The Old Dark House (1932)

Directed by: James Whale
Distributed by: Universal Pictures

Written by Nick McCann


Time to bust out the pumpkins, rake the dead leaves, and cue up a slew of horror movies. You name your nightmare of choice, chances are there’s a cinematic fix for that. Or maybe you don’t prefer to lay awake through the night from terror and anxiety. Sometimes you just need a vibe to get cozy in the fall season. This slice of thrills by James Whale should do the trick nicely.

Picture the scene: a storm rages in the night and a dwelling is your only sanctuary from a barrage of rain and wind. It’s a setting as old as time. While it’s likely “The Old Dark House” wasn’t the first to tackle this premise, it’s an early example of the base elements being this well executed. Even with some of the setup kind of fizzling out by the end, it has entertaining progression and pacing. There is an eeriness on display that only this period of filmmaking could produce. While it may be a fairly basic narrative it still holds up under a modern lens, as its atmosphere reigns king. 

The characters give the movie a strong personality. The cast is distinct from one another. Their interactions a highlight, as they bounce between several talking points on a dime and react accordingly. Some of my favorite characters and their traits are Melvyn Douglas’ endless charm, Charles Laughton’s brashness, Ernest Thesiger’s unsettling nature, and Eva Moore’s crotchety stubbornness. Unfortunately, Boris Karloff as the mute brute of a butler is the weaker link here. It’s clear his “Frankenstein” typecasting is in full effect and he doesn’t have much to do other than scowl in makeup. However, in that regard, he does fine.

With this being a Universal picture (I’m talking plane spinning around the globe Universal), expect nothing short of lavish production quality from the era. The sets are detailed, whether it’s the flooded country roads of the opening or the various ends of the house, they’re all impressive to look at and covered with sleek craft by the camera. The sound design is also excellent, with the constant howl of the wind and splashing of the rain causing you to feel as trapped as the cast. The lack of music only enhances the mood.

While not as famous as his other works, James Whale delivers a simply told yet delightfully entertaining little thriller in “The Old Dark House.” Some of the storytelling may not amount to much by the end, but the experience makes it all worth it. Every character feels diverse in personality, all the sets show high craftsmanship. It has just the spooky mood you’d want for these autumn days. Fans of the recent “Bodies Bodies Bodies” may also get a kick out of this, sans the drugs and glowsticks.

“The Old Dark House” Trailer

You can connect with Nick on his Facebook and Letterboxd.

Leave a ReplyCancel reply