Friday, October 06, 2017

The Horror Of...Halloween Night, The Old Dark House (1932)

While their is a set of classic horror films people know, many others from the period fall in the cracks. Some found no audience, some were lost, and some just get missed. So let's look at a strangely missed work.

After the fun of The Ghoul let's step back a year to another under appreciated classic from Boris Karloff's filmography. A dark manor house on a dark night filled by a raging storm. A house full of history, secrets, and misery. Then, as the roads are washed away, a collection of young and clueless travelers arrive, seeking shelter from nature's wrath. What ever will they find in the depths of...

The Old Dark House.

One of the next films James Whale worked on, following Frankenstein, was The Old Dark House. It also allowed him work with Boris Karloff again, in the colorful and silent role of Morgan the butler. Morgan is also a drunken and angry man who is held in place by the lady of the house. This also was the first film where Whale and Karloff worked with Ernest Thesiger, who plays Horace Femm. He is a member of the family that own the house, but is cowed by his sister and terrified of the house and it's secrets.

This is also Charles Laughton's first film in the United States. He plays voracious businessman Sir William Porterhouse. The character carries a grudge against wealthy elite snobs that he thinks look down on people like him.

Beyond these 3 men, this is also another production of Carl Laemmle Jr, and from Universal Studios. It has a clear pedigree as a part of the whole of Universal Horror. But it lacks any of the classic monsters, like the film Black Cat, so it ends up excluded.

The story this film is based off is a 1920's book. There the focus is more on the post-WWI period and the impact on the war on the characters. Some of this can be seen in the film. Like with the character of Penderel. He is a friend and hanger on of a married couple. He is casual and jovial, but always is an outsider and disenchanted with the modern world. He's a little lost since the war.

Universal eventually let their rights to the book lapse, and another studio began working another film. At the time in the 1960's, Universal seemed uninterested in this film, and it was at risk of being lost due to neglect. But an enthusiast searched Universal and found the negatives. He then helped get them restored, to ensure the film would be available for decades to come.

And here we are.

The film opens on a dreary and discontent night in Wales [Insert Welsh joke here.]. Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) are driving, and quite lost in the stormy countryside. It is leaving them both frustrated and tense.

(Interestingly,Massey would end up play Jonathan Brewster in the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace ("He looks like Boris Karloff."). That was a role that Boris Karloff originated on stage. Karloff had begged for years to be able to play the role on film, but was refused. Karloff carried a chi on his shoulder over that for years, even firing the person who handled his fan mail when she married the playwright.)

Flood waters on the floor.

Map turning to paste in the rain.

And, hey, being in one of those old open cars cannot be helping. No windows on the side. All that rain and wind getting in. That looks like hell.

But they aren't actually alone. Mr. Penderel is in back, lounging. He sings and jokes as they try to get through, not interested in where they go. He has a blase attitude to it all.

And then the hills around them start sliding into the road.

It is not good. They need shelter. And then they see a light at a house down the road.

They reach the house and knock on the door, looking for help. They find Morgan the butler. Mute and gruff.

"I like walks along the river, puppies, kittens, and sacks
you can stick the puppies and kittens in."

Once inside they are met by Horace Femm, a resident of the house.

Quickly, his near deaf fervently religious sister, and owner of the house, arrives. Rebecca Femm,played by Eva Moore. She is nervous and worried. She wants them all gone immediately. No strangers!

"They haven't come to steal my webbing, right?"

The newcomers do their best to explain the situation with the flooding and roads being washed out or buried. Horace is panicked at the news, scared they might be trapped in the house, or killed. His sister is contemptuous. The house has survived floods before with no trouble.

But Rebecca does relent on letting them stay. But no beds! Just a place by the fire for the night.

They move the car into the old stables for cover then take a breath with some gin from Horace. Horace and Penderel talk and note that Penderel is one of the generation marked by WWI ("the war") who have been left somewhat battered and twisted by the experience.

Horace continues to fret about the storm and being trapped. He expounds that part of his worry is about Morgan. Morgan is a drunkard. And when he drinks he becomes mean and aggressive.

Margaret Waverton asks for a place to change out of her wet clothes, and Rebecca Femm acquiesces. She takes her to the room of her dead sister Rachel. Margaret would like to left alone, but Rebecca won't leave, slowly lighting candles.

"Anyway, I was listening to Alex Jones..."
"Now I know why your sister wanted to die."

Rebecca eagerly tells the story of Rachel, making Margaret uncomfortable. Rachel died young in that room after a serious horse riding accident. Rebecca declares her sister was wicked, as is her whole family. She traipsed around followed by boys, and then she hurt her spine. She screamed for someone to kill her. Rebecca told her to pray to God instead.

Rebecca then continues to talk about how horrible her family was. Drinking. Cavorting. Sin after sin. And they always laughed at Rebecca, and told her to go away and pray.

"Hmm. Looks like you got a bit of Satan on your dress."

Rebecca then notes Margaret's clothing and imputes that she is just the same as the wicked women that would visit the house. It creeps Margaret out a good deal.

During an awkward dinner, where the siblings of the house bicker over religion, the last outsiders arrive.

Sir William Porterhouse and Gladys (Lillian Bond). Porterhouse is a wealthy businessman, jovial and pushy. Gladys openly tells them she is a chorus girl. The pair like to hang out and go to parties together.

The pair are a happy pair, but for Porterhouse it is mostly an escape from the wife that haunts him. She died years before, and he blames the haughty attitude of their "betters" for her demise. She had felt inadequate among wealthier and more cultured people and thought she held her husband back. (They went to a party where she was ostracized for the quality of her dress.) Shortly after, she was dead.

Since then, he's held a grudge against the people who he thinks treated his wife badly. He eagerly went to work and built his business, and with it he crushed those people. Now he knows he's no longer the happy simple Northern he once was. He doesn't respect himself anymore.

So with Gladys he's looking for some friendship. Someone he can look out for. Someone who will listen to his stories. Someone who wouldn't look down on his wife.

After they arrive, Penderel decides to be gallant and give Gladys some of his shoes to wear, to be warm and dry. No doubt he is well versed on how vital it is to keep feet dry and warm.

So now everyone is there, but not everyone is introduced. There is the ailing 100 year old patriarch of the family upstairs, Sir Roderick. He's left alone most of the time. He's a keeper of the family secrets. The family is filled with tragedy. Young deaths. Illness. Madness. And he warns of the greatest danger in the house...

And then there is the eldest son. Saul. He's locked in on the upper floor. They say it's because he's very wicked and violent, eager to kill and burn things. But is it true?

So everyone introduced, the house cut off, what could happen?

Particularly if Morgan gets to drinking, and wants to cause mischief?

"Alright. Who told Karloff about who was doing his role in the Arsenic and
Old Lace

 Will The Old Dark House claim another victim this night?

Universal. Laemmle era. Boris Karloff. Ernest Thesiger. James Whales. Charles Laughton. Do I have to sell this one any further? If you are a fan of classic early horror, you owe it to yourself to see this film. (And The Ghoul.)

Take time to appreciate Karloff's early heavily made up brutish roles, he got sick of those quickly.

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