The Old Dark House implements a shadowy haunted abode that fails to capitalise on its genre parodies. Wales, in typical fashion, engulfed in a blustery storm of torrential rainfall and piercing lightning bolts. Crumbling landslides block narrow roads and bursting flood banks ravage the drowning countryside. A middle-class couple and their friend, unable to continue on their journey, invasively receive shelter in a remote decrepit house by a fearful brother and partially deaf sister. The storm worsens. Unable to leave the abode, they must endure the trapped house for the night, accompanied by a mute butler whom becomes dangerous after consuming alcohol and a mysterious individual whom is suspiciously locked away on the top floor.
After the resounding success of ‘Frankenstein’, Whale would be employed again to direct another horror film for Universal. This time abandoning the creature feature monster tropes he cemented, and settling for a comedic horror based on Priestley’s novel ‘Benighted’. Whale undeniably produces a barrage of atmospheric chills during this short stay of merely seventy-two minutes, exercising his technical mastery. Ominous shadows lurking against the dilapidated walls, with only flickering candles and a roaring fireplace illuminating the dark corridors. Angled cracked mirrors fragmenting the frightened faces that stare into their reflective segments. Thunderous stormy booms echoing throughout the unfurnished gothic rooms, emphasising the absent score. Wooden gargoyles precariously perched on the bannisters, forever witnessing the Femm’s family secrets.
The beguiling chills that are featured all originate from Whale’s authentic directorial flair and the acutely implemented production design that supplement the pre-Code quality. Bolstered by characterised performances, including Karloff’s underused yet continually commanding Morgan and Douglas’ suave charm (despite his eye line staring directly at the camera on seven occasions...), and The Old Dark House invites most audience members into its warming hearth.
As an adaptation of Priestley’s novel, which explores the disillusionment of post-First World War, there are various subtle inclinations that indicate this theme. Rebecca’s begrudging reluctance in inciting hospitality, the eldest son’s crazed fascination with a certain destructive force and Morgan’s insistence on drinking his tormenting woes away. The problem is, these explorative progressive strands dissipate when Whale attempts to parody the very traits of the “haunted house” sub-genre he is simultaneously establishing.
As a “comedy”, The Old Dark House fails dramatically, considering my personal astonishment when the word “comedy” was used to describe this film after watching it. The humorous elements that were included felt like by-products of the era it was created in. Not actual purposeful moments of hilarity. The exaggerative acting, particularly Moore, and all-round uselessness of each character highlighted that. Whale exerts no additional techniques when alluding to hilarity, and therefore its subtle nature vanishes into superfluous invisibility. The forced underdeveloped romance between Perkins and Roger, leading to a stupidly inevitable marriage proposal after just one night, was more laughably eye-rolling than infectiously laughable. Thesiger’s stoic Horace was undoubtedly the most intellectually humorous character, equipped with witty sarcasm and quivering mannerisms. Yet, Whale’s chilling tone throughout juxtaposes the apparent “comedy” embedded within, solely opting for a straightforward horror instead. Personally, this works better. However when a feature is categorised as a “pre-Code comedy horror”, and one did not experience said comedy until discovering the genre upon subsequent research, something clearly failed to resonate.
Still, when viewed as a strict haunted house feature, The Old Dark House succeeds through conventionalised production design and calculative technicalities. And considering the feature was thought to be lost, it’s an admirable aspect of cinematic history that ought to be viewed. Just don’t focus on the proposed comedy, as it admittedly doesn’t work...