Philip (Raymond Massey) and his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart) drive along a Welsh country lane at night, braving the adverse weather conditions as they bicker about their journey. The wind is howling and the rain is torrential. In the back of the car, trench coated Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) is also along for the ride.
When a landslide blocks the road they're travelling along, they're forced to look for shelter at a remote house nearby. Knocking on the door of the decrepit-looking building, the travellers are a tad alarmed when disfigured, mute butler Morgan (Boris Karloff) answers.
He lets them in and they are soon greeting by upper-class Horace (Ernest Thesiger). Along with his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore) - she looks like an old gypsy but sounds like a witch - he runs the Femm family home and seems rather nervous at the prospect of having the bad weather trap them all in the house overnight.
Hard-of-hearing Rebecca insists there are no free beds in the house but invites her reluctant guests to warm beside the living room's open fire for the night. In the meantime, they are offered a roast beef meal.
During said dinner, there's another knock at the door. This time it's brash Yorkshire man William (Charles Laughton) and his travelling companion Gladys (Lilian Bond). Much to Rebecca's disapproval, Horace also welcomes them into their abode for the evening. Anything to get out of that dreadful storm, eh?
As the guests become acquainted with one another, their hosts gradually grow odder and odder. Morgan comes across as a decidedly unhinged, unpredictable individual - especially when Horace reveals that the butler is a violent drunk. Rebecca is aggressive and somewhat naturally creepy. Horace is jittery from the off and grows increasingly so when the house's electricity cuts out and his sister suggests he pops upstairs for a lamp. What is it that's upstairs which troubles him so?
The Femms, it transpires, are a very peculiar family indeed, with a bizarre back-story which doesn't fully reveal itself until later into proceedings. By which time the motley crew of guests have experienced a particularly long and tumultuous night in THE OLD DARK HOUSE ...
A pitch-perfect blend of humour and Gothic horror sensibilities, THE OLD DARK HOUSE finds director James Whale (FRANKENSTEIN; THE INVISIBLE MAN) in playful mood from the start: the film opens with a text introduction reassuring audiences that this is the same "versatile" Boris Karloff who played the monster in Whale's previous success.
From there, the film is very much a comedy of manners for the main part. Opening with the quarrelling of Margaret and Philip, it's clear that the sardonic humour is going to be frequent and - for its time (1932) - quite cutting. Social mores are explored in witty style (this is a pre-Code film, allowing for Margaret to be glimpsed at several turns in a skimpy dress) and a distinct, peculiar Britishness pervades proceedings throughout.
Adapted from J B Priestley's 1928 novel "Benighted", THE OLD DARK HOUSE (which was also adapted with lesser success by William Castle in 1963) delights in quick-fire dialogue, keenly observed character traits and barbed humour.
However, its real strength arguably lies in its visual style. Whale and uncredited cinematographer Arthur Edeson muster one wonderful composition after another. The use of shadows to create atmosphere is frequently sublime; the camera moves smoothly over meticulously constructed set-pieces; a standout montage of quick-edits between Karloff and Moore seems very ambitious for its time.
The cast are all on point, delivering the endlessly enjoyable, pithy script with total conviction. There's a communal theatricality to performances which lends the film an agreeable edge of campiness, recalling the delivery of stage performers. The rickety interior set designs complement this feel perfectly.
All in all, this is 72 minutes of genuinely classic horror cinema.
Eureka! Entertainment brings THE OLD DARK HOUSE to UK blu-ray and DVD in a 2-disc dual format release. This title represents number 187 in the distributor's esteemed Masters of Cinema range.
We were sent a copy of the DVD for review purposes.
The DVD presents the uncut film in a new transfer (Cohen Media Group conducted a 4K restoration recently, and it's that transfer which is proffered by Eureka!) which benefits from progressive encoding. The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 ratio and, quite simply, looks amazing. The contrasts in the striking blacks, shades and whites are astounding, as is the overall cleanliness and clarity on offer. There's no damage or compression issues evident; this is a beautiful, convincingly filmic presentation that wipes the floor with all previous home video versions. I can't wait to see it in HD because even the standard definition presentation blew me away.
English mono audio is clean, clear and satisfying throughout, though understandably is not overly dynamic. Optional English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing; these are well-written and easy to read at all times.
The disc opens to a static main menu page. There is no scene selection menu but the film does contain 10 chapter stops.
A plethora of entertaining, insightful bonus features commence with no less than three audio commentaries.
The first two are an archive one from Stuart and a more recent effort from biographer James Curtis, author of "James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters", respectively. The actress is on affable form, albeit she tends to struggle a little to remember the occasional detail. Still, she's fun to listen to and has a warm manner. Curtis offers a more scholarly but no less engaging chat track, offering a wealth of production detail and insight into the bigger picture regarding Whale's illustrious career. Pregnant pauses aside, this is a fun way to watch the film. Both of these tracks featured on the film's US blu-ray from Cohen Media Group.
An all-new commentary track from author and critic Kim Newman and editor/writer Stephen Jones is even better. This is a breathless, fluent proposition which offers an abundance of information on the cast, the source novel ("it's about being English, Newman opines) and much more. Actor backgrounds are covered, as are observations on character quirks and mannerisms. It's all delivered with welcome humour and energy. Highly recommended.
Next up is "Meet the Femms", a newly produced 38-minute featurette which goes into more depth about the film's demented characters and how the production came to be. David Cairns writes and narrates what is essentially a visual essay over clips from the movie interspersed with the occasional still. Help is at hand from voice actors Steven McNicoll and Angela Hardie who provide entertaining impressions of Priestley, Karloff etc when reciting quotes. Cairns points out that THE OLD DARK HOUSE was Whale's compromise when Universal wanted him to continue making horror films in the wake of FRANKENSTEIN's success while he didn't want to get typecast, so he made a "comedy disguised as a horror film". However, as Cairn's later points out, the film was considered a flop - presumably because audiences didn't quite understand its curious tone.
"Daughter of Frankenstein" is a 14-minute featurette containing an interview with curator of film at The Speed Art Museum, and - more pertinently - Sara Karloff, daughter of the late great Boris. Dean Otto, curator of film at The Speed Art Museum, conducts the interview in an empty cinema setting. Karloff speaks about how her dad made around 170 films in his career, and how it all took off for him when he featured in FRANKENSTEIN - even though he wasn't even invited to its premiere, because the film was considered as a vehicle for its star Colin Clive, and not the mute supporting actor obscured by heavy monster make-up. Karloff has a friendly, laidback demeanour, speaking with both fondness and impressive memory for detail as she goes through the make-up processes, how her father's career evolved, her personal take on the shoot of THE OLD DARK HOUSE and so much more.
"Curtis Harrington Saves The Old Dark House" is an archive 7-minute interview with the filmmaker (THE KILLING KIND; DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL etc). The Internet Movie Database states that this was shot in 2003 but it's pillar-boxed VHS quality presentation seems older. Anyhow, Harrington speaks of his love for horror movies from an early age and how he eventually got to meet his hero James Whale. He then went on to work for Universal and kept badgering them to search their vaults for the original negative of THE OLD DARK HOUSE. Eventually after several searches the negative was found ... but that's only half the story. Fascinating stuff.
We also get a 96-second trailer for the film's 2018 re-release and a stills gallery offering 14 images, ranging from on-set photographs to lobby cards.
This sterling package is rounded off by a superb 44-page booklet containing an excellent new essay by Phil Kemp, "Shadow Play". A wealth of attractive stills litter this book, along with full film credits, notes on the new restoration and transfer, and disc production credits.
Initial pressings also come with a collectible O-card slipcase containing specially commissioned artwork from the ever-wonderful Graham Humphreys.
I can't recommend this release highly enough.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Eureka! Entertainment|