Review – James Whale’s ‘The Old Dark House’ is a silly, enjoyable thrill ride

Poster for the 2018 re-release of James Whale horror movie The Old Dark House

Genre: Horror
Certificate: PG
UK Release Date: 27th April 2018
Runtime: 69 minutes
Director: James Whale
Writer: RC Sherriff, Benn W Levy
Starring: Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Lilian Bond, Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore
Synopsis: A selection of travellers seek refuge from a storm in an enormous mansion, which is home to a bizarre selection of family members.

 

 

James Whale is best known as the director of two Frankenstein movies in the 1930s, with his Bride of Frankenstein arguably one of the best horror sequels ever made. Sandwiched between his two Frankenstein tales, in 1932, came The Old Dark House, which is a vintage gothic tale set in a very creepy house. The film was considered to be lost for many years after it fell into obscurity, but is undergoing a real renaissance today, with Edgar Wright one of its high-profile fans. This 4K restoration is now in UK cinemas, ahead of a Blu-ray release later in the year.

The plot is as simple a horror premise as you can possibly imagine, following a selection of travellers who find themselves sheltering from a storm in the same enormous old building. The man who lives there (Ernest Thesiger) seems to be mostly welcoming, but his near-deaf sister (Eva Moore) is openly hostile to the visitors. She’s almost fanatically religious, which draws a wedge between her and her brother, as well as with the new arrivals, who don’t seem to have much respect for her views.

The Old Dark House is a great deal funnier than Whale’s other horror movies, starting with a scene in a car lost on storm-hit roads that is a masterclass of the desperate sarcasm that would become a trope for other films that begin with a similar scenario. The silliness is soon replaced with scares when the door to the house is opened by Boris Karloff, typically imposing and terrifying as the alcoholic, mute manservant Morgan. Every element of the house is creepy, from the wind rushing through open windows to the fractured mirrors and even the way Thesiger encourages his guests to “have a potato” in the most threatening way possible.

There’s a chaotic and wild feel to the way Whale puts the movie together, especially as new characters are introduced in the third act and the cast is split in different parts of the building as if taking part in more of a farce than a ghost story. It’s that blend between horror and humour that gives The Old Dark House a feel that, even today, feels refreshingly unique for a haunted house tale. One scene, in which Gloria Stuart‘s character creates shadow puppets on a wall is surprisingly elegant and strange, right in the midst of the story’s climactic descent into madness.

The Old Dark House is a very unusual movie and it’s clear to see why it hasn’t retained the fame of many of Whale’s more conventional genre works of the period. However, there’s a charm to its ramshackle storytelling and it packs in a fair few decent scares amongst the mayhem.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

With its fair share of things that go bump in the night and a supremely creepy turn from Boris Karloff, who can do a hard stare almost as well as Paddington, The Old Dark House is a forgotten horror tale that deserves to be revisited now that it’s readily available again.

It’s a bumpy ride and a tonally wild one, but Whale is a masterful genre filmmaker and every addition to his back catalogue is one that deserves an hour or two of your time.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

The Old Dark House is back in UK cinemas now for a limited run prior to its Blu-ray release on May 21.

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