James Whale, British filmmaker and subject of the excellent 1998 film, Gods and Monsters, is best remembered as a director of classic horror movies, including Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. But Whale had a sly wit that is nowhere on better display than in 1932’s The Old Dark House, which is an absolute hoot.
Whale reteams with fellow British expatriates Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger, both of Frankenstein fame, in this madcap “dark and stormy night” flick in which five unfortunate travelers must take refuge at the gloomy home of the Femm family. Movies this old are often filled with unintentional humor, but Whale’s story is black comedy par excellence, and he’s assembled a cast that winks at the audience while keeping a straight face.
Karloff, who by this time in his career must have been wondering if he’d ever get an actual speaking part, is all glowering menace as Morgan the mute butler — until he utters a bizarre, guttural growl, at which point I challenge you not to laugh. Thesiger and Eva Moore, as the bickering Femm siblings, are English eccentricity personified.
When Whale isn’t busy subverting our horror-movie expectations, he’s thumbing his nose at the soon-to-be Hollywood Hays Code, particularly in a weirdly erotic scene between dowdy Moore and comely Gloria Stuart. Moore looks on as Stuart strips down to her satin underwear, and then hisses: “You’re wicked, too. Young and handsome, silly and wicked. You think of nothing but your long, straight legs, and your white body, and how to please your man. You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you?” Those lines are illustrative of the film as a whole: bizarre, creepy, and hilarious. Grade: A-
Director: James Whale Cast: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, John (Elspeth) Dudgeon, Brember Wills Release: 1932
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