The Old Dark House

* * * * *

Venerable ‘lost’ classic creaks but doesn’t always act its age.

Image of The Old Dark House

James Whale/USA/1932/72 mins

Available on Blu-ray Mon 21 May 2018

A car breaks down (unsurprisingly, given this is 1932) in the Welsh countryside while a storm tears through the draughty vessel, leaving its inhabitants fearing for their lives. Their fortunes appear to have improved when they realise a striking old house is but a squelchy walk away. Little do they know, the terrifying Femm family live inside, waiting to scare the pants off 1930’s cinema-goers, and our characters alike. Modern audiences, though, can safely watch without fear of losing sleep over the drunkard butler (Boris Karloff, of Frankenstein fame) and the pyromaniac brother locked in the attic, hence the PG certificate. It’s essentially a sleepover with the Addams Family.

However, that is not to say there is nothing to be gleaned here. On the contrary, modern viewers are treated to the conception of horror tropes aplenty, and there are even a few amusingly outdated stereotypes such as the violent ‘savage’ from a far-off land. Similarly, in a casting decision that is somehow both hilariously modern and progressive, and yet also eye-rollingly misogynist, there is a male character played by a woman (Elspeth Dudgeon), but unfortunately credited as a man (John Dudgeon).

Aside from being an illuminating lesson in cinema history, there is dark humour, philosophical dialogue, surprising depth of character, and enough suspense to rival a Hitchcock picture. The sizeable budget was undoubtedly blown largely on the ensemble cast in what is a simple, single-setting film, but it pays off with committed performances across the board.  Ernest Thesiger as the head of the Femm household is particularly noteworthy. Also present is an alluring Gloria Stuart, aka old Rose Dawson from Titanic, in only her third acting credit.

The disc’s special features are plentiful, including interviews, archive images, original artwork, commentaries and trailers, but the real treat here lies in the film itself; a stunning 4k restoration results in an impressive update in audio and visual quality for a classic that was once considered permanently lost. Combine this with the relatively understated early on-screen acting, the dark humour and cross-dressing, and you have a film that doesn’t always look or act its age – and that’s no bad thing.