"No beds! They can't have beds!" A uniquely bizarre, wonderfully funny and exciting haunted house film with an all-star cast directed by the brilliant James Whale. Loosely based on J.B. Priestley's novel Benighted, the story has a group of stranded travelers forced to seek refuge at the
strange house of the Femm family. Philip Waverton (Massey), his wife Margaret (Stuart) and their friend Roger Penderell (Douglas) arrive first. Inside lurks a "home" presided over by the 102 year-old bedridden patriarch Sir Roderick (Elspeth Dudgeon, an actress billed in the credits as "John
Dudgeon" and brilliant in the role). Also featured are his atheist son Horace (Thesiger), his religious fanatic daughter Rebecca (Moore), and their older brother Saul (Wills), a crazed pyromaniac kept locked in his room upstairs. Hovering around the action is the house's hulking, mute, scarred,
and slightly psychotic butler Morgan (Karloff, in his first starring role). Two more stranded travelers, Sir William Porterhouse (Laughton) and his "companion" Gladys DuCane (Bond), arrive soon after, and then the fun starts. The horrors here are not supernatural and arise solely from the
madnesses of the Femm household, particularly when Morgan gets drunk and lets Saul loose. The suspense builds incredibly in the final showdown between Penderell and the mad Saul.
Handled in the uniquely theatrical manner that makes James Whale's work instantly recognizable, THE OLD DARK HOUSE is nonetheless never "stagy," benefitting as it does from Edeson's wonderful camerawork. The first glimpse of the foreboding house is still among the best of its kind, and the
lighting of the stark indoor sets quite stunning. The marvelous screenplay is full of memorable bits, such as the harsh Rebecca's retelling of past family debaucheries or Saul's genuinely creepy conversation with Penderell near the end. The dialogue is often hilarious, but it takes a cast as
brilliant as this one to make the most of it. Massey's early speech about the water trickling down his neck or his remarks about seeing the house ("Perhaps it might be wiser to push on") are beautifully handled. With his typically demonstrative aplomb, Whale gives us these moments as we see an
extreme close-up of Massey's neck or just after the house stands illuminated by flashes of lightning. Douglas can shift from glib wisecracks to a warm and touching romance with Bond in moments, and she and Stuart are appealing leading ladies here. Laughton affects a marvelous Lancashire accent as
a hearty, bluff man, and yet he can also touch the heart when speaking about his deceased wife. Karloff may not speak here but his acting is as effective as ever and he and Wills demonstrate a remarkable rapport together. His final embrace of the crazed man is unexpectedly powerful. If we had to
reserve top honors, though, they would have to go to Thesiger and Moore, whose work is absolutely flawless. When Eva Moore eats her dinner at warp speed or Ernest Thesiger makes "Have a potato" a classic highlight of a film, you know you're in the presence of rare talents.
As historian William K. Everson has noted, former stage actor and director Whale knows how to emphasize an actor's entrances and exits, or to delay them as needed (as in the case of Saul). His striking flair for composition and editing works an audience over thoroughly, and he adds to the film's
impact by deliberately playing with the buildup of suspense. Brilliantly performed, staged and timed, a sly parody on the English household, THE OLD DARK HOUSE stands alongside THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and ONE MORE RIVER as one of Whale's most sublime achievements.
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