Friday 11 May 2018

Meet the family: "The Old Dark House"

It's been obscured for some while, but 1932's The Old Dark House has now been dug out of the archives to be presented to us as the foundation stone of an entire subgenre. Without James Whale's adaptation of the J.B. Priestley novel Benighted, an outlier in the Universal horror cycle, there would be no Amityville, no The Haunting (in either good or bad iterations), no Insidious chapters one through four. Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart (later the old dear in Titanic), plus pal Melvyn Douglas, are caught in a storm one night while traversing the Welsh borderlands en route to an appointment in Shrewsbury. They seek shelter in a spooky mansion that looms up out of nowhere, only for the door to be opened by a bearded, mumbling Boris Karloff ("even Welsh ought not to sound like that," comments Massey), footman to the deeply strange Femm family: tall, highly strung Horace (Ernest Thesiger) and his squat, squawking, at least partially deaf sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), who barely lets Stuart settle in before accusing her of revelling "in the joys of fleshly love". 

As that would suggest, The Old Dark House nowadays plays as every bit as funny as it is scary, and that's deliberate: Whale, who had already signed off on Frankenstein but would go on to make the semi-parodic Bride of Frankenstein, is here single-handedly inventing not just the haunted house movie, but the comedy-horror film that would stand on an adjacent plot. (Other titles that owe a considerable debt to the film would include The Addams Family, anything associated with The League of Gentlemen, and High Spirits with Steve Guttenberg.) Although Massey winds up poking around the house's cloistered upper floors with a candle, and Stuart gets spooked by shadows, horror diehards may start feeling shortchanged, because for most of its slender 75-minute running time, the film leans heavily in the direction of the comedy of manners. 

Our normie heroes find themselves caught between Thesiger's singularly odd, oddly sympathetic Horace, imploring everyone "have a potato" at the Femm dinner table, and brash latecomer Charles Laughton as the Lancastrian laird who gets pie-eyed over supper, and promptly passes out; Douglas subsequently winds up seducing the latter's chorine companion (Lilian Bond) in the back of a jalopy (to the sound of a crowing cock), while Karloff's footman crosses a line with the fetching Stuart. A measure of wobbly-banistered creakiness ensues as the house gives up its secrets, but it remains packed with very Thirties pleasures - the most eccentric character performers of that era, assembled on the kind of set they just don't build (or light like this) anymore - not to mention one of the earliest cinematic assertions that there's nowt so queer as folk. And that's before anybody gets within three miles of Shrewsbury.

The Old Dark House is now playing in selected cinemas.

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