The Old Dark House

“The Old Dark House,” a 1932 film directed by James Whale, tells a story about a couple who must take refuge in a spooky mansion in the Welsh countryside.  A fierce rainstorm washes out the road, leaving them no choice but to knock on the gothic mansion’s large wooden door.  The door opens and the sinister face of Boris Karloff, the mad butler, fills the screen.

Boris Karloff and Gloria Stuart

This spooky movie stars Karloff, Melvin Douglas, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey and Lillian Bond.  The Butler’s family turns out to be the angry and suspicious Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore), her fearful brother Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), and the family patriarch Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon).  They harbor a secret about a mad and murderous sibling living in the attic.  Of course, in all gothic concoctions, someone or something sinister always lurks in the attic.

Stuart, who later played Old Rose in “Titanic” from 1997, plays the menaced lady as she’s pursued in her white evening gown by the fiendish Karloff.  Massey, who plays Philip Waverton, becomes determined to unmask the secret in the attic, which brings tragic consequences and ends up wrecking a sizable portion of the mansion.

The film plays out as a drawing room comedy with magnificent visual touches by Whale, including a closeup of the rain falling off the hat of Melvyn Douglas, and the collapse of the road leading to the mansion.  But the film really gets a jolt of electricity when Laughton arrives, who plays Sir William Porterhouse with full British bluster.  The wisecracking Douglas, with pipe in hand, comes across as a poor man’s William Powell, and we also get a wonderful performance from Thesiger, who plays the proper, respectable but very fearful Horace.  This is one of Universal’s horror gems, even if it is the least well known.

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