The Old Dark House


1h 11m 1932
The Old Dark House

Brief Synopsis

A storm strands travelers in a house full of dangerous eccentrics.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Comedy
Horror
Thriller
Adaptation
Release Date
Oct 20, 1932
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Universal Pictures Corp.
Distribution Company
Universal Pictures Corp.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Benighted by J. B. Priestley (London, 1927).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 11m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
9 reels

Synopsis

On a stormy night in Wales, five people, Philip and Margaret Waverton, their friend Penderel, Sir William Porterhouse and his lady friend, chorus girl Gladys Perkins, whose stage name is DuCane, seek refuge in a gloomy house off the road. The denizens of the house include Horace Femm, an hysteric, his sister Rebecca, a religious fanatic, and Morgan, their scarred, brutish butler, who is a mute. At dinner, Horace confides that sometime in the past, their sister Rachel died in a mysterious fashion. As the evening progresses, the Wavertons discover the Femms' 102-year-old father in an upstairs room. Transformed by drink, Morgan pursues attractive Margaret up the stairs, where he craftily releases another brother, pyromaniac Saul, from his locked room at the top. Penderal and Gladys have fallen in love at first sight. They break the news to Sir William who, because he is still in love with his dead wife, is not very upset. Soon after, Penderal encounters the liberated Saul in one of the dark rooms. At first Saul seems to be the only sane inhabitant of the house, but he proves that he is as crazy as the rest when he tries to kill Penderal. Both men are wounded in the fight that follows. Morgan, having sobered up a little, carries the wounded Saul back to his room. After Gladys treats Penderal, dawn finally breaks and the storm is over. The five guests leave the house behind as quickly as possible and Horace cheerfully bids them goodbye, as if the events of the night had never happened.

Photo Collections

The Old Dark House - Lobby Cards
Here are a few Lobby Cards from the Universal horror film The Old Dark House (1932), directed by James Whale. Lobby Cards were 11" x 14" posters that came in sets of 8. As the name implies, they were most often displayed in movie theater lobbies, to advertise current or coming attractions.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Comedy
Horror
Thriller
Adaptation
Release Date
Oct 20, 1932
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Universal Pictures Corp.
Distribution Company
Universal Pictures Corp.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Benighted by J. B. Priestley (London, 1927).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 11m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
9 reels

Articles

The Old Dark House (1932)


Although James Whale was a key horror director of the 1930s, his reputation has soared to unexpected heights in the past several years. Whale -- whose personal life was memorably examined in the semi-fictional film, Gods and Monsters (1998) -- is best remembered for his iconic horror trinity, Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). These films continue to score with today's audiences through Whale's gift for dramatic framing, and, even more importantly, his wholly unexpected sense of humor. But there's another, less celebrated Whale movie from the same period that's arguably even a little funnier than those pictures.

The Old Dark House (1932), which co-stars Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, and Charles Laughton is just plain loopy, although Whale filmed it well before the haunted house genre was ripe for such a sarcastic deconstruction. Today, the initial set-up is just about as hoary as they come; most viewers will instantly recognize it as the one used, for maximum cliché effect, in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and countless haunted house parodies prior to that - from The Gorilla (1939) starring The Ritz Brothers to The Black Cat (1941) with Basil Rathbone to The Horror of It All (1963)!

It doesn't take long to develop a sense of déjà vu. A group of travelers, caught in the kind of torrential downpour that's most often seen in the movies, seek shelter in a gothic mansion that's populated by a group of oddly hospitable weirdoes. After a night filled with unnerving banter, dark family secrets, and, of course, attempted murder, the travelers retreat to their cars. There's even a psychotic relative locked in an upper room, but revealing much more than that would spoil the fun.

The old dark house's rain-drenched "guests" are played by Douglas, Laughton, Gloria Stuart, and Lilian Bond. The house-dwellers are Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, and John Dudgeon...although Dudgeon's actual identity isn't so easily pinned down. But we'll get to that. This was the first time Karloff received top billing in a picture, after the publicity stunt of being billed simply as "?" in Whale's hugely popular Frankenstein. The credits of The Old Dark House even helpfully specify that, yes, this is the same "Karloff" you're thinking of.

Unfortunately, even with all the mocking dialogue and evocative chills, The Old Dark House's box office didn't approach Frankenstein's. As a frightening butler, Karloff's full potential to terrify isn't really tapped, to be honest, but his swaying intimidation did inspire cartoonist Charles Addams to create the character that would later come to be known as Lurch on TV's The Addams Family.

After its mediocre theatrical run, The Old Dark House was put on the shelf at Universal and, until 1968 - unavailable for bookings. That year, Whale's protégé, director Curtis Harrington, helped find the negative and convinced Kodak to return a print to its original brilliance. When the film was once again viewed in its original form, critics hailed it as a lost masterpiece. That might be overstating the case a little, but it still bears the mark of one of the studio era's more insistently unique directors. Schlockmeister William Castle (The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, both 1959) even attempted a remake of it in 1963 with Tom Poston, Robert Morley and Janette Scott but it was quickly forgotten.

Two interesting tidbits: When director James Cameron watched a laserdisc release of The Old Dark House, he was so taken with Gloria Stuart's amusing audio commentary, he wound up casting her in a little film he was planning called Titanic (1997). As for John Dudgeon- that's not a man at all, but an actress named Elspeth Dudgeon who was cast and billed as a man solely for this picture! And she gives an utterly convincing performance. So what's the story? Were all the other male performers in Hollywood unavailable at the time? Was Dudgeon pulling the wool over her producers' eyes? No one seems to remember. But Linda Hunt would be proud.

Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Director: James Whale
Writer: Benn W. Levy and R.C. Sherriff (based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley)
Cinematographer: Arthur Edeson
Editor: Clarence Kolster
Art Designer: Charles D. Hall
Special Effects: John P. Fulton
Makeup: Jack P. Pierce
Cast: Boris Karloff (Morgan), Melvyn Douglas (Roger Penderel), Charles Laughton (Sir William Porterhouse), Gloria Stuart (Margaret Waverton), Lilian Bond (Gladys DuCane), Ernest Thesiger (Horace Femm), Eva Moore (Rebecca Femm), Raymond Massey (Philip Waverton), Brember Wills (Saul Femm), Elspeth Dudgeon (Sir Roderick Femm).
B&W-70m.

by Paul Tatara

The Old Dark House (1932)

The Old Dark House (1932)

Although James Whale was a key horror director of the 1930s, his reputation has soared to unexpected heights in the past several years. Whale -- whose personal life was memorably examined in the semi-fictional film, Gods and Monsters (1998) -- is best remembered for his iconic horror trinity, Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). These films continue to score with today's audiences through Whale's gift for dramatic framing, and, even more importantly, his wholly unexpected sense of humor. But there's another, less celebrated Whale movie from the same period that's arguably even a little funnier than those pictures. The Old Dark House (1932), which co-stars Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, and Charles Laughton is just plain loopy, although Whale filmed it well before the haunted house genre was ripe for such a sarcastic deconstruction. Today, the initial set-up is just about as hoary as they come; most viewers will instantly recognize it as the one used, for maximum cliché effect, in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and countless haunted house parodies prior to that - from The Gorilla (1939) starring The Ritz Brothers to The Black Cat (1941) with Basil Rathbone to The Horror of It All (1963)! It doesn't take long to develop a sense of déjà vu. A group of travelers, caught in the kind of torrential downpour that's most often seen in the movies, seek shelter in a gothic mansion that's populated by a group of oddly hospitable weirdoes. After a night filled with unnerving banter, dark family secrets, and, of course, attempted murder, the travelers retreat to their cars. There's even a psychotic relative locked in an upper room, but revealing much more than that would spoil the fun. The old dark house's rain-drenched "guests" are played by Douglas, Laughton, Gloria Stuart, and Lilian Bond. The house-dwellers are Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, and John Dudgeon...although Dudgeon's actual identity isn't so easily pinned down. But we'll get to that. This was the first time Karloff received top billing in a picture, after the publicity stunt of being billed simply as "?" in Whale's hugely popular Frankenstein. The credits of The Old Dark House even helpfully specify that, yes, this is the same "Karloff" you're thinking of. Unfortunately, even with all the mocking dialogue and evocative chills, The Old Dark House's box office didn't approach Frankenstein's. As a frightening butler, Karloff's full potential to terrify isn't really tapped, to be honest, but his swaying intimidation did inspire cartoonist Charles Addams to create the character that would later come to be known as Lurch on TV's The Addams Family. After its mediocre theatrical run, The Old Dark House was put on the shelf at Universal and, until 1968 - unavailable for bookings. That year, Whale's protégé, director Curtis Harrington, helped find the negative and convinced Kodak to return a print to its original brilliance. When the film was once again viewed in its original form, critics hailed it as a lost masterpiece. That might be overstating the case a little, but it still bears the mark of one of the studio era's more insistently unique directors. Schlockmeister William Castle (The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, both 1959) even attempted a remake of it in 1963 with Tom Poston, Robert Morley and Janette Scott but it was quickly forgotten. Two interesting tidbits: When director James Cameron watched a laserdisc release of The Old Dark House, he was so taken with Gloria Stuart's amusing audio commentary, he wound up casting her in a little film he was planning called Titanic (1997). As for John Dudgeon- that's not a man at all, but an actress named Elspeth Dudgeon who was cast and billed as a man solely for this picture! And she gives an utterly convincing performance. So what's the story? Were all the other male performers in Hollywood unavailable at the time? Was Dudgeon pulling the wool over her producers' eyes? No one seems to remember. But Linda Hunt would be proud. Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr. Director: James Whale Writer: Benn W. Levy and R.C. Sherriff (based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley) Cinematographer: Arthur Edeson Editor: Clarence Kolster Art Designer: Charles D. Hall Special Effects: John P. Fulton Makeup: Jack P. Pierce Cast: Boris Karloff (Morgan), Melvyn Douglas (Roger Penderel), Charles Laughton (Sir William Porterhouse), Gloria Stuart (Margaret Waverton), Lilian Bond (Gladys DuCane), Ernest Thesiger (Horace Femm), Eva Moore (Rebecca Femm), Raymond Massey (Philip Waverton), Brember Wills (Saul Femm), Elspeth Dudgeon (Sir Roderick Femm). B&W-70m. by Paul Tatara

Quotes

They were all godless here. They used to bring their women here - brazen, lolling creatures in silks and satins. They filled the house with laughter and sin, laughter and sin. And if I ever went down among them, my own father and brothers - they would tell me to go away and pray, and I prayed - and left them with their lustful red and white women.
- Rebecca Femm
The fact is, Morgan is an uncivilized brute. Sometimes he drinks heavily. A night like this will set him going and once he's drunk he's rather dangerous.
- Horace Femm
They were all godless here. They used to bring their women here - brazen, lolling creatures in silks and satins. They filled the house with laughter and sin, laughter and sin. And if I ever went down among them, my own father and brothers - they would tell me to go away and pray, and I prayed - and left them with their lustful red and white women.
- Rebecca Femm
The fact is, Morgan is an uncivilized brute. Sometimes he drinks heavily. A night like this will set him going and once he's drunk he's rather dangerous.
- Horace Femm
Have some gin. It's my only weakness.
- Horace Femm

Trivia

The father is played by Elspeth Dudgeon, a female.

Due to legal reasons, this film has never been syndicated to television.

This film was not included in the "Shock Theatre" package with the other Universal horror films.

There was a period in which this was believed to be a lost film. It's believed that all current prints were derived from a surviving 16mm print.

Notes

This was Charles Laughton's first American film. Modern sources note that the actor who played "Roderick Femm," although listed as John Dudgeon, was actually a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon. Modern sources add the following credits: John Fulton Special effects, Charles D. Hall Interior design, and C. Roy Hunter Sound supervisor. According to modern sources, Melvyn Douglas replaced Russell Hopton and Raymond Massey replaced Walter Byron. The film was remade in 1963 by William Castle Productions. It was directed by Arthur Grant and starred Tom Poston (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70; F6.3587). The 1932 film was withdrawn from circulation when the 1963 film was released and was considered to be lost until director Curtis Harrington discovered a printable negative.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1932

Limited re-release in United States October 6, 2017

Released in United States March 1975

Released in United States April 1981

Released in United States 1998

Released in United States March 1975 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (3-day James Whale Retrospective) March 13-26, 1975.)

Limited re-release in United States October 6, 2017 (New York)

Shown at Film Forum Universal Horror Festival in New York City October 30 - November 12, 1998.

Released in United States April 1981 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition ("Scared to Death": Horror Movie Marathon) April 2-23, 1981.)

Released in United States 1932

"John Dudgeon" was actually a pseudonym for Elspeth Dudgeon, an actress who played the role of the 102 year-old Roderick Femm.

Released in United States 1998 (Shown at Film Forum Universal Horror Festival in New York City October 30 - November 12, 1998.)