Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Off Script: The Old Dark House

Film: The Old Dark House
Format: VHS from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.

Old horror films show up in the modern age with a serious problem: they aren’t that scary. Take The Old Dark House as a case in point. There are plenty of horror elements here, and there’s a set up for a horror film, but it’s just not that scary. It’s weird and even disturbing in places, or was for 1932, but now comes off as just goofy.

A trio of people are driving through a pounding rainstorm. These are Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey), his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart) and their friend Penderel (Melvyn Douglas). The road becomes impassable thanks to a rockslide, and they’re forced to take shelter in a creepy old house near where the car is trapped.

The house belongs to the Femm family, and they’re a combination of equal parts House of Usher and the Addams Family. The first person we meet is Morgan (Boris Karloff), the mute, drunken butler who maintains a hulking presence over the film. We’re introduced in short order to Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), a gaunt old man who seems afraid of everything. Then comes his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), who is both deaf and infected with a religious fervor of the fire and brimstone variety. The trio makes the best of things, but find their host and hostess to be considerably weird and disturbing.

We’re also suddenly graced with the presence of another pair of stranded travelers. These are Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his chorus girl escort Gladys (Lilian Bond). Sir William is a blustery man given to speaking too loud and making too merry. In short order, we find that Gladys and Penderel have fallen for each other, and within moments are thinking of marriage.

Also in the house is the patriarch of the family, Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon, who was credited as John Dudgeon, because Whale couldn’t find a man who looked old enough), the 102-year-old, bedridden man, who tells a bit of family history to the Wavertons. Locked in a room on the top floor is Saul Femm (Brember Wills), who once tried to burn down the house and is stark raving mad. Everyone’s worry is that on the night of this terrible storm, Morgan will drink himself into a stupor and release Saul, who will try to kill everyone. So naturally, this is what happens.

I can imagine that in 1932, The Old Dark House was something of a scare, but I can’t imagine even then that it was taken too seriously. It’s far too filled with Whale’s love of camp to be taken that seriously. Every character, particularly the Femms, are beyond the pale in personality. They aren’t simply goofy or bizarre, but full blown carnival acts.

Where the film does work, though, is in the third act. I was ready to write off the entire thing as a goof until Saul’s release from his upstairs prison. It’s here that the film takes a decidedly darker turn, and the confrontation between Saul and Penderel is really well played. Saul truly is mad beyond all measure, but for a time pretends to be completely sane. This scene is still effective because real madness, murderous madness, is always scary when it’s played the way it should be. Saul’s rapid descent into gibbering is effective because, well, it’s sudden and a little unexpected.

The Old Dark House, even though there are some moments at the end, isn’t that scary, disturbing, or upsetting. I can see little kids being bothered by it, but no one older than 10. It’s more or less a cheap carnival fun house that promises chills and scares but delivers something just cheesy enough to be fun. And at 72 minutes or so, you’re not asked to give up a whole day to enjoy horror the way it was done in the early days. Still, compared with Dracula and Whale’s own Frankenstein of the previous year, The Old Dark House comes off as more camp silliness than scare factory.

Why to watch The Old Dark House: The third act.
Why not to watch: It comes off as more silly than scary.


  1. "Old horror films show up in the modern age with a serious problem: they aren’t that scary."

    I'd agree (I'd say "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" are exceptions for the era), but I'd like to hear more of why you think so.

    Is it due to limitations of the effects, or a more conservative approach to horror/gore? Do you think the bar for what was considered "scary" was set lower in the '30s, or are we just callused and jaded? Or is it as simple as the jump scare not being invented yet?

    1. I think it's all of the above. They all contribute. A lack of effects meant that a lot of stuff happens off screen--in Dracula, for instance, the characters tell us that a wolf runs across the lawn, but we don't see it--even that effect was too much to show us. Part is the gore. Part is our expectation. We as viewers get used to things. Effects that blew us away 15 years ago now look fake.

      It's not specifically that we're jaded, but that our expectations change. I remember being really freaked out by the melting faces in Raiders of the Lost Ark the first time I saw it. Today? Look! Wax!

      Smart filmmakers got around this. The scene in Frankenstein with the little girl is far more horrific thanks to what was cut.