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- Spoiler warning: This article gives away plot details
Dudley-born director James Whale was the leading light of Universal’s iconic 1930s horror cycle. His work with the studio resulted in a handful of the genre’s most effective and memorable films, including Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
His sense of daring encapsulates the chutzpah of pre-Code Hollywood cinema, which regularly pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to show on screen. It all ended when the Hays Code came in in 1934, leading to censorship of everything from violence and depictions of religious imagery to sexuality and nudity. But that was not before Whale had turned in his most taboo-laden picture: 1932’s The Old Dark House, which was brilliantly adapted from J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel Benighted.
Three travellers, Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), Margaret (Gloria Stuart) and Philip (Raymond Massey), are driving through Wales on their way to Shrewsbury when they are forced off the road in a storm. They are given shelter in an isolated house by a strange pair of siblings, Rebecca and Horace Femm (Eva Moore and Ernest Thesiger), who live with their ancient father, Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon), and their mute butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff).
The sheltering group are joined by two more travellers, Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his dancer girlfriend Gladys (Lilian Bond), who are also forced to take refuge from the storm. As the drama follows the exchanges and frictions between these differing characters, it becomes clear that something darker is hidden in the house. Someone dangerous is locked away in secret among the eerie corridors and stairways, soon to escape and cause mayhem.
Whale’s sense of horror often works because it’s balanced with dark humour or else sometimes personal explorations of identity. The Old Dark House is a vastly influential early example of the haunted house movie, containing premonitions of many of horror cinema’s go-to narrative clicks, including isolated groups, remote rural houses, mysterious inhabitants hiding secrets and even the ominous sound of whistling wind.
But it’s just as important for its very modern questioning of class, gender, sexuality and mental health. While it’s true that these are dealt with in ways that are perhaps too general or glib to be seen as genuinely progressive, the fact that they are tackled at all might seem surprising in a film of this vintage.
Sir William Porterhouse is quintessentially northern, of a type who would have been very familiar to Whale from his England days – and in many ways a precursor to Laughton’s Henry Hobson in the David Lean film Hobson’s Choice (1954). Of all the characters in the film, he’s the one we find out most about. At first he seems brash and overconfident, clearly a man used to getting his own way. His bullish attitude is explained later on during a story about the loss of his first wife, after public dismissal of her working-class clothing drove her to despair. His success was fuelled by his subsequent hatred of class snobbery, working successfully to earn more money than the people who had scorned him and his tragic bride.
Class isn’t the only aspect of everyday life channelled into The Old Dark House. The presence of Ernest Thesiger automatically provides a channel for Whale’s own persona, the actor being a clear cipher for the director’s homosexuality. This would be even more to the fore in Bride of Frankenstein, with Thesiger’s Doctor Pretorius being one of the earliest and most effective examples of cinematic camp. Here though, while bitchy and eye-rolling like a nervous Kenneth Williams, Thesiger’s Horace is far more nuanced, playing the gin-loving brother who is very much under the thumb of his more domineering sister.
Rebecca is the true head of the house, the traditional screen gender roles of this period being totally reversed. In one unusual scene, she chastises Margaret for her confident sexuality. It’s a moment that, again, Whale subverts, this time by suggesting both Rebecca’s obvious envy of those who enjoy “fleshly love” and her frustrated desire to succumb to Margaret’s glamorous allure herself.
Added to all this, of course, is the fact that their aged father is quite earnestly played by a woman: Elspeth Dudgeon, billed in the credits as ‘John Dudgeon’. Gender and sexuality are far from heteronormative in The Old Dark House.
Karloff’s character is the last aspect to investigate. The family’s secret, crazed brother, Saul (Brember Wills), is locked away due to his psychotic pyromania. Morgan the butler, however, is different. Whale never really tells the viewer about him other than how his behaviour gets out of control when he drinks. His lack of background makes him seem dangerous, but it’s Karloff’s physicality that produces the film’s more obvious elements of horror. He’s still playing the tragic figure in the mould of Frankenstein’s creature.
He is also the only character who appears to feel sadness at Saul’s ultimate demise. Perhaps he found solace in the madness of this other character, locked away and equally chastised by the family.
The questions surrounding mental and physical disability are ultimately left hanging here. Yet, by hinting at such issues of identity bubbling under, Whale’s film becomes much more than simply horrific entertainment. Between the floorboards of The Old Dark House, there is much more being discussed than at first appears.