This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film an early classic of the Universal horror cycle, The Old Dark House, directed by James Whale (Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein). I watched it via YouTube, and so can you!
Trigger warnings: Suicide.
In rural Wales, an automobile runs aground in the midst of a turbulent storm. The couple in the car, Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey) and his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart) bicker about his driving, and while he complains about the terrible weather and poor visibility, he won’t cede the wheel to his wife. (What is he, some sort of cuck?) Their passenger, a Mr. Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), a foppish sort with a pencil-thin moustache, awakes from his slumber in the backseat and has nothing but witty asides to offer. (It’s kind of like being chauffeur to Frasier Crane.) The car continues on, basically driving through a river, as their road map becomes a damp rag and Penderel joyously sings.
After a close call with a landslide, the trio decide they’d better find shelter. Luckily, they just happen to be driving past a creepy old house. When they ring at the door, a imposing bearded man with a scar across his nose answers, but only mumbles incoherently to Penderel’s inquiry. “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that,” he quips. The manservant beckons them inside, where they’re greeted by Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), a thin, haunted-looking gentleman, who camps up every scene he’s in. Horace explains that his servant, Morgan (Boris Karloff) cannot speak. Then Horace’s sister, Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore), the owner of the mansion, enters to meet the guests. Rebecca is mostly deaf and can’t hear much of what Horace or the three guests say, but she’s certain of one thing: these strangers definitely can’t stay.
The Wavertons and Penderel explain the landslides and flooding and Horace becomes so frightened he drops a vase. Rebecca mocks her brother for his fearful nature: both she and Morgan are well aware the house will be safe in any storm. Though Rebecca reluctantly allows the travellers to stay, she shouts, “No beds!” The guests are more than happy by the fire in the living room. The Wavertons and Penderel park their car in the stable outside, and join Horace Femm in a drink of gin. We then learn that Penderel is a man who was damaged by the War (World War I) and has been drifting ever since. (Horace, for his part, looks like he’s stepped in dog shit when he spits out the word “war.”) Once Morgan is out of earshot, Horace warns the guests that the man-mountain Morgan can be dangerous when drunk, and a storm like this is a perfect opportunity to get hammered.
Margaret Waverton asks the lady of the house if she can direct her to a room where she might change out of her wet clothes. Rebecca takes Margaret to her departed sister Rachel’s old room. While Margaret disrobes and changes into a gown, Rebecca tells her about her dead sister, who she says was a promiscuous sort that died after a horse accident in her youth. Though Rebecca told her sister Rachel to turn to the Lord, she never did. Rebecca then reveals their father, who is 102 years old, is still alive. The wicked man (as she calls him) lives on the top floor of the house. While Margaret changes, Rebecca eyes her closely, noting that Margaret looks a wicked sort, too, all long legs and white skin. She paws at her gown and unsettles Mrs. Waverton. Once the old Mrs. Femm leaves, Margaret is relived to be on her own. But she’s spooked by a roaring gust of wind that blows through the bedroom window, and even moreso by her maddening thoughts of Rebecca’s words of sin and wickedness. She returns to the sitting room, just in time for dinner.
Horace announces suppertime, and they all take a seat at the long dining table. Horace wields a machete-like carving knife and barbecue fork and is chided by his sister for not saying grace before serving dinner. The two have a squabble over religion, but eventually progress to a nice meal of roast beef, potatoes, and – of course – vinegar. (Delish!) Horace’s constant entreaties to “have a potato” are interrupted by another bang at the door. The Femms are forced to welcome two new guests stranded in the storm: the seemingly wealthy Brit, William T. Porterhouse (Charles Laughton), and his companion, a chorus girl named Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond). They arrive like a hurricane, clearly drunk and boisterous, and make themselves at home rather quickly. Penderel, clearly enchanted by Gladys’s arrival, offers the young woman his shoes, as hers are soaking wet. She puts on the new shoes and immediately begins to dance. Soon, they join the assembled strangers for dinner.
Two hours pass, after which Porterhouse notes they still know nothing about one another. But Margaret isn’t so sure: her woman’s intuition tells her certain things. “Can you tell if I am wanted by the police?” the nervous Horace asks. But the group moves on to what Gladys’s intuition tells her about Mr. Penderel. She divines that Penderel is a man out of time, uncertain in his place in the world. Penderel admits this assessment is more-or-less correct, and that he wishes he could be more like her companion, William Porterhouse, who seems able to focus on earning money and lives without existential worry. Porterhouse takes umbrage at this simplification and tells an illustrative story from his past. In his youth, he married a Manchester girl named Lucy. But Lucy, having grown up poor and unsophisticated, was snubbed by William’s associates and their wives. So much so, she ended her own life. After that, Porterhouse threw himself into work, focused solely on making money.
Porterhouse then, out of spite, reveals that Gladys is an impostor: her real name isn’t DuCane. It’s Perkins. Penderel jumps up to defend her honour, but Gladys admits it’s a stage name: “These people know a chorus girl when they see one.” She regularly spends her weekends with Porterhouse; they have an arrangement of sorts. That’s when Rebecca interjects to say that she’s spotted their servant Morgan in the kitchen and he’s quite drunk. The report agitates Horace to no end.
Gladys joins Penderel by the window and thanks him for leaping to her defence. He suggests they sneak out to the car in the stable, where he has some whiskey hidden. Penderel leaves for the car first. When Gladys joins a bit later, she sees a woozy Morgan at the window, who growls and smashes the glass with his fist. Gladys runs to find Penderel and tells him about her scare. He helps her calm down and they help themselves to his jug (it’s a jug) of whiskey. Penderel notices Ms. Perkins has got her feet soaked once again, so he removes them and dries her feet with a towel. (This has to be Quentin Tarantino’s favourite classic horror movie.)
Back inside the house, the flickering electric lights go completely out, just as Horace (who is turning into a real doom-and-gloom Eeyore) expected. The remaining guests request a lamp, but Horace offers a bunch of excuses as to why he can’t retrieve it. Rebecca reminds him the lamp is on the top landing, but he’s clearly too afraid to journey there. Mr. Waverton offers to accompany him, and the two men scale the house’s darkened stairs. Outside his own room, Horace stalls and asks to show Philip a few things. Philip suggests they do that later – after they retrieve a lamp. Then Horace is like, “What if we just said we looked for the lamp, but we couldn’t find it?” Mr. Waverton can’t understand Horace’s anxiety, but then he hears a muted cackle and begins to see Horace’s point of view. Still, Philip is made of braver stuff than the gentleman of the house, so he progresses further, while Horace pretends he’s too weak to continue. At the top landing, Philip finds the large gas lamp, but also a heavy door festooned with locks. A table outside the door holds a plate with fresh food scraps.
Rebecca hears rushing wind and rain and is outraged that her guest Margaret left open the window in Rachel’s room. Porterhouse offers to shut it. While Margaret Waverton is left alone, she amuses herself by making shadow puppets until she encounters a phantom shadow, seemingly cast by nobody. Startled, she makes to run outside. From the front door, she calls for Penderel and Gladys, but no one can hear her over the storm. We then see the hairy hand of Morgan pull the door closed. Like a drunken zombie, he lurches toward Margaret with ill intent in his (somewhat glazed) eyes. To get to her, he flips the (large) dinner table and pursues her up the stairs. Margaret, in her escape, runs into Philip, who’s on his way down with the lamp.
Seeing his wife in danger, he tries to stop Morgan, then punches him directly in the face. Morgan doesn’t take kindly to this, and they scrap on the stair landing. Morgan has close to 100 pounds on Philip. He punches Phil in the gut, and it’s not looking good for Mr. Waverton until he smashes the hard-won lamp across Morgan’s face. Morgan topples down the stairs, but when they check his unconscious body, he’s still breathing. Margaret moans about how horrible the house is, and Philip agrees with the greatest understatement in horror history: “It isn’t very nice, is it?” He then tells Margaret about the sounds and locked door upstairs. He wants to investigate the source of the strange laughter, but insists they travel together. (Philip won’t leave his wife alone in this house again.)
In the stable, Gladys and Penderel, continue to chat and smoke. Penderel talks a bit about his war experiences and the girl he left behind. He asks Gladys about William, and she admits she likes him quite a bit. William provides her with money and “doesn’t expect anything” (if you know what we mean). She has no pretensions about who she is, but suggests that William has no interest in her sexually; just that he’s lonely. It’s possible he’s still in love with his dead wife. Over the course of a stormy night, Gladys and Penderel have fallen in love. Gladys gets a crazy idea: that she can move in with Penderel and maybe he’ll get his groove back. (No more existential dread!) They kiss passionately at the thought. Penderel has another idea, but decides to wait until morning to share it. They head back to the others in the house, even though Gladys has an ominous feeling about the house.
Porterhouse has fallen asleep and is awakened by a racket at the front door. He finds the newly formed couple of Gladys and Penderel on the other side and is not pleased by these rapid developments. Gladys tells her weekend companion she’s fallen in love, and while Porterhouse thinks she’s “a lunatic,” he’s not angry at all. Penderel then, in confidence, reveals to William that he plans to propose to Gladys in the morning. Porterhouse is invited to the wedding in a bit of true magnanimity. The gents decide to right the fallen dining table and clean up a bit of the mess that they’re unaware was caused by Morgan’s lusty rage.
Mr. and Mrs. Waverton, meanwhile, hear human activity from behind an unlocked door. They enter to find a roaring fireplace and an ancient man with a beard and long white hair in the master bed. The man is Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon, in drag), father to Horace and Rebecca, who asks what his children have told them about the house. Roderick reveals that two of his children died at twenty, and the ones that survived were all a bit mad. The eldest son, Saul, was the worst of the lot: he just wants to kill and burn down houses. This the first the Wavertons have heard of a Saul, and they’re alarmed to learn that Saul is apparently still alive. In fact, he’s who is kept behind the bolted door upstairs, and why they keep a brute like Morgan around. So he can keep Saul under control. But if Morgan drinks too much, he’s just as liable to open Saul’s door and let him run free. (Seems like a serious problem with their security system.)
Philip instructs Margaret to stay with Roderick and heads downstairs to check on Morgan. He doesn’t find Morgan, just Horace, who frets that Morgan went upstairs to Saul’s room. The Wavertons return to the sitting room to warn everyone about Saul and his pyromaniac tendencies. Just as they do, a hand grasps the bannister on the landing. Then Morgan staggers down the stairs and tries to barge past the three male guests to reach the women. Our three dudes restrain Morgan and drag him forcefully to the kitchen, battling his incredible strength every step of the way. Penderel leaves Philip and William Porterhouse to battle the giant servant and returns to the two women. He takes them to a cupboard and hides them within, while he returns to the stairs to confront the newly arrived Saul (Brember Wills).
An older bearded man, Saul tells Penderel his family only locked him up because he witnessed Horace and Rebecca murdering their sister Rachel. He wants to tell Penderel a story, but can’t help noticing someone is in the cupboard. He demands to know who. Penderel attempts to calm the clearly troubled old man, and they both take a seat at the dinner table. While brandishing the prodigious carving knife, Saul tells Penderel that he’s become an expert in fire: did you know that fire is like a blade, cold and sharp? Penderel feigns interest while looking around for a way to subdue this Femm brother, but Saul catches on. Waxing poetic about the Biblical Saul, he begins to threaten Penderel with the knife. When Penderel makes a break for it, Saul hurls the knife at him, and it embeds in the nearby chair. Failing to impale his victim, Saul picks up another chair (he’s very strong for his age) and smashes it against the visitor.
With Penderel incapacitated, Saul grabs a firebrand from the hearth and runs up to the landing, immediately setting the curtains aflame, cackling all the while. Penderel comes to and tries to knock the torch from his hands, but Saul is vicious, even biting the other man’s neck. In their struggle, they break through the railing and fall to the ground.
Margaret and Gladys, trapped in the cupboard, try to free themselves. Unfortunately, Morgan has somehow extricated himself from the other two men and ends up opening the cupboard for them. The hulking man stands between the two women and the unconscious bodies of Penderel and Saul, but Gladys won’t be intimidated. She tries to shove past, but Morgan twists her arm and she falls to the ground in pain. Margaret pleads with the angry servant, pointing out that both Penderel and Saul have been seriously harmed. The mention of Saul somehow gets through to Morgan and he checks on the eldest Femm brother. Morgan sees that Saul is dead, and cradles his body as if he were his newlywed bride, and carries him upstairs.
Philip and Porterhouse show up, a day late and a dollar short. Gladys recovers from her arm injury and runs to Penderel’s side. Philip attempts to stop her, as he fears Penderel, too, has expired. But Gladys swears he’s alive and sobs uncontrollably. In the morning, Horace comes downstairs to see his guests, the Wavertons, in a hurry to get to their cars. Rebecca doesn’t give them as cordial a goodbye – more a “feh” – and Penderel, it turns out, is alive. As Gladys cradles his bandaged head, he asks for her hand in marriage. Our five guests have survived a wild night, and only one Femm sibling lost his life.
- As many film historians have noted, James Whale, who is often touted as the finest director of the Universal horror stable, somehow simultaneously invented the old haunted house shtick and satirized it in the same film. There weren’t many spooky house movies before The Old Dark House. (This was 1932, after all.) The plot is familiar: some city squares stumble upon a kooky, yet deadly family of weirdos. The Femms are half-menace, half-quirk. One could make an argument that the film almost single-handedly invented the comedic macabre: you can see the DNA of this movie in everything from The Munsters to Texas Chain Saw Massacre to The Burbs.
- An unanswered – and, to be perfectly honest, possibly unimportant – question lies at the heart of The Old Dark House: did Rebecca and Horace kill their sister Rachel? Rebecca, at least, seems to despise the long-dead Rachel for her “wanton” ways, and Saul claims that’s why he’s been locked away. (Though Saul has other problems.) The question is: do Horace and Rebecca just present well – are they the sociopaths able to hide their homicidal tendencies beneath a veneer of respectability and manners in a way that Saul and Morgan cannot? Are they just as “savage” as those other two, but clean up nice to blend in with everyone else? Though we viewers align more strongly with these more comic residents of the house, they may be just as (if not more) sinister.
- Religion comes into play in The Old Dark House – after all Rebecca blames all types of misfortunes on sin – but it’s a religion against female flesh. Rebecca attributes Rachel’s death to her wickedness (and by “wickedness,” she means sex). She suggests that Margaret, too, is wicked, if only because of what she wears. Rebecca shouts “no beds!” like an anthem, in hopes of preventing any rutting under her roof. “You shouldn’t have come here,” Rebecca warns. Misfortune befalls Margaret simply for existing as a young woman in the same house as Morgan. Rebecca, like so many men’s rights activists, suggests that a brute like Morgan (i.e. your average man) can’t control himself when drunk and in the presence of a beautiful woman. The Old Dark House presents religion as a crutch for men’s bad behaviour. But despite the oppressive atmosphere, the old dark house and its occupants are unable to repress the women of the film: no one is going to tell Margaret what sort of evening gown she should wear during a monsoon! The film even features a positive portrayal of a sex worker – for that’s what it’s implied Gladys more or less is – who is not a tragic figure of pity.
- As director James Whale was one of the first openly gay men in Hollywood, his films – particularly horror films – are often read through the lens of queer criticism. I don’t need to tell you that horror is a goldmine for queer criticism. (There’s even a “Queer Fear” film series at Toronto’s Royal Cinema.) And The Old Dark House certainly features a number of gay subtexts. There’s Ernest Thesiger, playing Horace Femm as the highest camp this side of Jonathan Harris’s Dr. Smith on Lost in Space, who wrinkles his nose at the barest hint of traditional masculinity. (This may explain his aversion to his sister’s Puritanical religious beliefs) There’s the patriarch of the family played by a woman (Elspeth Dudgeon) in an early filmic drag performance. And if so inclined, we can read into the tender manner by which Morgan carries Saul away (in a mirrored reflection of the bridal night), or the fact that Porterhouse pays for Gladys to keep him company, but has no interest in her, sexually. Keep in mind that the strange family’s surname is Femm (or “Femme”). Leave it to James Whale to somehow queer a film in which youthful lust is punished the ultimate sin.
Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: If nothing else, this horror movie marathon is reigniting my interest in classic film. The Old Dark House likely isn’t going to give anyone nightmares, though – to give Whale and company credit – there are a few genuinely creepy moments and jump scares (mainly regarding Karloff’s Morgan). But it’s an engaging and at times, downright funny film. Like a really dark episode of The Addams Family.
Best outfit: I realize we are supposed to fall in love with Margaret Waverton’s gown, and it’s very nice, but my heart belongs to Gladys DuCane’s collared shirt and floral-print dress.
Best line: When Gladys and Penderel return from the stable, Porterhouse notes she’s lost her shoes. “So ya’ got your feet wet,” he says. “And that wasn’t all,” Gladys answers, in some of the finest pre-Code innuendo ever written.
Best kill: Only one person dies during the course of The Old Dark House, so – by default – when Saul plummets to his death from a second story landing is the winner.
Unexpected cameo: Though children of the 1980s and 1990s might not readily recognize Gloria Stuart, the fantastic female lead of The Old Dark House, they would most certainly recognize the elderly version of her who portrayed Rose in James Cameron’s romantic blockbuster, Titanic. And Torontonians will recognize Raymond Massey as part of the family that once owned most of the city.
Unexpected lesson learned: Who could have guessed it would be a mistake to put the burly man who likes to get drunk and wreak havoc in charge of keeping the murderous pyromaniac behind locked doors?
Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Roderick Femm.
Next up: Hell House, LLC (2015).