manages to struggle free and runs up the stairs where she meets Philip returning with the lamp.
Morgan and Philip fight, but it is clear that Morgan is much stronger. Philip hits him with the lamp however and he tumbles down the stairs unconscious. Philip tells Margaret that something strange had happened upstairs. Saying that he did not want to leave her on her own, they both go upstairs to investigate.
Meanwhile Gladys and Roger are still in the garage where she tells him her relationship with Porterhouse is only plutonic, as he sees her as a comfort rather than anything else. He is still in love with his dead wife. They both admit that they like one another and Penderel admits it is far more than that as far as he is concerned. Glady’s commits herself by saying she would love to live with him and has the crazy idea that she could help him become a useful person. As she has no dry shoes and Pendleton being a gentleman at heart, we see him carry her back to the house.
They wake up Porterhouse by knocking at the door and on getting back into the house are told by him that he had gone to sleep and so has no idea where the others are. Gladys then confesses to him that she is in love with Penderel. When the two men are alone, Penderel tells Portorhouse that he intends to ask Gladys to marry him and does he think he’s mad. The reply is that it is probably the best thing Penderel has ever done. The two men appear to have a lot more in common than at first thought?
Moving back to the Waverton’s we see them continue up the stairs and back to the door. This time they knock and go in, accompanied by the chiming of a clock and find Sir Roderick Femm, the patriarch of the family, oddly played by a 60 year old woman in unconvincing makeup. ‘Who are you’ they are asked and they introduce themselves. They offer him a glass of water. He asks what was that noise and on being told that it was Morgan , he tells them that Morgan is a savage.
We hear that it is an unlucky house as bad things have a habit of happening. Two of his children had died and he warns them about the eldest son, Saul. You were not told about Saul he says. He just wants to destroy and kill. Philip now knows who is kept locked away behind the bolted door. Saul’s skill is setting fire to things and Morgan is around to prevent him from setting fire to the house. He fears Morgan may at some stage unlock the door.
We next see all our guests in the dining room where the Waverton’s say Horace has told them that Morgan, having awoken , has been to let Saul out. The fear is that he will again try to set fire to the mansion. Morgan comes slowly down the stairs and is set upon by them all and taken into the kitchen. We see a titanic struggle, but eventually they succeed. There is now great confusion in the house. We hear the sister utter ‘sins of the father, sins of the father’. Penderel ushers both Margaret and Gladys into a room so as to keep them safe. A prelude to more sinister happenings ?
Next we see him in the hall looking up the stairway. From amongst the dark shadows a face emerges. It comes around the corner of the stairs and descends. The figure is confronted by Pendrel. Saul has arrived. He tries to convince Penderel that he is sane and that he has been locked up because he witnessed the family killing of their sister Rachel and warns him about Morgan.
During all this we hear little utterings of laughter. As he steps back over the broken plates from the upturned dinner table, Saul picks up a knife. Not the actions of a sane person! He then proceeds to tell Pendrel all about his obsession with fire. Are you interested in flames he asks and then goes on to say he has made a study of them. He likens fire to knives, they are really sharp and very cold. Saul claims he recognises Pendrel as a clever man like himself, as Pendrel was quick to realise that Saul wanted to kill him. He rants about his biblical beliefs and the relationship between Saul and David in the Bible and how Saul believing David had right on his side needed to kill him.
On the pretext of distracting Saul by telling him that Morgan has come for him, Pendrel tries to escape. Saul throws his knife at him. It narrowly misses and sticks in the back of a chair that our victim has just fallen back into. He now picks up a chair and crashes it over Pendrel’s head, again all accompanied with hysterical laughter. He grabs a lighted torch from the open hearth and runs up the stairs with the naked flame setting fire to the curtains as he does so. Penderel chases after him to prevent him burning the mansion down. Saul and Penderel after a short scuffle fall from the landing.
Morgan now comes back into play. He has smashed his way through a closed door to escape. He releases our two ladies who had previously been locked in a cupboard for safety. He stops Gladys’s from helping the injured Penderel. Margaret now pleads with him saying she must go to both Pendrel and Saul as they are both injured. Morgan now goes over to examine the pair lying on the floor after their fall and pushes aside the injured Penderel. He picks up Saul and carries his injured body upstairs to his room.
At this point both Philip and Porterhouse arrive back on the scene and try to console our distraught ladies. Glady’s immediate thoughts are for her new love, Pendrel not Porterhouse. Philip tries to stop her going to him, but she does. Despite all their worst fears she screams’ he’s alive, he’s alive I tell you’ . Now where have we heard that utterance before?
Next morning down comes Horace Femm to see our guests all alive and ready to leave. His small talk revolves around the fact that the floods have subsided and Porterhouse remarks ‘Thank goodness for that’ We see Philip and Margaret emerge from the house into the daylight with Horace wishing them goodbye. So happy to have met you is his final remark! We see the sister looking on from a widow, gesture her disgust for the apparent intrusion by them all. Back in the house waiting for the ambulance, we see the injured Penderel cradled in Glady’s arms. He asks if he is dead and gone to heaven ? She tells him it is the cold light of day and reminds him that there was something he was going to tell her in the cold light of day. The movie ends with Pendrel saying, ‘Perkins, will you marry me’
Did the previous evening ever happen? Yes, but it must never come in the way of a happy ending.
Universal Studios was the great supporter of the horror movies of the 1930’s and this offering is arguably one of its greatest unsung heroes. The Old Dark House is a unique blend of gothic setting, clever characterisations, wicked humour, a truly awesome cast and the genius of James Whale. The comedy is subtle and designed to mock those who are experiencing their moment of terror.
Karloff had his work cut out in this film as the competition was so great. In addition to Whale’s direction he had to compete with a cast of scene stealers such as Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Eva Moore, and you guessed it, Ernest Thesiger in another great performance. We also had Gloria Stuart, Lillian Bond, and one of my favourite actors of the period, Raymond Massey. The film was also the American film debut of Charles Laughton and he plays a great part as an essentially good hearted Manchester businessman who’s got himself a Sir before his name and is right proud of it.
The chemistry between Thesiger and Moore, as the brother and sister who have to put up with our travellers this stormy night, is fantastic, as they interact and play out their eccentricities to perfection. Thesiger has the choice lines in the film as the effeminate Horace Femm, a cowardly man that cowers to his deaf sister. He is a joy to watch as he goes about his craft.
Scenes worthy of note, the heart-broken Morgan picking up the dead body of the brother can be likened to the love Whale showed in his “Frankenstein” films.
Tod Browning (Freaks, Dracula), Karl Freund (The Mummy, Mad Love), Fritz Lang (Metropolis) and here James Whale. These are the directors that created the fabulous horror genre that we have all come to love and admire.
Where can I can watch Ernest Thesinger, Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas, and Boris Karloff in the same movie? Set a condition that it has to be a classic director and that Karloff must not steal the show. The answer, look no further than 1932 and the Old Dark House.
I cannot end without some facts about this supporting cast. Gloria Stuart, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in ‘Titanic’ (1997). 65 years after this film. Raymond Massey became an icon and starred in one of my favourite films ‘Things to Come’ (1936) a truly great anti war film. I consider this to be one of the greatest films ever made and was the vehicle of another iconic director, the legendary Alexander Korda.
Any negatives. Only the length of some scenes and maybe a rushed ending? Nit picking. Having said that, The Old Dark House as the least well known of James Whale’s four horror pictures works well for two reasons. The set of the house itself and the great cast and the characters they play.
We will arrive somewhere, sometime ?
Arrival, but where ? An old dark house !
Our travellers meet their hosts
After the trauma, a welcome supper
The final two guests arrive
Gladys and Roger get to know one another
A locked room, a food tray, another mystery
Philip and the servant, Morgan, have a disagreement
Our couple meet Sir Roderick Femm
Saul Femm, the final resident appears. A madman and firebug
Roger Penderel to the rescue
The morning after, goodbye and it’s as if nothing had happened