The Old Dark House [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (16th May 2018).
The Film

On the quintessential dark and stormy night, bickering British couple Philip (A Matter of Life and Death's Raymond Massey) and Margaret Waverton (The Invisible Man's Gloria Stuart) and jovial friend Penderel (Ghost Story's Melvyn Douglas) are caught in the Welsh wilds on the way to Shrewsbury and forced to seek shelter at the titular old dark house when they are waylaid by a landslide on one side and a flooding river on the other. Hulking, mute butler Morgan (The Black Cat's Boris Karloff) is only slightly stranger than their hosts, fey Horace Femm (Bride of Frankenstein's Ernest Thesiger) and his overbearing (and slightly deaf) sister Rebecca (Of Human Bondage's Eva Moore), who reluctantly take them in for the night. With Rebecca ranting about the house's cursed history of "laughter and sin," Horace provocatively confessing that he is wanted by the police, 102-year old Sir Roderick Femm (Vanity Fair's Elspeth Dudgeon, billed as "John Dudgeon") on his deathbed upstairs, and violent Morgan getting drunk in the kitchen during dinner, the guests are relieved when they are joined by fellow stranded motorists cockney Sir William Porter house (Witness for the Prosecution's Charles Laughton) and chorus girl Gladys (Just a Gigolo's Lilian Bond). As a love triangle forms between boorish Porterhouse and posh Penderel over the self-possessed Gladys, Philip and Margaret learn about the other two Femm siblings: the beautiful and "wicked" Rachel who broke her spine in a riding accident at twenty-one and died long ago, and elder sibling Saul (Brember Wills) who might burn the whole house down if freed from his locked room in the attic!

Based on the novel "Benighted" by J.B. Priestley, The Old Dark House as a film sticks close to the source novel in preserving some of the best dialogue and in its cinematic renditions of its atmosphere but ultimately diverting in tone not into a parody of a genre that was already creaky before the film (more so than the novel's American retitling) coined the term "old dark house" as the black comedy that inspired Charles Addams. While director James Whale as one of Universal's first horror stylist of note likely took some visual inspiration from Paul Leni's film of The Cat and the Canary, it is his film that had a direct influence not only on the subsequent light-humored "old dark house" horror entries of the studio and its competitors – not to mention Pete Walker's House of the Long Shadows more so than its own Earl Derr Biggers novel source and George M. Cohan stage adaptation "Seven Keys to Baldpate" – and was also paid direct homage by Gene Wilder in his Haunted Honeymoon. While a pre-code studio film with some startling references to the pleasures of sin, frank discussions of "unconventional" though non-sexual living arrangements, hints of possible incest, murder, and the threat of rape, it is the tensions beneath the surface that make the guests not so much fish out of water in this strange household: the seemingly well-to-do but unhappy married couple as mirror image to the Femm siblings – only coming together when frightened – "battered by the war" Penderel's bouts of depression and drunkenness, Sir William buying his title to bury those who snubbed his late wife as not good enough for middle class society, and Gladys defiant fallen woman together with the Femm family forming a microcosm of post-war Britain. The characters and their performers are interesting and Whale's command of the atmosphere so masterful that it matters little that the film is composed largely running from room to room with the mad Saul rather than Karloff's Morgan trotted out in the last twenty minutes to effect a climax. The film was badly remade by Columbia Pictures and Hammer Films by William Castle as a vehicle for comedian Tom Poston (Newhart).
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Video

Long unavailable after its theatrical release and neglected by Universal since they had sold their rights to Columbia Pictures for the remake, The Old Dark House's original negative was rescued from irreversible decay by filmmaker and Whale fan Curtis Harrington (Games) and Eastman House for purposes of preservation. Although the rights were acquired by film collector Raymond Rohauer, the negative, dupe negative, and restored prints thankfully remained with the studio, Eastman House, the Museum of Modern Art, and other entities. Kino on Video had to utilize a Library of Congress print for their 1999 DVD – which sported commentary tracks by actress Stuart and historian James Curtis – while Network utilized a Rohauer print for their 2006 DVD which featured a commentary by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones. Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer comes from a 4K restoration by the Cohen Film Collection (who acquired the Rohauer library in 2011) – which Cohen released on in the United States last year – that looks incredible for a film of this vintage with wonderful detail in its sparingly-used close-ups from the water dripping off the back of Philip's hat in the car, that striking introductory shot of Karloff, Moore's distorted face during her "laughter and sin" monologue, and the motion source of that famous shot of Stuart in the doorway with Karloff's looming hand about to grab her. There are two noticeable instances of missing frames but they do not detract from the glorious beauty of this restoration.
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Audio

The LPCM 1.0 mono track of this Westrex "noiseless recording" has succumbed to age, with hiss and crackle apparent in the silences, and perhaps a little distortion at the high end of the music, but the dialogue is clearly rendered throughout and optional HoH subtitles are also available.
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Extras

The film can also be viewed with three audio commentary tracks. The Network audio commentary by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones was useful at the time in terms of production anecdotes and factoids in the absence of the other two tracks, but here its listening value is in the opinions including Preistley's novel and its attempt to "transmute the thriller into symbolical fiction with some psychological depth" and how that was undercut by the film adaptation, discussion of postwar British society, suggestions about whether Horace is wanted by the police on moral charges or draft dodging, and the perhaps unpopular opinion that Stuart was saddled with the "dead weight" roles in the Whales films with Bond's chorus girl and Douglas' wastrel the more interesting couple (Massey having described his role as a “a long and colorless juvenile part that didn't permit much acting"). The audio commentary by James Curtis is the one that is more focused on the film's history, noting Preistley's reaction to the retitling of his work, openly gay Thesiger's reputation as the "stitching bitch" on the set who would be appointed to Queen Mary's needlework guild, the last minute replacements of Russell Hopton (Discarded Lovers) by Douglas and Walter Byron (Maryof Scotland) by Massey, and more. Most pleasant is the audio commentary by Gloria Stuart who recalls how the split between the British cast and crew and the Americans during "elevensies" lead to her involvement in the Screen Actors Guild as Douglas convinced her of the need for an actor's union, how Douglas and Massey complained about the location shooting in the rain but she on her second film was excited by the shoot, her admiration of Moore who she did not know at the time had been a leading suffragette and mother-in-law of Laurence Olivier, and Whale explaining the necessity of her running around the house in a white silk dress as to resemble a white flame in the darkness.
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"Meet the Femms" (37:58) is a brand new video essay discussing the film's German expressionistic borrowings – particularly via Leni's The Cat and the Canary – colored by Whales' Northern England childhood and World War I trench experiences and Preistley's descriptions of industrial Wales, Whales move to Hollywood and his contract with Universal Pictures, the pressure to follow up Franknstein with another horror film (and the suggestion that The Old Dark House might have been his way to disguise a comedy as a horror film to satisfy requirements), the Preistley source, the horror careers of the cast including Massey replacing Karloff in the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace(and Massey's children Anna in Peeping Tom and Daniel in The Vault of Horror which also featured his sister, although no mention of Daniel in Radley Metzger's adaption of The Cat and the Canary), as well as Whales' later disparaging of Karloff for earning money in between films as a truck driver. "Daughter of Frankenstein: A Conversation with Sara Karloff and Dean Otto" (14:45) is a warm remembrance of the actor by his daughter who recalls her father's "arduous" experiences in horror films under the make-up of Jack Pierce (The Wolf Man), losing twenty-five pounds while working on Frankenstein and passing out from dehydration on The Mummy as the wrappings absorbed his perspiration. While Colin Clive (Mad Love) was intended to be the breakout star of Frankenstein and Karloff was not even invited to the premiere, he shot to stardom without any dialogue with 1932 showcasing him not only in The Old Dark House but also The Mummy and The Mask of Fu Manchu. In "Curtis Harrington Saves The Old Dark House" (7:08), the filmmaker recalls meeting Whales in Paris and London, seeking out the negative of the film while under contract at Universal, and his efforts to get the negative restored and preserved even though Universal had no monetary interest in it without the rights. Also included is the 2018 UK Re-release Theatrical Trailer (1:36) and a still gallery. While the wealth of video and audio extras cover a lot of ground, the collector’s booklet featuring new essay by critic Philip Kemp, as well as an abundant selection of archival imagery and ephemera features a lengthy illustrated essay on the film and its source novel.
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Overall

 


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