What is James Whales' Old Dark House about? It doesn't seem to be about anything. Good actors, moody photographer, nut in the attic, talk-talk-talk, go outside, come inside, more talk, no story, no events, then it's over.
I can't even figure out why I like it so much. But I definitely like it -- lots. There's a sequence at a dinner table reminiscent of Luis Bunuel, for on one level this is just a cheap horror film but on another level it's a surrealist art film.
I also think it's about time that J.P. Priestley was re-discovered. A prolific writer with a great range, he seems to be largely ignored nowadays. The film Old Dark House is based on his rare novel Benighted.
Whale is of course the director of other horror films adapted from literature, such great classics as Frankenstein (1931) & The Invisible Man (1966). It's a wonder that Old Dark House is by comparison little known, though it certainly has a high reputation among fans of Universal horror.
"Normal" people arrive one stormy night in need of shelter in a mansion wherein dwells the original of The Addam's Family. The emotional conflicts between the semi-normal & largely-crazy results in non-stop tension, until finally the nut in the attic is unleashed.
The marvelous cast includes Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey & Melvyn Douglas, & a small host of first-rate character actors.
Old Dark House was inspired at least in part by a classic silent film The Cat & the Canary (1927), originally a stage melodrama by John Willard, which became one of the most influential films of all time.
Where no-budget suspense horror is concerned, it was the model for how to make a movie without resources beyond the house, the furniture, & the actors. It also became mightily important to B-comedies eager to make fun of conventions that were hoary from the start.
Its influence goes beyond the recurring plot encountered in decades of films to follow. Its atmospherics & architecture & lighting would echo throughout the period of classic Universal films, even if the old dark house was supplanted by Frankenstein's castle or the Mummy's tomb.
The story is sufficiently ridiculous that even without involving anything authentically supernatural, it requires consideral suspension of disbelief.
Wealthy Cyrus West died twenty years earlier but his last will & testament is only now due to be read. The recipient of the furtune has to first of all possess no evidence of insanity, which has run in the family, & must be the most distant of all the blood relatives, possibly in order that the strain of madness be dilute.
The most distant relative is Annabelle West (Laura La Plante). If she can make it through the night still seeming to be sane then she's set for life. But if she can made to appear insane, or is just killed, then other relatives might gain. The situation seems designed out of a rich old man's spite against a family he despised.
Everyone who hopes to gain by this situation spends a night in the poorly lit spooky old house with its secret corridors. Every character has a sinister bent, though the winner for cool strangeness is Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox) who has taken care of the estate in lonely servitude these twenty years. And beyond all the potential villians, toss in the psychopath known as The Cat has coincidentally escaped from the local nuthouse.
It's occasionally said that this is the first film to use the "reading of the will" scenario to start off the suspense. That's not true, but it may well be the most important one to do so. The motif is common to gothic literature back to the late 1700s so widely viewed as cliche even before it reached the silver screen.
The film knows it's elements are creeky & so is surprisingly playful, sometimes undermining the suspense with enough macabre humor to make a viewer wonder if we're supposed to take any of it seriously.
Director Paul Leni was a German expressionist who came to America to continue his filmmaking career. It is obviously not the ridiculous story that makes this silent film great, but the mood & look & attitude.
Even while undermining itself with tongue in cheek, the film's artfulness & appeal have never faded.
It manages to build some real tension, without regard for its self-satirization or the fact that imitations (other than the totally pokerfaced Old Dark House) tended to heighten the comedy instead of the suspense.
The 1939 remake raises the humor content with the help of comedian Bob Hope in his first leading role, delivering "sacred joker" commentary as the familiar story unfolds. The scriptwriter clearly thought twenty years was a long time to wait to read the will, so now it's a ten year wait.
The relations six in number, attorney, & creepy housekeeper ( Gale Sondergaard) spend the night together in the mansion (now in the Louisiana bayou instead of New England), on the same night that a psycho from the nuthouse is being sought.
Wonderful character-playerss make it all work quite credibly, & their poker-faced seriousness would've been funny even without Bob Hope reminding us it's silly on purpose.
The designated heir, Joyce (Paulette Goddard), must manage to stay alive a full month before the estate is certainly heres. She must survive a myriad of improbable perils with a skittish comic hero standing between her & the possibility of doom.
Bob Hope is supplanted by character actor James Dunn in A Walking Nightmare; aka, The Living Ghost; or, Lend Me Your Ear (1942), which takes on many Cat & the Canary attributes.
Tycoon Walter Craig (Gus Glassmire) has vanished without trace. The police have no clues. The family sets out to hire Nick Trayne, though he's retired from the detective racket & now makes a living as a $2 an hour swami & professional listener, which is easier on his nerves.
In Trayne's "private ear" office we meet a "double talker" who can carry on monologues that sound almost like words. So there's never a moment when we're permitted to mistake this film for serious.
Though he likes his current business better than detectiving, a gorgeous gal (Joan Woodbury) insults him in just the right way that he takes the case.
The continously jokey b-mystery then moves to the Old Dark House for almost all the rest of the story, except for the sequence when Trayne & his new gal go visit an even darker Old Dark House which was rumored to have been turned into a mental asylum though it seems to be abandoned.
The family seems already to live all together as one big extended family & have room enough for Trayne's extended stay too. Walter Craig is missing rather than dead, so the last will motif does not enter.
During Trayne's first night spent with the eccentric family with their sinister butler (Norman Willis), Walter Craig returns, being found in his easy chair in a zombie state or semi-comatose. They know he couldn't have returned alone so someone is involved. On the contradicting other hand he does walk about in a somnambulant state & when murder happens, it's not out of the question that the zombie did it.
The story is unfocused & a little nonsensical, full of minor jests though not an outright spoof. Faintly science fictional, a physician diagnoses Craig's condition as "de-cortigated," his thinking center having been temporarily turned off by a mysterious method.
The mystery will be solved in an easy manner & the romance angle will come to a climax in practically the same breath, as though the slight budget ran entirely out the minute before & it had to be wound down in a scant hour.
It's trivial as comedy, trivial as a mystery, & has a trivial cast, yet it all goes together with low budget effectiveness, & Dunn as Trayne is very amusing.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl