Poorly received when released in 1932, James Whale’s adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s novel vanished from distribution and was considered a lost film, apparently built up to a Holy Grail film not unlike Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927). It took the determined sleuthing of director Curtis Harrington (Night Tide, Queen of Blood, What’s the Matter with Helen?) to track down a surviving negative, housed at Universal’s New York vault, plus the financial assistance of the George Eastman House to mount a restoration before Whale’s film could once again circulate in rep cinemas, and ultimately home video.
Running a brisk 72 mins., The Old Dark House – the first of many Priestley works to be adapted for film and TV - is a very strange film that feels like a collection of genres banged together into a new kind of hybrid, and while not a haunted house nor gothic horror film, it could be regarded as a suspense-drama with modernized gothic overtones.
According to film historian James Curtis, who provides a generally consistent commentary track, Benn W. Levy retained much of the dialogue from Priestley’s novel, with Whale adding his own mordant touches to some dry and often vicious repartee between a group of stranded travelers, and the weird family who’ve reluctantly given them shelter and food until an epic storm runs its course.
Perhaps taking an idea from Jane Eyre, Priestley’s story eventually hovers around a locked room in the nosebleed corner of the mansion where something dark & dangerous lies waiting, and there’s great tension in awaiting the inevitable emergence of Saul, the bad son with a murderous pyro streak who literally forces his family to lock themselves in their rooms, praying he won’t burn down the house.
Boris Karloff, who gets top billing above Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton (in his American film debut), and Raymond Massey (also making his American debut), plays the mute butler / attendant with a drinking problem, and Gloria Stuart (in her second film) is the ‘white flame’ whom Karloff and Saul somewhat fixate when their tempers are unfettered.
Douglas, Stuart, and Massey are the first lost travelers to arrive at the doorstep of the Femm homestead, which consists of brother Horace (Ernest Thesiger), sister Rebecca (Eva Moore) and butler Morgan (Karloff). During their dinner another couple knocks on the door – pompous self-made industrialist Sir Willam Porterhouse (Laughton, with a delicious Manchester accent) and his gold digging companion Gladys (Lilian Bond).
At first the character dynamics keep the guests a little wary of their hosts, but eventually they too splinter into small groups, with a love affair developing between unmarried Penderel (Douglas) and frisky Gladys. According Curtis’ commentary, Whale and writer Levy amped up the dialogue and intensity of the couple’s attraction, but in shirking away the novel’s more quiet tone, the two characters become hugely grating. Their barn romance is hastened and firmed up not with touching and gazing, but exceptionally insipid dialogue, piped out in the most pinched British manner. And being British, Porterhouse’s reaction to losing his paid-for girl is respectful – he essentially steps back and wishes them well, even though he’s not happy to lose his little companion.
The film’s pre-Code status ensures the dialogue has some spice, and there’s a gratuitous undressing scene where Stuart changes from wet travelling clothes to a shimmering white evening gown. (In her commentary track, Stuart recalls asking Whale the purpose of the wardrobe change – to become a ‘white flame’ that teases both Morgan the butler and evil Saul into losing their cool and ultimately starting a deadly house fire).
Whale’s direction is very interesting in House. The camera moves with elegance, the stylized edits in the post-undressing scene (flash cuts of Rebecca uttering gloomy words) feel very modern, and he treats the house as another character – a corrupt thing that’s slowly poisoned the minds of its inhabitants.
Whale retained the same cinematographer and set designer from Frankenstein, giving the film its gothic look, as well as some marvelous visual sequences. (Stuart and Massey’s candle lit ascension to Saul’s room makes great use of perspectives, especially one shot where the camera captures the couple mid-ascent while the dining room flickers in the far off background.)
The lack of any music score seems like a deliberate choice to fill the soundtrack with exaggerated sound effects, and for a 1932 film, House is a great textbook example on how to craft and shape a sound design where every scene breathes with its own storm of sounds, including wheezing drafts, creaks, and a general hollow ambiance of a hulking old house.
Curtis notes a particular hallway shot involving blowing curtains that’s likely inspired by Paul Leni’s Cat and the Canary [M] (1927), and one can also surmise Dario Argento appropriated the moody shot in Suspiria (1977), where a massive old dance studio houses a coven of witches.
KINO’s DVD uses the same video master as the 1998 Image laserdisc, so while all of the extras (James Whale Filmography excepted) are included, this is a very old transfer that’s been worsened by compression to fit the lot onto a single layer DVD. It’s not a bad transfer, but the lack of detail is akin to an old ¾” U-matic tape.
The extras are fine: Stuart’s commentary is a little awkward in the way it was spliced together from a series of replies, whereas Curtis lets a few big gaps interrupt the momentum of his historical narrative. Curtis Harrington’s videotaped interview provides a concise retelling of his friendship with Whale and rescue of the film when Universal lost the rights after William Castle’s 1963 remake for Columbia – but this is a catalogue title that really needs to be remastered for a contemporary Blu-ray release.
Whale would reunite with Stuart on The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), after which the actress (as she laments in her commentary) would grow tired of B-level roles, ultimately stepping away from films in 1946 when her roles became increasingly banal, and Universal wanted to transform the stage-trained actress into a female Tarzan heroine! Whale would deliver several more classic genre films – The Invisible Man (also co-starring Stuart), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Show Boat (1936), The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) – before being put out to pasture in the 1940s.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan