Mother of the Void Presents: The Old Dark House

It was my pleasure this week to watch “The Old Dark House” from 1932. This film was the first starring credited role for Boris Karloff, his work in Frankenstein only had him mentioned in the credits, as well as being the first film for movie greats Charles Laughton and Raymond Massey. Also, for those of you who are fans of James Cameron’s Titanic, it stars Gloria Stuart, aged Rose, in all her breathtaking youthful beauty. Now before I get into my probably long winded analysis, let me just say, this caused me to laugh harder than I have in a while. It is definitely a comedy horror, not the other way around. So join me, won’t you, as we spend an evening in “The Old Dark House”.  You can check out my last review here.

The Old Dark House (1932) - IMDb

Setting the scene

The Old Dark House - 1932 - Trailers From Hell

The film opens with the credits playing against a backdrop of a storm. Married couple Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart) are precariously making their way through a storm in their very open automobile. It is not indicated at first that they are married, but the bickering between the two gives it away. This is something that translates no matter what decade a film is from. It is revealed that Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) is attempting to sleep in the backseat, and is actively ignoring the embattled couple in front of him.  The witty banter between the three brought a smile to my face.

Penderel’s sarcasm and singing tries to lighten the mood in the situation, but after getting trapped by a landslide, the only way is forward, as Margaret notices lights in the distance. The three soaked travelers anxiously wait as they pound on the door of the old dark house,  and when they finally are acknowledged, it is by an incoherent Morgan (Boris Karloff). He closes the door in their faces, and they hear a bell ring, before he returns to gesture them inside. Once inside, they are joined by Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), a very thin and effeminate man. As I mention this, let me address something about this film for a moment.

Boris Karloff and James Whale

There are a number of stereotypes, and gender role reversals in this film.  For 1932, it had to be mildly shocking to see a number of the men, take on “feminane personality traits”, and to see women take charge and have control.  There are also insinuations, in the conclusion of the film of affection, although not without its problems, between two of the male characters. If you have seen the film “Gods and Monsters”, there is some exploration of the relationship between Boris Karloff and James Whale, the director.

It was the making of “The Old Dark House” that brought an end to their “personal partnership” as it was referred to. I can see a direct line of homosexual stereotypes in film that can be traced back to this film. They are played for laughs, and if you can see how brave it was for these filmmakers to even allude to an alternative lifestyle in 1932, I believe you can appreciate the performances, and understand how other filmmakers would look to it as an example of how to be represented, without being shunned, through humor. As a straight woman, this is just my opinion. I hope that it does not offend. Ok….back to the film. 

Back to the story…

The Old Dark House (1932) - ALL HORROR

The three travelers ask if Morgan has explained their situation, and Horace reveals that Morgan is mute, not the word he uses, but we will leave it at that. Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore), Horace’s sister,  then appears, demanding to know what these strangers want. The three try to talk to her and explain, but Horace says his sister is deaf for the most part and he moves closer to her, loudly explaining that they need a place to stay because of the storm. Rebecca, angrily tells her brother that of course they cannot stay. The three begin to plead their case, with Pendrel again using humor to prove their point, causing Horace to panic that they are now trapped in the house.

Rebecca mocks her brother’s fear and his lack of religious belief, but she assures her brother that they are safe in the house. She asks Morgan if remembers a previous flood and he indicates he does through some hand gestures and a very suggestive finger placement. Horace tells the travelers that they will have to stay and it is their own misfortune that they do. The siblings both tell them they have no beds for them, but they can stay by the fire. 

Philip and Penderel follow Morgan outside to move their car to shelter and bring in their bags, despite Rebecca’s protests. Horace brings out a bottle of gin, and he and Penderel discuss tramas of war, to which Penderel shows his wit yet again. Horace expresses fear again of being trapped in the house and shares that Morgan can be “an uncivilized brute”, who tends to drink on nights like this.

Fleshly Love… gross

Margaret asks Rebecca if she can go and change her wet clothes, and she takes the woman to a bedroom. After lighting candles Rebecca explains that this room was her sister’s who died. She shows disdain for her sister, who led a fast and loose lifestyle. Her words visibly frighten Margaret, and she asks for privacy so she can change.

However, Rebecca continues to carry on how her whole family was godless and she was the only one who would pray. She discloses that her father is still alive, and wicked. Rebecca accused Margaret of being wicked as well, “wriggling in the jollies of fleshly love”. Margaret continues to change, despite the old woman’s presence. Rebecca finally leaves, and Margaret has changed into a revealing silk dress. For some unknown reason, she opens the window, causing things to blow all over the room, then makes a half-hearted attempt to close it again, before crossing to a mirror and being barraged in her head by Rebecca’s unapproving words. She tries again to close the window before apparently forgetting how to open the door. 

When she finally makes her way back to the group, she is greeted by Rebecca’s scream of “DINNER”. The group goes to the table as Morgan brings out a roast. Rebecca chastises Horace for not saying Grace, which he refers to as a “tribal tradition”. They begin to dish up and Horace becomes quite insistent on everyone having a potato. Rebecca is quickly eating her meal while the others pick at theirs. We get the first signs of an infatuation Morgan may have with Margaret, as he stares at her while filling her water glass.

A Knock at the door

Deep Focus: The Old Dark House

Just then, there is a knock at the door. At first Rebecca does not want to let anyone else in, but is convinced that the newcomers should not have to wait in the storm. She and Morgan go to the door and greet the loud pair, Sir William Porterhouse and Gladys. They are not a married couple, and Penderel begins to flirt with Gladys and she readily returns the gesture. They all return to the table,and Horace continues his potato pushing. 

When the meal is finished, we catch up with the crew around the fire. Penderel continues to flirt with Gladys, while cutting Sir William down at the same time. William tells his history to the group, and he explains that Gladys is actually a chorus girl..

Rebecca enters, and tells Horace that Morgan is drunk, and there is hesitation from Horace when he tells William that Morgan is the butler. 

Penderel and Gladys take the opportunity to go to the stables to retrieve the whiskey that is in the car. The two have very good chemistry, and they pop open the bottle and stay in the stable. 

What’s at the top of the stairs?

Back in the house, the lights have gone out, and when William asks if they have a lamp, Horace is too frightened to go and get the lamp that is on the top landing. Rebecca accuses him of being too afraid to go up on his own. She sends Philip with him and with much hesitation, Horace leads the way. 

When they reach Horace’s room, he begins to make excuses so they don’t have to go get the lamp. They suddenly hear what sounds like a high pitched laugh coming from up the stairs. Horace sends Philip up the stairs by himself, as he hides in his room. Philip comes to a door, which he listens at briefly before continuing up the stairs. When he gets to the landing, he sees the lamp, but also sees a padlock on the door ahead of him, and a tray with half eaten food on the table. 

Downstairs, Rebecca comes rushing in, yelling at Margaret to come and shut the window she opened, and William volunteers to do so, following Rebecca down the hall and leaving her alone in the main room. Margaret begins playing her shadow on the wall and her imagination gets the best of her. She screams and goes to the door, opening it, calling for the lovebirds in the stables. As she waits for a reply, we see a hand over her head, closing the door in front of her. A very drunk Morgan begins to make advances on her. He chases her around the room, turning over the table, and chases her up the stairs. Philip and Margaret meet on the stairs, and she tells him what has happened. He and Morgan fight and he hits him with the lamp, knocking Morgan down the stairs. 

The lovebirds

The Old Dark House — Cineaste Magazine

Philip explains that he heard a strange voice upstairs and asks Margaret to come and check it out with him. On the way up the stairs, Margaret is overcome with what has just happened and she and Philip take a rest for a bit. Understandable. This also gives us a chance to check up on the lovebirds. 

In the stable, Penderel and Gladys are getting to know each other while sitting in the back of the car. They are having one of those chats. You know those chats, when you learn everything you need to know about a person in a matter of minutes; one of you is a war veteran, the other is a woman who hangs out with a guy because he gives her money. Gladys explains she is only with William to give him company; he doesn’t expect anything from her. Of course, this conversation has made them fall in love and after this short amount of time. They are ready to move in together, at her suggestion and Penderel has to hint that he is ready to propose.

Gladys wants to stay in the car, but Penderel convinces her to go back inside. He very awkwardly carries her back to the house. He pounds on the door to wake a sleeping and annoyed William. Gladys breaks the news to him that she has fallen in love and will no longer be with him. He gives his reluctant blessing, and Penderel tells him he is planning on proposing. The three of them clean up the mess Morgan made downstairs.

Back to the house

Why there's more going on in The Old Dark House than you might think | BFI

The Wavertons have recovered and head up to the bedroom containing Rebecca and Horance’s father, Rodrick. Even though the role was credited to a man, it was played by a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon. This continues the effeminate traits of the males in this family.  Rodrick explains that the locked door contains his other son, Saul, who is insane and wants to burn down the house. They have kept Morgan on as the butler because he is the only one who can handle Saul. 

Philip goes down to check on Morgan, who is no longer on the stairs. Horace emerges from his room to tell Phillip that Morgan has gone upstairs to let Saul out of his room. Margaret and Philip lock Rodrick’s room to keep him safe. Then, they go downstairs to inform the others what is going on. 

Rebecca has joined the others  to be informed that Saul is out of his room. Morgan descends the stairs as she begs him to take Saul back to his room. Morgan makes a beeline for Margaret as the men fight to take him into the kitchen to lock him up. The three younger men struggle with him as a high pitched laugh is heard. Penderel returns to the main room and convinces Gladys and Margaret to hide in an adjoining room. 

Pretty, pretty Penderel

Penderel waits at the bottom of the stair, as Saul, a very slight man comes down. He tells him that he has been locked up because he knows that Rebecca and Horace killed their sister and that Morgan beats him. Penderel tries to open the front door, but it is locked. Saul’s madness begins to show. He finds a knife on the floor and Penderel tries to stall, concealing the women in the closet. 

Saul reveals he knows all about flames and fire. While he is speaking, Penderel tries to escape to get a weapon. Saul stops him and Saul tells Penderel that he wants to kill him. He tells Saul that he likes him and asks if Saul likes him as well. Saul says he loves him. Boy, Penderel is a popular fella! It is then that he starts to quote the bible and explaining why he has to kill Penderel. Penderel distracts Saul and tries to escape and he is knocked unconscious.

Saul takes the opportunity to set the upstairs curtains on fire, as he gleefully laughs. When Penderel comes to, he goes upstairs, and fights with him, ending with both men falling from the second floor. In the meantime, Philip and William are trying to break down the door to the main room, which Rebecca locked, and the women are anxiously waiting for the coast to be clear. 

Morgan’s Escape

Morgan breaks out of his makeshift prison and opens the door for Gladys and Margaret. They both scream as they see Morgan in the door. Gladys tries to get around Morgan to go to Penderel. He twists her shoulder while glaring at Margaret, causing Gladys to pass out. Margaret pleads with Morgan to let her help both men, including Saul. It is with the mention of Saul’s name that Morgan rushes to the man.

He throws off Penderel, who has landed on top of Saul and lifts him up, cradling him in his arms as Morgan’s lips briefly rest on Saul’s forehead. Morgan begins to cry as he realizes that Saul is dead. He looks lost as he gently carries Saul back up the stairs. Philip and William enter the room to comfort the women. Gladys goes over to Penderel, and cradles him in almost the same way as Morgan had Saul. With tears of joy she announces that Penderel is alive. This is the last we see of Morgan.

Morning has arrived and Horace comes down stairs telling them that they can go now and get an ambulance. Margaret and Philip leave to get help and the movie ends with Penderel proposing to Gladys as William snores in the background. 

Ahead of its time

Considering this film was made in 1932, it was very progressive with its views on religion, morality and homosexualtiy. I knew nothing about this film prior to watching it, and it really took me by surprise. I had seen the film I mentioned earlier, “Gods and Monsters”, but forgot about the relationship between Boris Karloff and James Whale. In my defense it has been many, many years since I had watched it. While some of the subject matter is dark, it is never ok to chase a woman around a table, it was a rather light hearted film. I loved the bickering between the married couple in the beginning, and Penderel was probably my favorite character, even if he did move rather quickly in his personal life. 

Karloff did as well as could be expected, only having his facial expressions, body language and a few grunts to work with. It is worth an hour of your time to check out this classic. If nothing else, it will confirm your suspicion that in Titanic, young Rose looked nothing like her portrait.

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