Review for The Old Dark House
I still get the odd unsolicited review disc, which usually doesn’t trouble my attention. But when it’s a Eureka Masters of Cinema disc, I’ll make an exception every time. And with The Old Dark House, not long before the check disc arrived, Mark Kermode was singing the film’s praises on the Film Review. Stacked up against that however is the fact that it’s a horror movie, never my favourite genre. But, it is a Universal horror movie from director James Whale, who in the nineteen-thirties defined the genre with his films, and it’s a 4k restoration of a film considered lost for several years. That moved it to the top of my review pile.
It’s a dark and stormy night in Wales when five travellers wind up seeking shelter in a foreboding mansion, cut off from civilisation by floods and landslides. They become unwelcome guests of the Femm family, atheist and ungracious Horace Femm, and his religious zealot sister Rebecca, waited on by their mute, alcoholic, lumbering servant Morgan. But there’s more to the Femm family than meets the eye.
The Old Dark House gets a 1.37:1 pillarboxed 1080p transfer in the original aspect ratio. The image is clear and sharp, contrast and detail levels are excellent, and the film is clean of print damage and stable throughout. A minor issue is a pair of frame jumps, at 57:58 and around 70:30, but other than that, this is a stellar presentation of a film that is almost 90 years old. The moody visuals and the atmospheric sets come across with effective impact on this Blu-ray, and the film looks as if it’s brand new.
The images in this review were kindly supplied by Eureka Entertainment.
The Old Dark House gets the original audio experience as well, a PCM 1.0 mono English track with optional SDH English subtitles. The dialogue is clear, although the audio is very much of its time. There are no problems with pops and clicks or any of the other foibles that well-worn and old movies can throw up.
With a film that’s just 70 minutes long on a dual layer Blu-ray, there is plenty of room for extra features, and this disc doesn’t disappoint. It boots hastily to a static menu.
Meet the Femms is a 37:58 video-essay in HD on the film by critic and filmmaker David Cairns.
Curtis Harrington Saves The Old Dark House is an archive interview with the director and personal friend of James Whale who made sure the film wasn’t lost to history back in the seventies. This lasts 7:00 and has been upscaled to HD.
Daughter of Frankenstein is a 14:45 interview with Sara Karloff, who speaks of her father Boris Karloff and this film in particular.
The disc collects three audio commentaries from previous releases of the film, one is from actress Gloria Stuart who played Margaret Waverton in the film, one is from James Whale’s biographer James Curtis, and the third is from critic and author Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, and all three are well worth listening to.
The disc extras round of with the 2018 Re-Release trailer from Eureka, and a stills gallery with 13 images from the film.
That’s not all, as the first release edition of the film will come with a 44-page booklet from Eureka Films. It contains an in-depth and extensive essay on the film from critic Philip Kemp, and plenty of stills and promotional images.
Stormy night, weary travellers, spooky mansion, and creepy hosts... That’s a premise that practically writes itself, and has been a stable of the horror movie genre for, it seems like forever, as well as the plot of every Scooby Doo episode. That, plus my oft-stated ambivalence to horror actually made watching The Old Dark House a bit of a chore, especially at first. I had to keep reminding myself that the film was made in 1932, and that James Whale was creating the mould for those subsequent films and stories, was crafting the clichés, as well as subverting and parodying them at times.
The Old Dark House is short and sweet at just 72 minutes, but it uses those minutes well to tell its story and develop the characters, introducing the amiably bickering Wavertons and their wag of a friend Penderel as they struggle through the rain and the mud on their way to Shrewsbury. Circumstances force them to give up and take shelter at the Femms’ house, and they’re immediately disconcerted by their hosts, an oddball and spooky family. Horace Femm’s fear of going upstairs is one thing, while changing out of her wet clothes, Margaret Waverton is on the receiving end of a firebrand lecture from Rebecca Femm, her opinions on ‘wicked women’. That’s before we even get to Morgan, the ominous mute servant who it turns out has a drink problem, or rather everyone else has a problem when he drinks as he gets lecherous and violent.
Then there is a hammering on the door and two more bedraggled travellers seek shelter, a nouveau riche businessman and his trophy girlfriend. Based on a J. B. Priestley story, The Old Dark House is a satire on the social situation in the U.K at the time, post First World War, and the characters are supposed to be a commentary on that. James Whale minimises that aspect to concentrate on the spookier aspects of the story (one of the most memorable moments in the film is a stunningly effective shadow play), and I have to admit that the allegory quite passed me by before it was made explicit in the extras.
What really impressed me was how the film was structured thematically. It begins as a horror movie, certainly in the way it sets up its story and defines its characters, the eccentricities of the Femms exaggerated for unnerving effect, but once the characters settle in to their temporary situation, they become accustomed to that, and the film takes on a more conventional, dramatic tone. It lulls you into a sense of familiarity, before flipping back to horror once more and the movie’s conclusion. It’s effectively done, and while it took me an effort to get into the film, I have to admit that it had me spellbound for the final act. What also impressed me is that this is what we would more commonly call a psychological thriller, with nary a hint of the supernatural afflicting the characters.
Like so many of the Universal horrors of the thirties, The Old Dark House is a genre defining movie, blazing a trail for so many other films to follow. It tells its story with plenty of suspense and chills, but with no little humour as well. It also is a pointed reminder that I still have The ‘Burbs lying un-spun on my to-watch pile. I really do have to get around to that one!