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 and enjoying a release from Cohen Media Group, 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 muck through along through mud and flood until they at last find shelter in a grand heap of a mansion, its walls and gables and turrets black in the rain. 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 table, a lumbering and murderous Harpo. Eva Moore plays a wild-eyed, tousle-haired fanatic who lives in the house and warns the newcomers that there are no beds to be had; Ernest Thesiger, as the home’s polite host, of course invites the travelers to a feast, served by Morgan, at which everyone will make slightly strained small talk — and Stuart’s character will attend in a smashing slip of a gown, as one does when scared from one’s wits. Whale’s film’s amused logic encourages us just to go with it. (This tone has been foisted on the source material, J.B. Priestley’s shell-shocked 1927 psychological horror novel Benighted.)
A second batch of travelers soon arrive, led by a funny Charles Laughton, and before too long love matches are being struck, and we’re learning hints about the other characters in this shadowy manse, the patriarch — whose scene is a triumph of pre-code gender-pretzeled confusion — and the one behind the locked door. Meanwhile, silent Morgan begins his rampage, and those lights go out, necessitating the deliciously excruciatingly scenes of characters picking their way up staircases that haunted house films still depend on, right up to Mother! Karloff’s Morgan, I fear, is not one of the great villains, but I confess to being fascinated by the bearded fiend’s bald lustiness: There’s nothing ambiguous about what he wants to do once he gets his hands on the women who flee him. 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. Several scares come from rapid, jagged cutaways, the montage work briefly intense and disorienting.