The 13th Floor

Flashback: A Spooky Visit to James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE

“Beware the night!”

Just one year after the release of the horror classic FRANKENSTEIN, director James Whale and actor Boris Karloff paired up again for the considerably lesser known flick THE OLD DARK HOUSE. One dark and stormy night a group of travelers become trapped inside an old, dark house. Sound familiar? Yeah, premise has been played out multiple times, but this movie is one of the originals!

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A group of travelers are trapped in the house with a deranged brother and sister, a drunk psychotic butler, and a supposedly bedridden pyromaniac father who, unseen for much of the film, becomes a kind of “MacGuffin”. Karloff plays the mute butler who, while drunk, eventually releases the family’s pyromaniac father from his room. Panic, chaos, and hilarity ensue.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE is truly a gothic story as the decrepit house and erupting storm outside play just as big a role as the characters, but it’s a funny gothic! This is a rather strange mix, but Whale blends it perfectly. This early horror/comedy plot is based on the short story BENIGHTED by J.B. Priestly. Though the original short story is more focused on post World War I effects, the plot is essentially the same except for the movie adding a good dose of humor.

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THE OLD DARK HOUSE is packed with recognizable faces of early film, but the standout performance is given by Eva Moore who plays the hard-of-hearing, religious fanatic, angry and crotchety old sister. She is equally uproariously funny and, at times, terrifying. Brother Horace is also stellar as the quirky, absent-minded brother who keeps offering visitors a potato.

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THE OLD DARK HOUSE was a Hays Office approved production which means viewers should not expect a lot of sex and carnage. The horror is subtle, but effective. Whale’s directing and Arthur Edeson’s cinematography are incredibly breathtaking, even becoming psychedelic and overly expressionistic at moments.

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The passage of years have not been kind to THE OLD DARK HOUSE. Universal lost the rights to the short story in the 1950’s, and then sold the film rights to Columbia which planned to do a remake. The remake of the same name was directed by William Castle and released in 1963. A fellow director and close friend of James Whale, Curtis Harrington fought with studios to restore the original film before the negatives disintegrated. Even though Columbia was holding the rights, Harrison convinced the George Eastman House (one of the oldest film archives) to restore the film negatives as long as Harrison signed a contract stating the restoration was not in any way for profit. It still took years before the restoration made its way to the public.

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Additionally, bad audience reviews from the film’s first screenings in 1932 did not make a great case for keeping THE OLD DARK HOUSE alive. But bit eventually became an adored cult film. More contemporary critics now rave about the film’s merits and creativity. Ultimately, THE OLD DARK HOUSE came out a bit before its time as the “old dark house” formula was just in the process of being devised and was not quite ready for a satirical jabbing by the likes of Whale and Karloff. But, by today’s standards, this one is a fun horror comedy focusing on a now well-worn sub-genre. I highly recommend eating a plateful of potatoes while you view this one!

How to Watch It:  Sadly, I could not locate this one streaming on any of the major platforms or VOD networks. But you can purchase the DVD from Amazon for around $10.

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