Old Dark House (The)
R2 - United Kingdom - Network DVD
Review written by and copyright: Jari Kovalainen (20th November 2007).
The Film

British born director James Whale is a legend of horror-films. With the Hollywood films like “Frankenstein (1931)” and “Bride of Frankenstein (1935)”, he created the new star Boris Karloff and was the prominent figure shaping the legacy that´s now known as “Universal horror”. Despite the success, his career was still a series of ups and downs in terms of box office. Just a year after “Frankenstein”, the director and Karloff were re-united in the witty and strangely humorous horror-story “The Old Dark House (1932)”. While it did very well in the UK, the American audience didn´t “get it”. There, it sank in the box office and was eventually considered as a “lost” film. It was not until the late 1960s (after Universal lost the rights to the film and the remake “The Old Dark House (1963)” came out) that filmmaker Curtis Harrington finally found a print of the film from the vaults of Universal. The print wasn´t in the best of shape, but thanks to Harrington, the important part of the horror-film history was ready to be re-discovered.

Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey - “East of Eden (1955)”) and his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart - “Titanic (1997)”) are caught in the middle of a violent storm. The rain is pouring from the sky and only the headlights of their car are showing the road. They´re already lost. While this couple in the front seats is quite irritated, the man in the back is not; Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas - e.g. Oscars for “Hud (1963)” and “Being There (1979)”) is just taking it easy and finds the situation quite humorous. His boy-ish smirk and sarcasm just doesn´t fade. When the sudden landslide blocks the road completely, all three run to the nearest remote house. They first meet the mute, scarred butler Morgan (Karloff) and soon the owners of the house, Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) and his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore). While Rebecca is a bit cautious and grumpy with the new arrivals, they´re still welcomed to the house. The late dinner is also served. “The more the merrier” is the old saying, so soon another wet couple escapes the rough weather into the Femm family house; Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton - e.g. Oscar for “The Private Life of Henry VIII. (1933)” as an actor, and director of the classic “The Night of the Hunter (1955)”) is a loud Englishman and Gladys DuCane Perkins (Lilian Bond) his slightly mysterious companion. They arrive together, but aren´t really a couple in a romantic sense. Now this group of different individuals will eat, talk and debate, since that´s really all they can do. Due to the weather, they have to spend the night in the gloomy house. Things are taking a quick turn to a dangerous direction when Morgan is getting uncontrollable. He´s drunk. As expected, soon the lights of the house also go out, with the strange sounds coming from upstairs. Are they coming from the mysterious room that is always locked?

Despite the title “The Old Dark House”, the film is not your average “haunted house”-film with ghosts and goblins. The film plays almost like a theatre play (the sets are very much built that way also), where the different personalities - prisoners of the storm, are forced to interact with each other. Although there are certain hints and visual imagery throughout the film, it doesn´t really turn into a “horror-film” until the last act. Even then, some of the viewers might be slightly disappointed. While the last act is of course very important to the whole story, and that “price” for the viewers, there are other important factors. There´s a passionate love story between the two characters, marriage problems with the other two and some hidden secrets (not only with the odd Femm family). While the film is probably a lesser known Universal horror-vehicle (partly because it was lost for a quite some time), its unique humour, clever dialogue and rich characters makes the film quite memorable.

“The Old Dark House” might not be a very traditional Universal horror story wise, but the visual look does justice for the title of the film. Legendary cinematographer Arthur Edeson has created atmospheric imagery, where the shadows are deep and long in the walls and effective close-ups can be menacing. There´s also a touch of surrealism and e.g. the “mirror montage” in the first act is quite a stunning sequence. Other great bits include the effective “hand through the window”-scene (which Newman and Jones also point out in the Audio commentary) and the “dinner scene” full of odd dialogue. The film also feels surprisingly “sensual” by 1930s standards. Margaret changing her clothes in the first act and the kissing scene later on (after a few drinks) are good examples of that. One of the strengths of the story is that there are real, ordinary characters and not really monsters to “steal the show” this time. There are definitely many layers in the film and more than meets the eye in the first glance. Recommended.

Video

The transfer uses the OAR of 4:3, but otherwise it´s a problematic one. The source has been clearly in a battered shape, so there are quite heavy film artefacts, dirt and occasional print damage. While the black levels are still decent, and this is a film made in 1932 after all, the look of the film is quite grainy and murky. Detail and contrast levels are a bit “off”, so sometimes the faces of the actors are “washed”, sometimes dark or generally just soft. Some frame jumps and other blemishes also occur. The film source was probably at least printable, but based on the scratches and such on the screen, it´s not really “remastered”. Apparently it´s taken from the 16 mm source (which would make sense) and there are rumours that 35 mm prints are now also available (if this is true it has not been used in a DVD yet). To my knowledge, both R1 “Kino On Video/Image Entertainment” and this UK-release are very similar. Note, that the UK-version also includes the “Karloff disclaimer (Producer´s note)” at the start of the film and the added "Raymond Rohauer Present" copyright-logo after the Universal one. “Single layer” disc (only using 2.89 gb) is coded “R2”, and the film runs 69:09 minutes (PAL). There are 12 chapters.

Audio

As you can probably guess, the English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono-track is no feast for your ears either. Dialogue is muffled and there´s a hiss with occasional pops and crackles. The sound of the thunder and the blowing wind can still offer some bunch and you can still enjoy the dialogue, so the track fortunately still has some power left. As with the transfer, the mediocre audio is partly understandably with a vintage film like this one, but I still hope that we have a better print available on some day. There are no subtitles.

Extras

-While the UK-release doesn´t port the Audio commentaries from the older R1-release, they´ve included an exclusive Audio commentary of their on - with author/critic Kim Newman and editor/writer Stephen Jones. Like the film, none of the extras offer any subtitles. Already the opening credits reveal how the commentary will play out; Newman and Jones talk about the actors and their background (most of the actors are actually British), and since Newman has read the original novel (“Benighted” from J.B. Priestley), he makes some notions about the novel vs the film. This gives a slightly “dry” tone to the commentary (since neither one is David J. Skal), but good information is still shared. Eager Newman slightly dominates the track, but Jones is also giving his views from time to time. Some of the scenes are explored a bit deeper and certain connections to the e.g. prohibition in the U.S. and the “Pre-Code” era are found. The last scene (shot) in the film is apparently re-shot after the principal photography. They also talk about the remake “The Old Dark House (1963)”.

-“Tonight interview with Sir Ian McKellen” -featurette (5:41 minutes) is a segment of the British “Tonight” show from 11 February, 1999. Here the famed actor Ian McKellen (“Gandalf” and “Magneto”) talks about his movie “Gods and Monsters (1998)”, where McKellen plays James Whale himself. The film is a fictional version of the “last days” of the openly gay Whale (he committed suicide in 1957) and McKellen was nominated for the Academy Award for “Best Actor” for his performance. The clip from the film is not shown (probably due to licensing issues).

-Short photo gallery runs 1:11 minutes and includes 10 black & white stills from the film.

-Apparently a booklet with liner notes by Kim Newman is also included, but not available in the review-copy.

Overall

“The Old Dark House” might not be remembered in the same sentence as “Frankenstein (1931)” in the horror history-books, but it´s still an interesting example of the genius by James Whale. It might surprise the viewers waiting for the straightforward monster-film, but this mixture of comedy, horror and stage drama won´t leave anyone cold. The DVD-release by “Network” offers a quite mediocre transfer, but considering the film´s troubled history, I´m just glad it´s available. Some decent extras are also included, so it could be much worse.

For more info, please visit the homepage of Network DVD.

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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