The Old Dark House might be hiding some old secrets but still feels modern and fresh.
The Old Dark House is one of the first Talkies shot in the Pre-Code Era which meant that didn’t have to deal with censorship. That makes this film a very unique film which gives us an uncensored look at that era.
It’s a film full of mystery, entertaining humor and a light-hearted atmosphere. It’s engaging and a joy to watch but the horror elements are present as well. At a psychological level and a psychical threatening level. The film is shot in black and white and shadows are fully utilized. Set in a dark old house, full with shadows and secrets, the unexpected guests stir things up and make it a spooky and entertaining watch. It’s a horror classic and a film classic that is a definite must-see.
When Philip and Margaret Waverton are stranded at a house together with their friend Roger Penderel they aren’t exactly welcomed. Butler Morgan who can’t talk seems be to rather savage. Rebecca Femm lives with her brother Horace and their really old father Roderick as recluses. Later that night Sir William Poterhouse and his girlfriend Gladys DuCane a chorus girl are also stranded. Together they share a meal and tell each other stories and secrets. But the biggest secrets kept by their hosts aren’t told…yet.
Why you should watch it
Although it’s an old film, it does feel rather modern. The women speak freely and are equals to the men which gives it a feminist feel. They are also freely in their sexuality and not afraid to address it. There’s no damsel in destress that the man will have to deal with and the story revolves around all of them, making each character equally important. More importantly even the men help with cleaning up the dining table.
Although the story unfolds a bit slowly, there’s also a lot of room to get to know them all a bit better. Especially when they are sharing secrets. Which is a nice setup for the true mystery and dark secret that is hidden inside the house. Each character has its own specific traits and individuality that is cause for great dynamics in the house. While Philip and Margaret argue a lot, they are still happily married. Roger is a playful charming man. William is a rich man but very nice and innocent and Gladys is a free independent playful woman, who stirs things up a bit.
More unusual and odd are the inhabitants of the old dark house. Rebecca is a strange woman with her creepy monologues. Horace is a very frightened and anxious man. While Morgan is a bit scary and Roderick is the most elusive of all, hidden away, and by the way who is played by a woman.
The gothic style of the film is great. The house is a big important element and the shadows are fully utilized to create an ominous atmosphere. Especially when a shadow seems to attack Margaret or when Rebecca’s face is seen distorted in the mirror. The big room where they dine and have some drinks almost feels like a stage, with its many doors, the stairs and the big walls filled with shadows.
Although the set design, the cinematography and lighting create a wonderful creepy gothic atmosphere, the characters are the key elements to the story. It’s what they say and do what matters and that drives the story. They are the cause for some laughs, romance, and disturbing behavior and even a very frightening and threatening conversation.
The dialogue is an important factor in the film and the conversations depict the characters. The men and women are equal in these conversions with each having things to say that are important to the story. It’s an ensemble cast that together create a wonderful mysterious and sometimes creepy movie.
My favorite part
I really liked Gladys and even more so when she took off her shoes. She feels so modern and fresh and unashamed without being a tacky girl. She’s real and no wonder that Penderel falls for her. Their conversation hidden away in the car is so endearing and adds a bit of romance to the story.
Visually this film was also a joy. Especially the frightening shadows on the wall that seemed to attack Margaret. It was well-crafted and gave it a hint of surreal fright.
But the secret of course was the part what is was all about. I won’t spoil it for you, but although it isn’t the biggest twist, what comes after, the very disturbing dialogue makes you forget it’s a movie that is almost a hundred years old. It’s smart scary.
Scare factor: ★★★☆☆
Originality factor: ★★★★★
Entertainment factor: ★★★★★
Cast and crew
The Old Dark House is based on the novel Benighted written by J.B. Priestley in 1927. It is directed by James Whale and the screenplay is written by Ben W. Levy. It stars Boris Karloff (Morgan), Melvyn Douglas (Penderel), Charles Laughton (Sir William Porterhouse), Lilian Bond (Gladys), Ernest Thesiger (Horace Femm), Eva Moore (Rebecca Femm), Raymond Massey (Philip Waverton), Gloria Stuart (Margaret Waverton), Elspeth Dudgeon (Sir Roderick Femm) and Brember Wills (Saul Femm).
Duration: 72 minutes. Cinematography: Arthur Edeson. Edited by: Clarence Kolster. Produced by: Carl Laemmle Jr., E.M. Asher. Production company: Universal Pictures. Distributed by: Universal Pictures.