Even if it hadn't been essentially lost, James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932) wouldn't ever have fit, exactly, on the Mount Rushmore of Universal's horror greats: Frankenstein, that ol' corpse's wife, the Wolfman, Dracula and — since actually you can't see him we can get away with five faces on this mountain — the Invisible Man. Whale directed the debut of the studio's classic version of three of those characters, all but the Wolfman and the Mummy, and his impeccably atmospheric House, shot one year after Frankenstein and three years before the Bride thereof, stands as another example of his and Universal's 1930s streak of mining from horror lore an ideal essence. There's no perfect monster in House but there is a perfect haunted house, one where the lights won't stay on, the stairways creak, a madman lurks and a whimpering comes from behind a padlocked door. The film, now sparklingly restored, is to being trapped-in-a-scary-house what Frankenstein is to deranged scientists playing God: It's the movies' pure headwaters of the very idea.
Whale's film simultaneously parodies and establishes generic cliche, opening with what Snoopy would call a dark and stormy night, with travelers who find shelter in a grand heap of a mansion. Inside they meet a mute man-mountain (Boris Karloff), Morgan, who drinks too much and then chases the heroine (Gloria Stuart) around the dining room, a murderous Harpo. Whale wrings still-potent suspense out of venturing into the shadows, and his technique still impresses: The camera glides forward, into the vaulted bedchamber of the mysterious patriarch, casting the audience in the role of explorers, daring us to look away from whatever lies ahead.
James WhaleBoris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Elspeth Dudgeon, Brember WillsJ.B. Priestley, Benn W. LevyCohen Media
Even if it hadn’t been essentially lost, James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) wouldn’t ever have fit, exactly, on the Mount Rushmore of Universal’s horror greats: Frankenstein, that ol’ corpse’s wife, the Wolfman, Dracula and — since actually you can’t see him we can get away with five faces...