A forgotten classic from James Whale, “This Old Dark House” is essential viewing for Universal Horror fans, which you can now watch thanks to Shudder.
It’s hard to believe that Dracula had no score. Sure, a piece of Swan Lake was used for the opening credits. But it had no music of its own until 1998, some 67 years later. The original Universal Monster — with all due respect to the elder Chaney’s Phantom — was barely a talkie.
It’s only fitting, if not tragic, that Bela Lugosi’s hypnotic menace is mostly relegated to thumbnails in Film History 101 textbooks, with captions like This actually used to scare people (citation needed). It’s an image, much like his monstrous colleagues to come, that’s burned into our collective nightmares. But it’s an image just as often used to sell Coca-Cola, alongside CGI polar bears and Santa Claus.
During his interview for last week’s Shudder Sunday subject, Visitations with Elijah Wood & Daniel Noah, Taika Waititi admitted he was never afraid of Dracula because Dracula seemed pretty busy in Europe, nowhere near his native New Zealand.
Watching Tod Browning’s Dracula now, the Count feels like a similarly remote threat, separated by time instead of geography.
It takes him a while to eerily walk down the stairs. The shot that gifted and cursed Lugosi with horror immortality, that long push into his black hole eyes, plays in deafening silence.
Performances give away actors not yet used to the sound of their own voices. Attention spans beware, but not necessarily to blame; the earliest Universal Monster classics speak their own cinematic language, almost impenetrable today without the proper curiosity.
Make no mistake — they’re not primitive.
The goalposts for what horrifies us might have moved several football fields away since the Great Depression (see: when we started numbering World Wars), but what tickles the hair on the back of our necks hasn’t changed.
A well-written, better-said line still makes us laugh. “I never drink…wine,” has only gotten funnier as vampire lore made Dracula’s double entendre that much more shamelessly obvious. And while Count Chocula and company remind us of the historical value in these movies, it’s easy to overlook them as good ol’ fashioned entertainment.
Thankfully Shudder picked up The Old Dark House, director James Whale’s 1932 follow-up to Universal’s second highest-grossing horror picture of 1931, Frankenstein.
If Browning, a veteran silent film director struggling to survive the spoken word, was on the way out, Whale was on the way up.
With Universal’s elbow wedged firmly in his ribs, Whale introduced the world to another household name, The Invisible Man, in 1933 and gave the studio its first monster sequel in 1935 with Bride of Frankenstein. In 1932, between the original Frankenstein and the later Whale classics, often regarded as the finest of their kind, The Old Dark House disappeared.
It has no name-brand monster to sell itself. When Universal bundled their old creature features into syndicated Shock Theater packages in the late 1950s, it wasn’t included, missing out on the TV resurrection that brought about the dawn of horror hosts and “The World’s First Filmonster Magazine,” Famous Monsters Of Filmland.
That title, as evocative as it is hopelessly generic, would’ve been a problem even without the middling William Castle remake burying it in the public consciousness. Then Universal lost it entirely.
All this Monster Mash 101 to say The Old Dark House was a second-stringer from the day it was shot.
Meanwhile the varsity team — Dracula, Frankenstein, The Bride, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Creature — can be rented on most services, but can’t be streamed with a subscription almost anywhere.
At least one streaming service, I won’t name which, insisted a remake from last year was the original Invisible Man. The fact that The Old Dark House survives at all is a miracle, let alone that you can watch it without having to drop half a month’s subscription fee for the privilege.
Especially because The Old Dark House is the perfect introduction to Universal Horror.
That’s true even if there isn’t an action-figurable abomination of science or religion on the poster.
Boris Karloff, in his first credited starring role, is your consolation prize as Morgan, a proto-Lurchian brute with a face only a catcher’s mitt could love. He looms over House as a hulking metaphor — malice, crude and ugly, restrained only by a butler’s bowtie. As soon as he opens the door to stranded travelers in the rain, Morgan’s morality is plain as the jagged scar down his nose. He looks like the devil’s doorman, and that’s the point.
The Old Dark House is obsessed with appearances.
A dark and stormy night. A sprawling mansion with a constant draft. A strange family that’s seemingly never lived anywhere else. I’d say stop me if you’ve heard this one, but in 1932, nobody had. Drawing room mysteries were alive and well on stage, but rarer on screen, and none of them checked all the Scooby Doo boxes like this one.
The de facto Mystery, Inc. is turn-of-the-20s standard — mostly mid-Atlantic types with pencil mustaches, glamour-shot eyes, and accents that would soon be beaten to a monochrome pulp by sketch comedy. All well off at first glance, but it doesn’t take long for the flop sweat to ruin their practiced fancy-free.
Then there’s the Femm family that welcomes everyone in, yells at each other for doing so, and locks themselves in their respective rooms right after dinner.
Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger a few years before his entré into the Mad Doctor Hall Of Fame as Dr. Pretorius in Bride) is the alternately gracious and petrified host. He interrupts every awkward silence at dinner the same way: “Have a potato.” When the time comes, he opens his door just enough to tell an ignorant bystander to kill somebody, then shuts his door again and locks it.
His sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore), makes no such attempt to disguise her disdain at the unexpected company. She corners one of the ladies changing into something less drenched with a venomous tirade about the arrogance of being young, having skin, and showing it above the ankle.
Both Femms live in quaking fear of their mute, monstrous butler getting drunk and doing…something.
The Old Dark House revels in your assumptions, long before that kind of subversion was in style.
Are they afraid Morgan will forget his surface-level sophistication and become the Universal Monster that make-up master Jack Pierce scarred him to be? Not quite. What’s upstairs and who’s afraid of it? Is the old Femm place haunted? Why do the lights keep going out?
Well that last one has an answer. As Horace pours drinks at the dinner table, he tells the assembly that they make their own light bulbs, but they’re terrible at it.
The Old Dark House is as much prototype as parody.
You’ll know the trappings, recognize the sound of stock thunder. Whale somehow knew you’d catch on before the gags became fodder for sitcom Halloween specials, before sitcoms even existed.
And just when it fools you into an arm’s length appreciation, something startling happens. A long-awaited hand crawls down the banister. An actor bounces off a burning curtain and clearly didn’t plan on it. A sloppily choreographed brawl climaxes with a twenty-foot fall onto the unpadded stage floor.
But forget the peril. It all wraps up in a stock Universal Horror ending; soon as things stop happening, the movie stops happening. A kiss, a smile, A Universal Picture, and laughter out to the lobby. Nevermind. We all just learned that the worst monsters have no bolts in their necks, bad hairdos by moonlight, or allergies to Judeo-Christian souvenirs.
It all looks quaint and harmless and old-fashioned. So it must be.