In honor of Hallowe’en, we present a double feature that pairs up well with the novel we’ve slated for today’s review. Both of the adaptations of J. B. Priestley’s novel Benighted. We hope you enjoy this unusual pairing.
The Old Dark House (1932)
Synopsis: When three bedraggled travelers through stormy Welsh mountains find the creepy old house with the electric lights burning in the windows, it seems like a godsend. The storm has been playing hell with husband Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey), wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart), and friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas). However, the Femm family is a strange one. Cadaverous brother Horace (Ernest Thesiger), zealous sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), hidden patriarch Sir Roderick (Elspeth Dudgeon, credited as John Dudgeon), and the dumb manservant Morgan (Boris Karloff) are all sinister in their own way. Still, the family extends common courtesy (begrudgingly) instead of forcing the travelers out into the murk to face broken levees and landslides. Before the night is over two more travelers will arrive, portly man of money Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his chorus line gal Gladys (Lilian Bond). This house is not a godsend however. Instead, it is a place benighted, and the inhabitants hide some sinister secrets indeed. As the night progresses and the storm worsens, our visitors will find themselves beset by gloom and murderous appetites. Being wily Brits, however, they will face this with no small amount of good humor and strong spines. Director James Whale’s reputation these days might be his horror pictures such as Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), but between these he dabbled with a peculiar picture: The Old Dark House (1932) is a bizarre blend of comedy and suspense, adapting the J. B. Priestley novel, Benighted, for the silver screen.
Whale’s The Old Dark House is not exactly a masterpiece of film, but it is nevertheless an interesting watch. As someone who recently came to the novel that inspired it, I was intrigued to see what a director of Whale’s caliber would do with the material. In fact, he turned a novel that balances mood, humor, suspense, and broken characters and built a suspenseful comedy out of it.
For the best lines in scenarist Benn Levy’s script come directly from the novel. In fact, the film takes quite a few of its beat right from the book. There is a bit of shuffling specific events around, merging of moments, and an ending that goes some place far more cheery than Priestley’s novel. The screenplay has a relentless quality that I did not find in the novel, and I suppose this works to some effect. With a brisk running time of 71 minutes, the film presents us less of the personalities for its many characters or the changes they undergo we find in the book, and seems to zero in on Penderel himself. The novel is an ensemble piece, which owes more to what can be done on the live stage, while the film is a view into one protagonist’s development.
Needless to say it is a challenge to consider this take on the screen story for me. It feels like a Readers Digest version of the charming, witty, wonderful book. However, what I can appreciate are the images themselves.
James Whale has an eye for some dynamic, moody sequences. A motor car descending into a puddle that turns out to be more like a small lake, skidding out of control for a few yards, dangerously close to tumbling down a mountainside. An extreme close up on a door that opens to reveal the glaring face of the haggard and scarred Morgan the butler—Karloff in his full on creepy mode. A moving camera following progress down a soggy passage between bedchambers and the main area, where a presumably broken window lets in wild wind and rain water, curtains blowing wild as raging specters. Two men ascending almost Escher-like sets of stairs through several floors of a house in search of a lamp. A couple of brisk fights, one between a drunk brute and a stick-small husband who has found his spine after losing track of it for some time. Old mirrors offering distorted views of a zealous woman in the throes of her holier-than-thou monologue or a young woman trying to make herself presentable—each is rendered as some kind of freakish horror. The lights bathing a gaunt man’s face, giving him a cadaverous quality, as he stares toward the camera and welcomes new blood into his family home.
Those are just the sinister bits. They are almost always contrasted with a humorous beat. An action, a line of dialogue. British cheek in the face of Welsh evil, I suppose. The juxtaposition of these elements would go on to inform Whale’s masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but it is fun to watch him mashing up humor and horrors in this earlier work. The film is a playful one. As a standalone picture it is an oddity, but as part of Whale’s macabre filmography, it is a fascinating stepping stone between his better received pictures.
What can we say about the actors? Charles Laughton gives a loud, somewhat hammy performance, arriving on the scene with jokes and laughs. However, his character here is mostly a jolly artifice over a deep reservoir of rage and pain, and when he is granted two chances to show his character’s depths, he gives us a peek at the unlikable man underneath the smiles and jests.
Boris Karloff, in contrast, gets stuck with the role of a heavy—Morgan cannot speak, he is described as a brute and a savage (especially when he drinks), and here he menaces as only he can. In fact, Karloff brings much of the physicality he manifested for the Creature in Frankenstein into this role. He lumbers and he reaches, he menaces with a glance or with curled fingers ready to choke the life. However, he also gets the opportunity to invest this character with a single moment of pathos near the end of the picture, when he scoops up the broken body of his one friend and carries him away into the darkness upstairs. This is something wholly Karloff, I’d say, absent even from Priestley’s novel, and it is both touching and eerie.
Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore play up both the eeriness and farcical qualities of their characters. Eva Moore, in particular, balances a satiric straw man character with real world creepiness. While we were watching, Trista opined that Stephen King must’ve seen this flick (or read the book or both), citing his character of Mrs. Carmody from The Mist. I agree that King’s character seems to take notes on how to be a vile yet righteous and nevertheless awful person from Priestley’s portrayal.
Special note for the set design and the costuming Trista pointed out quite a few telling details I was not familiar with, little clues into the characters and their positions. These were unspoken things, evident in the symbolism of wardrobe selection or a prop. Sly details for the perceptive, canny watcher. I love that kind of detail work.
Sadly, The Old Dark House suffered at the hands of critics upon release. It was even a lost film for a while, at least until Whale’s longtime friend Curtis Harrington managed to locate a print tucked away in one of Universal’s vast storage areas. While the film might not have survived the knives of its critics at the time, it survives in a newly restored 4K version from Cohen Film Collection. The home media images have never looked cleaner or crisper than in this new edition.
Though it vanished from the public eye for decades, it was nevertheless remade by none other than William Castle (of 13 Ghosts fame). Let’s take a few moments to see what he made of the picture, shall we?
The Old Dark House (1963)
Synopsis: When American Tom Penderel (Tom Poston) delivers a brand new automobile to his friend Caspar Femm (Peter Bull), he does not expect to bring the man bad luck at the craps table. Neither does he expect a summons to the Femm family estate. The two men are not quite friends—Penderel is letting a flat with the man, Femm using it during the daytime and Penderel using it at night. However, he brings bad luck after all and receives a hasty, nervous summons. Femm, it seems, feels his life is in danger. Well, Penderel is a plucky sort, as reliable as Bertie Wooster, and he agrees. The drive is a long one made all the longer by bad storms—it has been raining 40 days and 40 nights—and more bad luck arises on Penderel’s arrival. Caspar is dead, his family is highly suspicious, and the car is unusable thanks to a falling gargoyle. Penderel finds himself caught up in murderous events: someone wants to rub out the other members of the family to inherit a fortune and they are not above framing poor Penderel for the deeds! Produce-Director William Castle works with famed British studio Hammer for 1963’s reimagining of James Whale’s The Old Dark House.
If you’ve been inundated with a certain type of storyline, it is only a matter of time before the lampooning starts. Case in point: Scary Movie (2000) took Scream‘s original draft title and then lashed out at the slasher genre (self-aware and otherwise) before moving on to become a franchise that targeted horror movies in general. Airplane! (1980) targeted those epic disaster melodramas, the same genre Donald E. Westlake targeted with his parody novel Comfort Station. Murder By Death (1976) skewered detective stories. Mel Brooks has made a career of parody, some great like Young Frankenstein (1974), some watchable like Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and some falling into neither of the above categories. Well, in 1963, producer/director William Castle made his bid for parody, choosing to take one of Whale’s lost and “lesser” pictures and turning it into a weird little spoof on mysteries in general and dark house stories in particular. The result is . . . well, not completely successful. It is at least charming at times.
As someone who has read Priestley’s novel, which gets billing as the basis for this movie right there in the credits, I have to scratch my head at some of the choices made. In fact, the only things taken from Priestley’s book are some family names—Femm and Penderel—a rainstorm, an occasional snippet of dialogue. Not one bit of the plot, not one ounce of the characters survives to here. To enjoy this movie, viewers need to distance themselves from both the source prose as well as the first film incarnation.
However, Castle does his best to deliver another of his crowd pleasing entertainments. The movie has some shocks, some corpses, some weird scenarios, but it is a bloodless feature. The parody is the driving feature here, but the problem with parody, alas, is that it often does not survive the ages very well. The further we get from the heyday of the popularity of the story that inspired the parody in the first place, the less familiar viewers are with the tropes, and the less funny references to those tropes are.
The actors are giving their all. Tom Poston gives his all as the wide-eyed, agreeable American. Robert Morley plays Roderick Femm, a gun collecting weirdo with a sinister gleam to his eye when the promise of someone forfeiting their share comes up. Janette Scott plays Cecily Femm, a seemingly normal girl caught in a strange situation, which Penderel desperately wants to help and impress. Joyce Grenfell brings sinister charm to Agatha Femm, who knits miles of yarn each year with no pattern or purpose, and who dreads what might happen if she ever stopped. Mervyn Jones adds smiles and winks to his portrayal of Potiphar Femm, who has calculated the end of the world (give or take) and built an ark to save two of each species he has access to. Fanella Fielding gets to rev up the vavavoom as the lusty Morgana Femm, daughter to the mute, overprotective brute Morgan Femm (Danny Green). And Bull is charming as twin brothers Caspar and Jasper Femm. They are all having their fun, and it’s a shame we cannot join them too often.
The reason for my disconnect unfortunately falls upon the goofy story. There are some cute moments, some funny bits, but there are also long swaths of not much happening that I found worth watching. Perhaps I am not able to appreciate the luxuriant time the film takes to meander from its start to conclusion. Perhaps I was too impressed with the book I read over the last few weeks, and therefore I am not able to appreciate the film’s comedic charms, or perhaps the comedy is handled with a little too heavy a hand for my taste.
The 1963 version of The Old Dark House is not the worst movie I have ever seen. It is nowhere near the best—not even in high ranking of my estimation of Castle’s features—but falls somewhere in the great expanse of mediocrity between these two extremes. A shame.
The Old Dark House (1963) is available on DVD, Blu-ray, or streaming editions. As well, it can be found in a five-picture William Castle collection in the company of better flicks.
This ends our SHOCKtober series. It has been fun to present a new review each day. From we here at Considering Stories, Happy Halloween everyone!
“SHOCKtober: The Old Dark House Double Feature” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Posters and still images taken from IMDB.
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