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Horror in Black and White: The Old Dark House (1932)

by Waylon Jordan

The year was 1932; the Hays Code and all its restrictions had not yet come to be, and James Whale, hot off his success with Frankenstein, gave us the gift of The Old Dark House.

This film was so many things!

For starters, Whale brought along his friend Boris Karloff to the production, making it the actor’s first credited starring role. His name was left off the publicity materials for Frankensein, and was only briefly mentioned in the end credits.

Karloff, again playing mute, is possibly more menacing that in the previous role giving a full-body performance that few could match.

Karloff wasn’t the only star-power in the film, however. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Melvyn Douglas, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, and Gloria “I threw a big ass diamond into the ocean at the end of Titanic” Stuart round out this cast.

Now check out the film’s synopsis.

Seeking shelter from a pounding rainstorm in a remote region of Wales, several travelers are admitted to a gloomy, foreboding mansion belonging to the extremely strange Femm family. Trying to make the best of it, the guests must deal with their sepulchral host, Horace Femm and his obsessive, malevolent sister Rebecca. Things get worse as the brutish manservant Morgan gets drunk, runs amuck and releases the long pent-up brother Saul, a psychotic pyromaniac who gleefully tries to destroy the residence by setting it on fire.”

It doesn’t take a die hard horror fan to realize that the film laid the groundwork for a tried and true genre trope. Oh sure, the details get changed around but I bet you can name five films off the top of your head where motorists stranded in a rainstorm find themselves in a creepy old house full of even creepier residents.

Image result for The Old Dark House

There’s something suspicious going on in The Old Dark House.

What’s particularly interesting, however, is how progressive the film was, for its time.

Let me repeat that. The film was progressive for its time.

If you go in for a first time watch expecting what we’d call progressive today, you’re going to be upset.

What the film does is turn the rules of gender and sexuality on their head in ways that audiences of 1932 were not expecting.

In the Femm household, for example, it is Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) and not her brother Horace (Thesiger) who runs the house, sets the rules for guests, etc. It might not seem like much, now, but that was really something to talk about then.

And then there’s Horace, himself. Fastidious, slightly effeminate, soft spoken Horace…

Whale, an out gay man, was clearly letting his own self shine through Horace, and the fact that he alone, of all the men in the household, shows no real interest in the ladies seems to support this. Add to that, Horace’s acidic wit, and I’m sure that more than a few queer audience members at the time cast knowing sidelong glances to their companions in the theater.

It’s sad that Horace was coded, but even in the pre-code film era, there were some things that you just could not say aloud on film in 1932.

And then there’s the surname of the family in question: Femm…that’s a whole different article to tackle, however.

The Old Dark House is entertaining on multiple levels with almost as many laughs as there are chills to be found in its 71 minute run time.

My favorite scene in the film happens when Rebecca takes Margaret Waverton (Stuart) upstairs to change out of her wet clothes.

Rather than leaving her to change in private, Rebecca insists upon staying in the room and goes on quite the melodramatic monologue about her sinful brothers and her even more sinful sister–who died previously–and the way they flaunted their lustful natures while she was forced, by their father, to remain in her room and pray.

During the entire speech, Whale intentionally distorts Rebecca’s image by filming her reflection in various almost funhouse style mirrors showing the ugliness of the woman’s jealousy over Margaret’s fine, satiny, sinfully sheer, clothing.

Perhaps that is why Rebecca cannot help but reach out to touch Rebecca’s smooth skin and then, before finally leaving the room takes a moment to check her own reflection, still slightly distorted, and smooth out her own hair before casting one glance back at the younger woman as she storms out of the door.

The Old Dark House is the perfect movie for a dark and stormy night on the couch, and it’s available to rent and/or purchase on several streaming apps including Amazon and Vudu for only $2.99!

For more Horror in Black and White coverage, check out last week’s entry on Val Lewton’s Cat People, and be sure to join us next week for another monochromatic horror gem.

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