Karloff, the mad butler in this production, is the same Karloff who created the part of the mechanical monster in “Frankenstein.” We explain this to settle all disputes in advance, even though such disputes are a tribute to his great versatility.
With that opening prologue to The Old Dark House (1932), Universal Studios wasn’t expecting to settle any disputes but, rather, to capitalize on one of the film’s stars: Boris Karloff. This was his first role in a horror film since Frankenstein (1931) and the marketing department wasn’t skipping a beat. But, the reality is that while Karloff had top billing, his role is really secondary to an excellent cast.
The movie offers a premise now very well known to horror movie fans. Storm-wary travelers stumble upon a secluded house and, upon seeking shelter, discover that a mad family resides within. Enter the Femm family, with son Horace (marvelously played by Ernest Thesiger, Bride of Frankenstein) and religious sister Rebecca (Eva Moore) allowing the travelers to stay the night. However, the travelers’ thanks will soon be that of regret once they learn of mad brother Saul (Brember Wills) and his penchant for burning things. Add to that a mad drunk and mute butler named Morgan (Karloff in all his glory) and a raging thunderstorm outside, and you have the recipe for a classic.
Director James Whale masterfully takes author J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel Benighted and adapts it for the big screen with his excellent use of lighting and limited sound effects (the raging wind and rain outside permeate throughout the entire film). Humor is used to lighten the mood through subtle one liners delivered by the cast that included future legends such as Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart and Charles Laughton (in his first Hollywood role). And if you wondered whether or not that was a woman in the role of 102 year old Sir Roderick Femm, you were correct. Although credited as “John” Dudgeon, her first name was really Elspeth.
The Old Dark House was a commercial failure upon initial release and was considered lost for many years. Only through a persistent effort by Curtis Harrington, friend of James Whale, was it rediscovered in 1968 in a Universal vault (after they insisted it no longer existed). The movie now holds the status of a classic horror film. It is still available from Kino Video and, while it could benefit from some restoration, I personally loved the crackling soundtrack and the random screen jump. While Karloff may not have a lot of screen time, what he does have comes shining through. Ultimately, he even steals the film’s climax as he carries the body of Saul up the staircase. This one is highly recommended and worth adding to your collection.
…Mr. Karloff is, of course, thoroughly in his element as Morgan. He leaves no stone unturned to make this character thoroughly disturbing.
Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times