You won’t find The Old Dark House in any official Universal Horror box sets — and for mostly logical reasons.
In addition to various rights issues that resulted in it being a “lost film” for decades, James Whale’s 1932 feature lacks an iconic monster in the vein of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man, and is therefore rarely mentioned alongside those titles.
No, the monsters within the crumbling Femm estate in rural Wales aren’t ancient evils or the results of scientific experiments gone wrong. They’re wholly human, albeit crippled by insanity and other mental illnesses. And it’s that grounding in reality within a milieu steeped with the genre elements of its more famous, supernatural peers that in many ways renders The Old Dark House the most spine-chilling Universal Horror film of all.
Arriving a mere year after Whale’s Frankenstein, the director’s adaptation of J. B. Priestley’s 1927 novel Benighted stokes viewers’ fears from its sympathetic opening minutes, in which married couple Margaret (Gloria Stuart) and Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey) and their friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) get caught in torrential rains while driving in the Welsh countryside. Though the trio’s prayers for shelter are soon answered in the form of the titular structure, once its front door opens, the terrifying possibility arises that what awaits inside is even more dangerous than the extreme weather.
The mute, hulking butler Morgan (Boris Karloff, looking like a cross between The Wolf Man and Frankenstein) amplifies the sense that peril awaits. And the addition of eerily gaunt Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) and his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), resembling a gypsy witch, aren’t exactly an award-winning welcoming committee. Both siblings are reluctant in their hospitality, and Horace’s ambiguous fears of getting cut off from the world in the storm masterfully hint at a greater menace afoot.
These suspicious hosts would be unsettling in nearly any environment, but feel particularly ripe for trouble within these walls — and Whale maximizes the setting’s potential for unease. The era’s standard-bearer for atmospheric richness, The Old Dark House features shadows galore cast across the Femm manor’s ancient walls while the thunderstorm and heavy winds rage outside, occasionally making a cameo indoors. While not the first “old dark house” movie, this one lives up to its definitive title and posits itself as the archetype for ones to follow.
As for the source of harm within this abode, Morgan may be mere mortal, but his disturbing introduction is no red herring. Horace eventually reveals that his worrying stems from the butler’s penchant for heavy drinking and violent outbursts during storms. Layer in Rebecca’s tales of her godless father and brothers reveling in the house, her now-dead sister suffering after an accident, and their 102-year-old father still living upstairs, and it seems like any number of paranormal and terrestrial forces might converge on the house this fateful night.
Such fears are sustained during a supper that reeks of sinister possibilities. Horace’s insistence that each guest “Have a potato” makes one wonder what the tubers are laced with, and Morgan’s water-glass refills teeter on the verge of savagery, especially for Margaret, whom he eyes with an animalistic leer.
Though the tension is undercut by the sudden appearance of fellow travelers Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his chorus girl companion Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond) — neither of whom appear to register their sinister surroundings — The Old Dark House ramps its suspense back up via a power outage and Horace’s fear of fetching a lamp from the landing a few floors up.
As Philip heads upstairs to retrieve it and viewers’ minds race with guesses regarding what’s up there, Morgan at last makes good on his promise for terror. In one of the film’s scariest scenes, Margaret’s solo shadow puppet show is interrupted by the inebriated butler’s silhouette, and Whale’s close-ups of Morgan’s battered face as he pursues Margaret intensify his threat.
Karloff’s character serving as a human Chekhov’s Gun is a wise move, but he’s far from the only fount of evil in the house. While the bulk of The Old Dark House’s Universal Horror brethren rely on a single monster, its variety of suspects keeps one guessing as additional members of the Femm family appear and the tantalizing prospect grows of there being someone more troubling than Morgan on the property.
That these entities aren’t ghosts or goblins makes them even scarier, and though that enhanced plausibility distances the film from its Universal Monsters kin, that hasn’t stopped marketers from trying to connect them. Most of the film’s posters feature artwork suggesting Karloff indeed plays some sort of unnatural creature of the night. And the image of Morgan looms particularly large on the cover of Cohen Film Collection’s 4K restoration DVD from 2017, his scarred face and werewolf hair teasing something comparable to his Frankenstein and The Mummy.
Whale’s film is its own beast, but it nevertheless warrants enshrinement in the studio’s horror pantheon. As such, if you own or plan on obtaining a Universal Monsters set, be sure to place a copy of The Old Dark House next to it.
Otherwise, you might drive Morgan to the bottle.
“The Old Dark House” is streaming on the Criterion Channel.