Director: James Whale
Screenwriters: Benn W. Levy, R. C. Sherriff (uncredited)
By Roderick Heath
The Horror genre was given form and definition in the silent film era. A handful of great filmmakers, starting with the likes of F.W. Murnau, Paul Leni, and Tod Browning, did much of their best work in the style and plainly had an affinity for it, and their classic stand with a raft of powerful and important works by filmmakers who made brief visits to the genre, including Fritz Lang, Victor Sjöstrom, and Rex Ingram. Most of that vital Horror cinema was made in Europe, whereas in Hollywood, apart from Browning’s films and starring vehicles for Lon Chaney, Horror films tended to be tinged with comedy and lampooning, expressing a breezily dismissive contempt for spooky shenanigans in the optimistic mood of the Jazz Age: funny tales debunking supernatural menace, like the much-filmed theatrical hits The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers, were all the rage. But as the genre emerged into the sound era, coinciding with the dark pall of the descending Depression, Browning’s Dracula (1931) suddenly made it a big box office genre for Hollywood. With due speed Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures produced a follow-up in the form of an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s storied prototype for much fantastical literature and filmmaking, Frankenstein. The director hired for that film was the English stage maestro turned film director James Whale, and Whale, at least for the next thirty years or so, perhaps did more to codify Horror as a genre than any other director. The irony there was he wasn’t particularly fond of being associated with it, and much of his impact came in the way he tangled with its already enshrined clichés to create new ones.
Whale was a working class boy from Dudley, Worcestershire, deep in the “Black Country” of coal mining regional England. Forced to stop going to school because of his family’s lack of money and not strong enough to become a miner, Whale found work as a cobbler and also, with his emerging artistic talents, earned extra money painting signs and advertisements for local businesses, and used the cash he earned that way to pay for lessons at a local art school. Volunteering for service in World War I, Whale gained a commission as a second lieutenant and served in the trenches until he was captured by the Germans in 1917. Waiting out the war in a POW camp, Whale became heavily involved in staging theatre with his fellow prisoners, and found his great passion. After the war’s end he spent a brief stint as a cartoonist but soon found work in the theatre in multiple guises including as an actor, stage manager, and finally director. Like Murnau, Whale was homosexual and didn’t care much who knew it, and whilst he was briefly engaged to a woman in the early 1920s, Whale’s boldness in that regard is sometimes presumed to have ultimately foiled his career, although for the time being it seemed nothing could hold him back.
Whale’s big break came when he was hired to direct R.C. Sheriff’s play Journey’s End for a theatre group that specialised in staging new works for private audiences. Journey’s End explored the fatalistic mood of the men fighting in the trenches, in a drama that touched upon questions of the worth of hero worship as a potentially beneficial example but also one that could both lure people into a deadly situation. Whale’s personal investment in the material as a former soldier was plain enough, and the material proved to have the same appeal to a vast number of people. Whale initially talked an unknown young actor named Laurence Olivier into playing the lead role of Stanhope, but he was replaced by Colin Clive when, encouraged by the impact the lay had for its private audience, Whale took it to the West End. The play became an instant smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, at a time when the war, which people had been trying so vigorously to forget, suddenly became a matter of interest again. This gave Whale a shot at Hollywood, as the burgeoning age of Talkies saw the film industry desperate for directors who knew how to handle dialogue: as a “dialogue director” Whale made The Love Doctor (1929) and worked on Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930). He debuted as fully credited director when he helmed the movie adaptation of Journey’s End. After following that up with the popular romantic melodrama Waterloo Road (1931), Whale was assigned to Frankenstein.
With Frankenstein, Whale inadvertently made his name permanently associated with Horror movies. By some accounts Whale wasn’t terribly thrilled by that, but he did nonetheless become a singularly important influence on the way Horror evolved in the sound era and as a fully-fledged movie genre. Most obviously, the film’s depiction of Frankenstein’s Monster created a perpetual pop culture image, thanks to the confluence of makeup artist Jack Pierce’s iconic look for the monster, actor Boris Karloff’s performance, and Whale’s conceptual take on the creature’s existence and symbolic import for the audience. More subtle, but perhaps more important, was the way Whale helped Horror as an aesthetic adapt to the more intense gaze of the 24-frame-a-second era and the attendant vividness of sound. Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) carefully negotiated frames of the dreamlike and the psychological, birthing the stylised, purposefully unrealistic approach of the endlessly influential Expressionist style, and that remained for a long time the predominant influence on the genre, although some of Browning’s works like The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1926) tended more to posit morbid and perverse psychology in otherwise realistic settings.
One key to Whale’s vitality lay in his florid ease in moving between tones and artistic postures, the way he fused stylisation and realism, theatricality and cinema. He made Frankenstein’s looming, Expressionist-influenced but three-dimensional sets, coexist with location photography and knead them all into a peculiar kind of whole, just as he was later to become known for easily pivoting between humour and straight-faced thrills. The poetic-metaphorical airiness and pathos of Mary Shelley’s twisted but articulate creation was swapped out for something more concrete, more essential. The desperate, mute Monster came more fully and coherently the image of just about anything rendered Other in a social context. He embodied poles of attitude, at once childlike and brutish, victim and cold avenger, misshapen and powerful, and his eventual end in a burning windmill evoked at once righteous action by a community and the spectre of mob rule, the punishment of the transgressor blurring with the cleaning of the hive of deviance.
Whale’s four fantastical films, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), present perhaps the greatest directorial body of work in the genre, rivalled only by the likes of Terence Fisher and Mario Bava in the 1960s and George Romero in the 1970s. But they’re defined in part by the way Whale’s tension with the genre manifested. Whale’s dark, sometimes overtly strange and camp sense of humour, mostly held in check on Frankenstein, came seething out with the next three, all of which were big popular successes: Whale’s unease with being pigeonholed as a maker of scary movies again connected with the audience’s simultaneous ardour and scepticism for such fare. The Old Dark House, which was for a long time lost only to be rediscovered by Horror director and Whale acolyte Curtis Harrington, was based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley, whose second work it was. Priestley, who would later become extremely popular and regarded in Britain, commented sardonically after the book’s release that the American publishers retitled it The Old Dark House in a determined effort to turn a profit, and it worked. The title was kept for the film, and it served to felicitously announce Whale’s mordant blend of attitudes, summoning up both an essentialist evocation of a classic genre trope reaching back to the Gothic Romances of Hugh Walpole and Mrs Radcliffe, and also its puckish deflation, close in spirit to the debunking comedies of the ‘20s.
What Whale managed however was more sophisticated, and it laid down the blueprint he’d follow for The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, provoking with a gleeful humour and semi-satiric slant, whilst steadily invoking the absurdity its characters face and sometimes embody, setting the scene for when the truly strange and disturbing busts out. Priestley’s novel hinged on a similar conceit to his later, perhaps best-known work in its own right, the play An Inspector Calls, in conjuring the house filled with eccentrics loaded down with their own private and shared transgressions. Whale merrily grasps onto The Old Dark House’s edition, the family Femm, comprising most immediately the spindly Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), their 103-year-old father Sir Roderick (Elspeth Dudgeon), and the mysterious sibling who resides in a room on the top floor. The Femms are the perverse and degenerating end of an ancient line, their house a looming pile of stonework that contains the ages of English society. Into their strange little world stumbles a gaggle of visitors representing modernity, desperately seeking shelter from the storm. The bickering young married couple Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margeret Waverton (Gloria Stuart), and their tagalong pal, Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas). The Manchester magnate Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his dancer date Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond).
The opening scenes present a classic story set-up as the Wavertons and Penderel travel in Philip’s chugging motor car through a buffeting rainstorm, banks of earth collapsing in their wake and tyres grinding desperately at the muddy ruts of the road. A classic Horror movie opening, reaching back to days of travelling coaches and forward to kids in Volkswagen vans in the genre, but contrasted with the rude liveliness of the characters who refuse to acknowledge they’re in a Horror tale. The Wavertons, plainly out on what was supposed to be a romantic honeymoon, locked together instead Philip unleashes epic, vicious sarcasm: “I’ve never been in a better temper in my life. I love driving a hundred miles through the dark practically without headlights. I love the trickle of ice-cold water pouring down my neck. This is one of the happiest moments of my life!” Penderel’s cheeriness, project from the backseat, is counterpoint and further goad to Whale’s portrayal of marital bother raised to epic pitch by the situation. “Perhaps you’d like me to drive for a bit,” Margaret suggests: “Yes, I was expecting that!” Philip retorts before continuing to try to get traction , and Penderel roars out a version of “Singin’ In The Rain.”
The frayed-nerved comedy here is both funny and mortifying in portraying a familiar kind of hell. The Wavertons and their tagalong friend are trying to drive out of the Welsh hills down to Shrewsbury, but the ferocious storm that’s descended is causing landslides and flooding, and they look for the closest convenient shelter. Margaret spots lights and encourages Philip to make for them, but when he catches sight of the craggy, crooked, ancient manse of the Femms her husband comments, “It’s probably wisest to push on.” But the as the storm seems to have cut off the roads all around they’re left with no recourse. Whale interpolates an ingenious model shot recreating the driver’s viewpoint in pulling into the muddy and desolate yard of the old dark house. Out the hapless travellers jump from the car and bang on the front door, and Penderel for a moment takes excited refuge in the notion the people in the house are all dead, “all stretched out with the lights quietly burning about them,” writing his own draft Horror tale whilst waiting for a response within, and in a moment he seems to just about get his wish as a hatch in the door swing open, revealing the gnarled, hirsute face of Morgan (Karloff), the Femm’s servant/warden, who responds to Penderel’s request for shelter with an incomprehensible, guttural mutter. “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that,” Penderel comments.
Granted entry by the grunting, damaged manservant, the trio are soon confronted by Horace, descending the wooden staircase like someone gene-spliced man, praying mantis, horse, and living skeleton. After sniffing his way through introductions and angular politeness, Horace escorts his guests over the blazing fireplace, and picks up a bundle of flowers, which, he tells them, his sister was about to arrange, before tossing the blooms on the fire. And Horace is the closest thing to a fully functioning human in the house, compared to the mute Morgan and his largely deaf sister, at least on the level of faculties, although he completely lacks a spine, in the metaphorical sense. Thesiger was destined to gain an odd kind of immortality specifically from his collaborations with Whale here and on Bride of Frankenstein, which might have surprised him, given he was a respected and experienced stage actor who had played roles for George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward, and he kept acting in films into his eighties. A wounded veteran of the trenches, Thesiger was as blue-blooded as they come, related to the explorer Wilfred Thesiger and nephew of Lord Chelmsford, leader of the infamous military expedition against the Zulus – the battles of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift went down a week after Ernest’s birth. Which sounds just like the kind of character he usually played. Looking much older than his 53 years, Thesiger presented Whale with his ideal interlocutor in portraying a simultaneously scornful and joyous caricature of the British aristocracy, devolved and waspish, wasted but invested with a deceptive strength, charged with disdain but at the mercy of its servile class, represented by Morgan, who meanwhile is sliding towards Morlock-like barbarity.
Another contrast is provided by Rebecca, whose piousness is chiefly a vehicle for expressing unvarnished contempt, and the way she offsets her brother’s atheistic and pagan mores. Moore’s performance anticipates Una O’Connor’s wild and flailing brand of absurdism for Whale, but with a different physical presence, as rotund and porcine as Horace is thin and equine, bearing a strong resemblance to the portrait of Queen Victoria she keeps on her bedroom wall. When Margaret asks Rebecca to show her a place where she can change from her wet clothes, Rebecca takes her to her own bedroom which, she explains, once belonged to her beautiful sister Rachel, who died after breaking her back in a riding accident aged 20: “A wicked one – handsome and wild as a hawk,” she cries, and eagerly looks over Margaret’s young, pretty form and anticipates its inevitable decay. Rebecca lustily regales her guest with Rachel’s agonised end and how she ignored Rebecca’s entreaties to turn to God. Rebecca’s bedroom is separated from the main hall by a gloriously decrepit corridor with a billowing white curtain at an open window and rain splashing on the stonework floor. Rachel’s old room proves a refuge of gentility save for the warped overlooking mirror.
Rebecca monologues about Rachel to the increasingly agitated Margaret whilst conjuring charged impressions of feminine beauty in her obsessive noting of red lips, long straight legs, and white bodies. Morgan’s knock at the door gives the lurking manservant a chance to ogle Margaret in her underwear, whilst Rebecca herself, for all her deploring, seems to be hiding a fascination for Margaret, thrusting her splayed hand upon Margaret’s chest. After Rebecca leaves Margaret can’t shake off her mocking words, as if she’s still in the room. Whale offers one of his most striking and peculiar cinematic phrases here, as he cuts jaggedly between shots from different angles of Rebecca’s face, reflected in the warped mirror and lit by guttering candles, all her savage perversity and mocking delight in mutability emerging as an array of perverted Gothic images. Margaret’s own face, as she tries to put on earrings, is also warped into strange and alien form by the mirror, as if she’s being claimed by Rebecca’s curse of the flesh. Margaret freaks out and, after opening to window but failing to push it close again for the powerful wind, she flees the bedroom and returns to the others in the hall. The punch-line for this is that she returns to the hall and looks every inch the resplendent lady about to dine in the finest restaurant.
This gaudy, layered, hysteria-laden scene is a perfect miniature representation of Whale’s jaggedly original approach to filmmaking and capacity to create a vivid, near-surreal context for his dark fantasies, turning what would have been a very minor episode in the movie into a vignette charged with undercurrents of sexuality and boding violence. The urge to transgression and its eternal partner, ironclad moralism, are in the mix, nodding to the distorted effects of what would soon be called “decadent art,” and winding up to a peak of delirium evinced by Margaret’s panic and despair. Whale’s camerawork is actually, generally more restrained in The Old Dark House than in his other films, like the long, devastating tracking shot of the father carrying his drowned daughter in Frankenstein, and his shots passing carelessly through and over walls in The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, as Whale readily showed off the roots of his visual imagination in the theatrical zone, but was able to leave behind any hint of the stagy, instead delighting in the way his camera could capture space and people within it. Instead, The Old Dark House shows more delight in his shot composition and cutting.
The dinner sequence that follows is another brilliant set-piece, albeit a more subtle one, where that delight is fully in evidence. The characters settle around the Femms’ dining table and try to enjoy a meal together, the flicker from the fire casting their shadows on the wall and the hulking, glowering Morgan playing waiter. Margaret, with a scowl, gets Philip to sit between her and Rebecca, who scoffs down pickled onions with righteous appetite. Meanwhile Horace brandishes carving utensils like small weapons of war, and when Rebecca chides him for not saying grace, retorts, “Oh, I had forgotten my sister’s strange tribal habits – the beef will seem less tough when she as invoked a blessing upon it,” and his initially playful sarcasm quickly spirals into a dark and spiteful meditation on the many blessings the family hasn’t received over the years. Rebecca’s hearty Christian appetite is balanced by Horace’s modest delight in gin – “I like gin.” He keeps trying to foist gnarled and soggy boiled potatoes on his dinner guests, each proffered with the inimitable Thesiger voice prompting, “Have a po-ta-to.” “Thank you, I should love a potato,” the practical Penderel answers, whilst Philip picks the eyes out of his. The electric light flickers and nearly dies, as Horace explains the house’s generator isn’t reliable. Finally, the agonised ritual of the dinner is interrupted by another knock at the door, which proves to be Sir William and Gladys, also seeking refuge.
Priestley’s design in the book emerges in the film as the characters represent different aspects of British society and history, and what’s particularly important here is the way Whale tweaks the material into offering the cast of characters as a succession of self-portraits – world war veteran, angry pleb on the rise, biting camp aesthete and wicked sceptic. The Old Dark House itself represents the closest Whale ever came to unifying the two artistic postures he was well-known for – the portrayer of Great War angst and the maker of Gothic fantasias, finding a dramatic landscape where those two things could coexist and feed each-other. They also converge on Penderel, a survivor of the trenches who readily acknowledges that he exemplifies a type, rattling off evocative self-descriptions that have become close to parodic clichés for him: “War Generation, slightly soiled – a study in the bittersweet – the man with the twisted smile – and this Mr Femm is exceedingly good gin.” Where the Wavertons are a sturdy middle-class couple, inheritors of the future, Penderel is a perpetual misfit and ironic party animal, seeing ridiculousness in everything. At least until he claps eyes on Gladys, who swiftly shifts the weights on the Eros-Thanatos scale in Penderel.
Sir William represents another corner of interwar British society, a self-made, nouveau riche businessman with a strong Yorkshire accent and a surface attitude of bonhomie. That barely conceals a seething motive in his working class roots and a telling lack of any sense of noblesse oblige. He’s easily drawn in the course of chatting with the other guests after dinner into recounting his tragic past, how his wife died, he believes, from heartache after being cold-shouldered by snooty society wives when Sir William first began to rise helped, convincing her she was holding them back. Sir William avenged her by breaking and bankrupting the husbands of those women, and yet remains a figure of pathos: now he’s got a fortune and a knighthood and no human connection, except for playing sexless sugar daddy to Gladys. Sir William’s narrative is coherent as both a depiction of Whale’s experience of class anger, and it can also be argued a coded metaphor for the agonies of coming out in Whale’s time, in registering a specifically intimate and human cost to social prejudice. Sir William and Penderel butt heads at first, with Sir William assuming the urbane Penderel looks down his nose at him for being such a go-get-‘em operator, and Penderel telling the magnate off for speaking disrespectfully to Glady when he outs her – that is, tells everyone her real last name, which is Perkins. “I envy you, I admire you,” Penderel tells Sir William, in comparison to his own unmoored and lethargic state, to the magnate’s retort, “Oh yes, you envy me, but you don’t admire me.”
Meanwhile the Femms represent a particularly eccentric and ingenious collective twist on an essential motif of Gothic fiction, the aristocratic clan cut off from the tides of modern life and subsisting on decaying pretensions and trapped within a house that once expressed their exceptionalism but now only exhibits their decay. Nonetheless, as Rebecca triumphantly tells her brother as he frets over the fear that the rains could bust a nearby dam and wash the house away, Femm Manor is built on solid rock – the roots of the Femms are planted so deep in the soil of the country they can’t be dug out even if they wish it. Rebecca and Horace have divergent expressions of their intense neurosis in embodying a disparity of godless sensualism and religiose intensity, but both are the same degree of crazy. The ancient Sir Roderick, when the Wavertons seek him out, is found ensconced in his bedroom which looks fit for Tudor monarch and barely altered since that epoch, whilst Rebecca’s bedroom is candlelit – “I’ll have none of this electric light!” she declares – and festooned with musty Victoriana. We never see Horace’s room, but the mind boggles. And at the top of the house, the locked door, hiding the last Femm, Saul, a brooding, superficially ingratiating pyromaniac. The flood below, madness and fire above, and points on the compass in between.
The great storm that falls upon the Shropshire Hills doesn’t just sever the Femms and their interlopers from the outside world but also cordons them within the subliminal space made solid. But the motif of the house as an encompassing expression of such ingrained neurosis and entrapping identity also feeds into the subtler dynamic that fees both humour and horror. Whale suggests there are few more disquieting and disturbing things than being obliged to have a meal with strangers, enabled by strained manners and a grotesque conventional politeness that ignores for a set period of time the strangeness that occurs off in the margins, like Margaret’s encounter with Rebecca. Indeed, this is essentially Whale’s entire thesis about social life, a constant game of facades and unveilings, and fusing a particular brand of comedy of manners with its darker doppelganger in Horror, which is a genre precisely preoccupied with the breakdown of civilised pretences and engagement with the primal. It keeps in mind the impression I’ve often had that something like Howard’s End or The Age of Innocence contains more real and discomforting violence than any number of slasher movies.
Karloff’s presence in the film sees Whale again with the actor he boosted from character actor to a peculiar brand of stardom, in a role that partly burlesques the characterisation of the Frankenstein’s Monster. Morgan is another shambling, towering, unspeaking creature, but one that’s been semi-domesticated: the Femms need him to keep food on their table and keep the electric light working. He’s an upper class idea of the lower class taken to an extreme, useful as a mass of obedient muscle until he gets liquored up and becomes insensately dangerous, casting a lascivious eye on Margaret. But Morgan has another function, as Saul’s warden, a bulwark of violence required to keep a less immediately intimidating but even more dangerous force in check. At one point, as Gladys follows Penderel out into the storm, she looks in through the barred kitchen window and sees Morgan, now thoroughly soused: the servant lurches to the window and punches his hand through the glass in a perfunctory attempt to grab one of the tempting morsels about him. It’s not a part that requires much of Karloff, in the first of his major post-Frankenstein genre roles when he’d soon be appearing in the likes of The Mummy (1932) and The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) which let him unleash his voice. But it does gain everything from his presence regardless, as Karloff wrings pathos from Morgan’s attempts to speak which inevitably fail and instead expression comes through physical chaos as he drinks.
After her squall of hysteria in Rebecca’s room Margaret quickly becomes the most sanguine person in the house, calmly and coolly shepherding the conversation as the various camps in the house try to communicate. Meanwhile Penderel and Gladys’ crackle of attraction combusts when the two venture out to the Wavertons’ car, stashed to wait out the storm in the barn, to fetch a bottle of whiskey Penderel left there. They quickly fall in love and taking refuge in the back seat of the car, with all that implies thoroughly implied. Priestley intended his novel as a tragic character study of Penderel masquerading as a thriller, although quite a few critics over the years have said the book didn’t really achieve that. Nonetheless Penderel emerges as the closest thing the film has to a central character and hero as he shifts from alcoholic gadabout to a man in love and has to quickly improvise in fending off danger. Douglas, honing his suave and worldly persona, is quite excellent in the role. Indeed, one arresting element of The Old Dark House is the quality of its cast, packed as it is with heavyweight actors on the cusp of major stardom, in Karloff, Douglas, Laughton, and Massey. Stuart on the other hand, after also appearing in The Invisible Man for Whale, never really gained star traction but, in one of those marvels of Hollywood fate, would record a commentary track for this film’s laserdisc release sixty years later which would bring her to James Cameron’s attention and help win her role in Titanic (1997).
And yet it’s Thesiger who owns the film, walking the finest line between creepiness and ridiculousness, seeming to most immediately embody the perversity of the Femms but also the most timorous in the face of it. When the necessity arises to fetch a large kerosene lamp from the top floor landing when the lights fail and Rebecca gloatingly prods him to help Philip bring it down, Horace keeps anxiously trying to avoid the errand, and when they hear peculiar laughter echoing down from above, Horace finally flees to his bedroom, leaving Philip to fetch the lamp alone. Philip takes up the lamp but notices the telling signs there, the padlocked door, the remains of a meal on a plate on the table with the lamp, whilst wind whistles in the crannies high in the roof. Meanwhile, down below, Margaret, in an interlude of playfulness, starts making shadow animals on the wall in the firelight, her silhouette and her gestures thrown against the wall of the dining room, only for Rebecca’s silhouette to lurch into view as she repeats the some gesture of touching Margaret’s chest, sending Margaret into a panicky flurry again. As she opens the front door and shouts into the night, begging Penderel to come back, a hand reaches behind and over her head to grasp the door and slam it shut. An iconic Horror image, this time arriving without a mocking codicil. The hand belongs to the soused and randy Morgan, who chases Margaret around the dining room, upturning the dining table in a gesture of pointed symbolism. Philip returns from aloft, and seeing what’s happening, does battle with Morgan, until he wallops him with the lamp, causing Morgan to plunge down the stairs, knocked unconscious. Later, when he awakens, Morgan gains his revenge by heading upstairs and releasing Saul.
These scenes illustrate Whale’s unique skill in mediating tone shifts, as menace emerges from the comic and absurd, and moments of playfulness segue into an eruption of actual danger. The fact that The Old Dark House was missing for a long time prevented it from becoming as much of an immediate influence as Whale’s other films, and the legendary schlock artiste William Castle was able to get away with directing a wayward remake in 1963. Whale likely had seen Paul Leni’s stylish film version of The Cat and the Canary (1927), replete as it with brilliant cinema, and some of Whale’s imagery echoes it. But Leni’s film has rather less sophisticated comedy than The Old Dark House, which is far more exactly aimed at the nexus of social anxiety and psychological angst in tapping both horror and humour. Whale would become bolder and stranger in his blendings with The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein – the catatonic-seeming Mr Plod policemen in the former and the shrieking, inflated melodrama cues in the latter. The Old Dark House therefore stands as an essential ancestor for just about all comedy-horror crossbreeds, and what most of the best of such films wisely follow Whale in doing was in infiltrating comedy via the characters and playing core genre elements essentially straight, a presumption that’s essential to the success of, say, Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984) or Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). Indeed, Craven, with his penchant for inserting a brand of anarchic, cartoonish humour into his Horror films, in many ways came closest of subsequent Horror auteurs to building upon Whale’s sensibility. On the other hand, the film was also a direct influence on the far more indiscriminately lampooning attitude of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Moreover, Whale picks out a thread here that was to prove important in terms of where Horror cinema was headed, in general. Whilst The Old Dark House makes sport of the trappings of gothic horror, the real source of horror then moves away from the supernatural, conveying metaphor and oneiric imagery, and emerges as human and immediate, and embodied by different forms – the hulking brutishness of Morgan and the impishly homicidal Saul. The essence of the drama becomes this imminent physical danger. Mad killers on the loose were already a well-lodged genre convention, but there’s something that feels particularly pertinent in the way Whale plays one genre frame against the other. In short, Whale grasped where the Horror movie was going, although it would take another few decades to get there. What Alfred Hitchcock would do to the genre with Psycho (1960), with its own old dark house and lurking, devolved murderer, is essentially a reiteration of this intelligible shift in focus and meaning. One can look on past that to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which is built of the same basic ideas as The Old Dark House – the searching, displaced travellers, the degenerated family, the crumbling old house, the hulking, monstrous force of threat, the preoccupation with perverse social ritual, only by that time monochrome gothic has been replaced by the spacy, sunstruck American brand.
The Wavertons, trying to understand the enigmatic threat lurking in the Femm house, venture upstairs together and enter Sir Roderick’s room, where the find the ancient knight lying in his bed. Whale has Sir Roderick played by the actress Elspeth Dudgeon (credited for the film as John), covered in aging makeup and a false beard. This conceit has a sly brilliance to it, recognising the quality of androgyny that very old age confers, and feeding Whale’s underground river of destabilisation, the one remnant of the Femms of old now happy in his prostrate, post-gender state, calmly awaiting mortality’s edge: “When you’re as old as I am, at any minute you might just die,” he comments, and gives a chuckle. “Madness came,” he says of his family, “We have all been touched with it a little you see, except for me – at least I – I don’t think I am.” Sir Roderick warns the Wavertons about Saul and the possibility of Morgan unleashing him, before falling asleep. Philip dashes out to see if Morgan is still unconscious, only to find he’s arisen, and Horace pokes his head out of his bedroom door to tell him he heard Morgan going upstairs, and instructs with punitive directness, “Wait for him downstairs and kill him,” before hiding again.
Whale’s peeling of this particular onion reaches sees inevitable combustion as a single hand appearing on the staircase railing announces Saul’s lurking presence, and Morgan lurches into sight with the sickly smile of a man with a trump, before trying to launch at Margaret again. It takes the combined efforts of Penderal, Philip, and Sir William to wrestle Morgan into the kitchen and lock him in there, and Penderal dashes back to Margaret and Gladys and gets them to hide in a closet whilst he sets about distracting Saul. Saul, when he finally shows his face, proves disarmingly innocent and scared-looking, like an anthropomorphic hamster. He descends to Penderel, begging him to prevent his relatives locking him away again. Saul claims to not be mad, but has instead been imprisoned to keep secret the fact Horace and Rebecca killed Rachel, and often beaten by Morgan. Penderel is initially credulous of Saul’s claims, but Saul quickly begins to reveal his madness, picking up the carving knife from dinner and insisting on recounting the biblical tale of Saul and David.
Penderel instead begins stringing him out by affecting interest in a story he wants to tell, and the two settle at the dinner table: the earlier, strained dinner conversation gives way to more of the same tense, dissembling playacting, but this time the game is immediate, desperate, the barrier between civility and lunacy only as thick as Penderel’s improvisation. Penderel then is a solider once more, albeit this time actually fighting for something – trying to keep the madman away from Margaret and Gladys. When finally Saul explodes it comes with astonishing ferocity, hurling the knife at Penderel and then bashing him with a chair, before dashing up the stairs and setting fire to a curtain in cackling delight. Penderel, despite having a broken arm, ascends to fight the loony again, and this time Saul tries to rip Penderel’s throat out with his teeth, only for them both to fall over the balcony to the floor below. The movie softened the novel’s ending slightly, as Penderel dies in the fall in the book: after test audience didn’t like this, the ending was reshot, it does feel more in keeping with the movie’s totality.
As if by compensation for the loss of one tragedy, Whale inserted another. Morgan breaks out into the dining room again, ready to resume chasing Margaret, only for her to get him to look to the fallen Penderel and Saul: Morgan, utterly heartbroken by the death of his charge, cradling Saul’s body, weeps over his fractured body and carries it back up to his room. This crowning vignette resonates on several levels, most obviously in anticipating the encounter of the Monster and the Blind Hermit in Bride of Frankenstein in its depiction of the symbiosis of the misshapen, as well as sneaking in a moment of undisguised love between men, and echoing the fraternal grief of the war veterans, which needed some echo, some acknowledgement, to pass before the night of the storm can end. Penderel’s proposal of marriage to Gladys, which she accepts by giving him a passionate kiss as she too cradles her injured lover, suggests a spiritual economy of love at work: something can’t die without something being born. The morning comes, finally, the sun shining and beginning to dry the ocean of mud without, Horace emerging to politely wave the Wavertons away as they head off to fetch help, whilst Gladys cradles her wounded gallant, and Rebecca scoffs at the lot of these bent, buckled, bruised, but still upright humans.