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Old Dark House, The
Directed by James Whale way back when in 1932 for Universal, The Old Dark House is not be as well-known as some of the other classic Universal horror pictures of the time. It'll always live in the shadow of Whale's more famous Karloff collaborations, those obviously being Frankenstein made a year prior and Bride Of Frankenstein made in 1935. Having said that, the film's influence is apparent in everything from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which clearly lifted the opening) to Thundercrack! to Haunted Honeymoon to House Of 1,000 Corpses. The picture was also remade in 1963 by William Castle, though to be honest, it was one of his lesser efforts.
The picture itself starts in the middle of a cold, rainy night. It's coming down in buckets out in the Welsh countryside, much to the dismay of three people travelling by car: Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey) and his beautiful wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart) and their persnickety travelling companion Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas). With the roads washed out ahead of them, they decide to stop at, you guessed it, an old dark house and hope that those who live there will let them stay for the night.
Their knock on the door is answered by Morgan (Boris Karloff), the massive, silent, scarred man who works as the butler. He lets them in where they meet the owners, Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) and his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore). Horace is kind enough at first, though Rebecca seems to think everyone ungodly and worthy of eternal damnation. At any rate, the three are allowed in and no sooner than they've sat down then there's another knock at the door. William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his beautiful friend Gladys Perkins (Lilian Bond) are also in dire straits, and again, Horace allows them to come in for the night. It's then that things get strange. We learn that the house has a dark past, that Morgan has a penchant for drunken violence and that the Femm family has some dark secrets, not the least of which is Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon), a cackling pyromaniac with murder on his mind!
While this might take place entirely in a singular location (save for the opening scene where our travelers toil their way through the storm), The Old Dark House might be a little stagey but it's always a nice looking film and plenty entertaining. The film is meant to be a comedic suspense picture rather than a traditional horror film, but it never wants for atmosphere. The creepy, decaying old mansion that serves as the backdrop is shadowy and eerie looking, it's the perfect spot to stage a film like this. The cinematography from an uncredited Arthur Edeson (responsible for plenty of classics like Casablanca, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and, yes, Frankenstein) is excellent. He uses shadow and light well to keep an air of mystery about the picture while still ensuring that the compositions are quite good and always effective. The budget for the film might not have been massive, but it hardly matters. It looks great.
And then, of course, there's the cast. Karloff will be the big draw for most viewers, and he's great here. The role is mostly silent but he lumbers about like the big drunken lurch that he's meant to be, throwing his weight around and intimidating pretty much everyone else in the picture. His makeup is also solid, he cuts a pretty imposing frame here. Ernest Thesiger steals a few scenes as the kindly, slightly cowardly Horace. He's talky and friendly and intent on making sure everyone gets a potato! Eva Moore really is his polar opposite. She's bitchy, kind of catty, very judgmental and all together unfriendly, but again, she does well in the part and is very watchable here. The gorgeous Gloria Stuart (younger viewers may be interested to know that she played ‘old Rose' in Cameron's Titanic) and Raymond Massey have good chemistry and are fun to watch. Charles Laughton plays his goof of a character well enough, Lilian Bond and Melvyn Douglas are just plain likeable and Elspeth Dudgeon is just plain off the rails. There aren't really any weak links here. The cast are just really enjoyable.Video:
The Old Dark House makes its Blu-ray debut on a 50GB disc in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.37.1 in a transfer taken from a new 4k restoration. For the most part, the picture is pristine, there's very little print damage at all and cleanup job that was done for this release is impressive. Detail is pretty solid throughout, especially in close up shots, though some scenes do appear a little soft, as they were shot. Contrast looks nice, blacks are quite deep while whites look clean and never bloom too much. There's nice depth and texture to the image and the well authored disc is free of any compression artifacts or obvious edge enhancement or noise reduction. The transfer on this release, for a film of this age, is very impressive.Audio
There's a little bit of hiss here and there on the English language LPCM Mono track, but outside of that it's fine. Dialogue is clean, clear and easy to follow and the levels are well balanced. Obviously the range is limited here but all in all it gets the job done with no issues. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.Extras:
Extras start off with two commentary tracks, both of which are ported over from the old DVD release that the film received via Kino a few years back. The first track features the late Gloria Stuart, she speaks about her work on the picture, offers memories from the shoot and of the co-stars she acted alongside and her thoughts on the picture. The second track features James Whale biographer James Curtis. His track is obviously more geared towards how this film ties into Whale's filmography. As he explains all of this he also offers up insight into the director's career as it pertains to this particular film and as a whole.
Cohen has also included new fifteen minute interview with Boris Karloff's daughter Sara Karloff who begins by talking about her father's pre-Frankenstein career and then discussing how that one film changed things so much for him. She then talks about how he got along, or didn't get along as the case may be, with some of the other actors, his thoughts on Whale and more. There's also a seven minute piece here with filmmaker Curtis Harrington wherein he speaks about how he managed to help save the film from complete obscurity. Rounding out the extras on the disc is a re-release trailer for the movie, menus and chapter selection. Included inside the Blu-ray case alongside the disc is an insert booklet containing a reprint of an interview that David Del Valle conducted with Harrington regarding his getting to know Whale, his assistance in rescuing the film and his thoughts on Whale's homosexuality.Final Thoughts:
The Old Dark House is a lot of fun, a genuinely quirky mix of laughs, chills, suspense and hey, even a bit of good old fashioned romance thrown into the mix for kicks. The performances are strong and the film's influence is undeniable. Cohen has done an excellent job bringing this one to Blu-ray. There's a nice selection of supplements included on the disc and the transfer is gorgeous. Highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.