Although I am much more of a 70’s-80’s kind of person when it comes to my movies, you have to acknowledge the films of the real past and dip back occasionally to where things started, especially with genre films such as horror. The 1930’s had plenty to offer and arriving between the two World Wars gave some form of release for people to escape into their own worlds within the elaborate theatres of their time. Gangster, fantasy and thrillers all came into their prime during the time as did horror which rattled the censors who brought in the H certificate in 1932 highlighting films with disturbing and frightening scenes. One of the most contentious films at the time was James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), where the idea of the monster throwing an innocent girl into a lake and drowning her was enough to get them up in arms. The cinema nasty of the time was most definitely Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) the ghastly tale of revenge heavily abridged and considered unacceptable in its uncut form for many years to come. Strange creatures were also marvelled at on The Island Of Lost Souls the same year courtesy of Erle C. Kenton and the film stars two of the main actors from The Old Dark House Bela Lugosi and Charles Laughton. King Kong was just about to stomp around the corner and it was certainly a time where people were able to marvel at all sorts of fantastic visions from their seats, many of these films obviously still considered very much classics to this very day.
Following the success of Frankenstein and before causing The Invisible Man to disappear before audiences very eyes Whale helmed The Old Dark House based on the novel by J.B. Priestly. We pitch up on a grim night where it’s raining by the bucket-load. A group of three people travelling by one of those new-fangled automobile things are caught on a road to Shrewsbury that would give anyone moaning about a few pot-holes these days something to really think about. It strikes like a typical English bank holiday. They are Phillip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stewart) along with their rakish companion Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) and after a landslide they find themselves somewhat trapped but are luckily able to seek shelter in The Old Dark House of the title. The door is opened by a grizzled and hairy looking butler Morgan (Karloff) and they find themselves at the mercy of eccentric and nervous Horace Femm and his strange and none too accommodating religious zealot sister Rebecca (Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore). We discover Morgan is mute rather than simply Welsh and must be kept away from drinking, Rebecca is half deaf and Horace is rather nervous about certain secrets that this old candlelit house contains. A meal is partaken (a tradition in these sort of films) and another couple arrive, the gregarious Sir William Porterhouse (Laughton) and his fun-time friend Gladys DuCane Perkins (Lilian Bond). It’s a case of strange food, potatoes, roast beef, bread and pickled onions and stranger conversation. It becomes obvious that the hosts are a bit barking and whoops Morgan is at the booze drunker than a skunk in an impressively short amount of time (I suspect there be some sort of home-made spirit involved). With Morgan playing a red herring, about to go lycanthrope card and everyone else stupidly seeming to wander off into dark crevices of the house and the barn outside the plot leads us on a merry old dance wondering just what secrets the old dark house contains?
The (over) acting is great, the cast are exemplary and there is plenty going on with everything from comedy, sarcasm, social commentary and even a side line of blossoming love amidst the madness. If the plot sounds familiar it will be, you will no doubt even if not having seen this before watched similar countless times. It kind of opened its dark doors to a floodgate of imitators even if it was not the first example of such a flick and one can definitely look at ‘old dark house’ films as their own sub-genre. Whether any quite matched this with fantastic mood, lighting and cinematography is debatable, the transfer of this lost for many years film is presented here in 4K and although I was sent on DVD for review rather than Blu it looks fantastic. I could list a stack of films that have similarities to this and contain many of the same tropes and it was even spilled into the more popular realms of TV with odd families in strange manses such as The Munsters & Adams family. Films such as Jack Hill’s fantastic Spider Baby 1962 should definitely be on your watch list and you could even draw certain parallels into classics of my favourite era such as Tobe Hooper’s seminal Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974. One of the oddest aberrations however is one that Whale would never have anticipated. I noted putting the subs on The Old Dark House (as going deaf in my old age) the descriptive term “thunder crack” being used plenty and Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack 1975 took the realms of the old dark house to its absolute nadir with scenes of hardcore pornography of practically every imaginable description and a rampaging ape into a film that is most definitely inspired by Whale’s classic. If you want to see that though don’t hang about waiting for it to get a British release but grab the import via Synapse. I may well watch the two as a double bill at some point. Although you might find the odd example of films of this ilk in the modern cinema world, most of the old dark houses have crumbled, sold to the developers and turned into expensive flats or unsafe tower-blocks. Forget that and see if you can catch one of the several screenings of Whale’s classic on the big screen for a limited time. Special mention in this respect should go to Graham Humphries for his fantastic artwork and poster designs.
Eureka’s disc comes with no less than 3 commentary tracks provided by critics extraordinaire Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, Whale’s biographer James Curtis and original cast member Gloria Stewart prior to her death in 2010. Moving onto the extras, the main one is Meet The Femms and the 38 minute piece gives a fascinating insight into Whale and the demons that followed him from the trenches of WWI to the big screen. It’s a great look into the social context of the era, the influence and releases of Universal at the time as well as this “queer film’s’ literary influence. Naturally there is plenty to be said about the actors too and you may well be surprised to discover some of the other features they appeared in both of the time and into more modern films, yes you can actually pave this soaking wet film all the way to Titanic. As for Karloff well you won’t find a more iconic horror actor in the 30’s and his hairy touch is one that will never be forgotten. Written and narrated by critic and filmmaker David Cairns this is packed full of information and scholarly watch that I found almost as enthralling as the film itself.
‘Daughter Of Frankenstein’ is an interview with Sarah Karloff whose strange family origins should easily be worked out. The 15 minute piece is conducted by Dean Otto curator of film at the Speed Art museum and she states that even though he had been involved in acting for 20 years it wasn’t until he played Frankenstein at 44 that his career actually took off leading to him being in over 170 films. In 1932 he was in some absolute classic films like Scarface and The Mummy and spent more hours in the make-up chair than anyone can possibly imagine. No doubt there have been plenty of documentaries on film and stuff written about the monster man but hearing them from his own flesh and blood is obviously one of the best ways of doing so, even if she wasn’t born as she points out when these films were originally made. Finally we have a chat with Curtis Harrington who talks about meeting director Whale and managing to screen the at the time rarely seen film to an appreciative audience as well as subsequent efforts to save and restore it for future generations.
As a footnote, those interested in the incredible career of James Whale should certainly seek out Bill Condon’s 1998 film God’s And Monsters, even if some elements of it are fictitious. Perhaps it is the perfect time for this to have an upgrade from DVD to Blu Ray too