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  Old Dark House, The Tall Storeys
Year: 1932
Director: James Whale
Stars: Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Elspeth Dudgeon, Brember Wills
Genre: Horror, Comedy, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 2 votes)
Review: It is a dark and stormy night, and three people are travelling the Welsh countryside through the high winds, torrential rain and threatening floods, quite lost. The driver, Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey), is increasingly exasperated, and his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart) is close to panic as she tries to read the sodden map and gets nowhere with it. However, the passenger in the back seat, their carefree old friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), is treating the situation with good humour, even when a landslide nearly buries them. Then, up ahead, a house looms out of the blackness - would it be a good idea to seek refuge there?

Well, it would get them out of the storm, but they won't necessarily be safer, put it that way. The Old Dark House was director James Whale's follow up in genre to his huge success Frankenstein, and was similarly well-received, though fell into, if not obscurity, then a lower profile than the previous horror classic, and indeed the one to come, his sequel Bride of Frankenstein. In fact, for many years it was believed lost forever until a print was found, and that's the one you'll see if you seek this out today, which may not be in great shape but that scratchy, crackly version only adds to the rich atmosphere as if you're watching a relic of a bygone age.

The influence of the Penderel character means that the film begins in a light, though still macabre, mood, as the three travellers invite themselves into the house of the title after being relcutantly welcomed in by the owner, Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger). Normally, Thesiger would be a scene stealer in this type of thing, but he has some healthy competition from the other cast members who range from eccentric to outright insane. With all this idiosyncrasy to relish in the performances, it's to Whale's credit that none of the cast is lost in the mounting hysteria, and each make their mark, with only Stuart (better known these days as the little old lady from James Cameron's Titanic) given the less meaty role of the woman in peril.

They're actually all in some degree of peril, and not simply because of the atrocious weather outside. The family the Wavertons and Penderel find themselves among are not the friendliest bunch, but they do allow them to stay and put up with Horace's nervousness, the religious mania of his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), and the menace of the mute and getting drunker all the time butler Morgan (Boris Karloff, bringing out the brutishness of his Frankenstein character to sketch in his heavy here). But they're not the only souls in the place - for a start, more travellers arrive in the shape of cheerfully obnoxious industrialist Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his lady friend Gladys Ducane (Lilian Bond).

Gladys brings out Penderel's softer side as a somewhat perfunctory romance develops, but this does not detract from the dread. There's someone locked in the attic room, as with many good (and not so good) chillers of this stripe, and you just know he will be let out at some point near the end to cause havoc. Morgan is the man planning to release him, as if he wasn't enough of a danger himself as he tries to rape Margaret and takes three men to hold him down - there's a lot of down and dirty brawling in this film. J.B. Priestly's original novel Benighted was more of an observation on the state of the British nation, and while there is a measure of that here with the older generation corrupted by madness and the younger, the ones who had to got to war, at their mercy, mainly this is a thrill ride that turns from black comedy to tense, but still enjoyable chills without seeming contrived. In its way, it's an archetype, and none the worse for that.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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