Staying the night at the strange house of Femm for the Pre-Code blogathon.
Where to begin describing this sinister, fun, creepy and twisted James Whale Pre-Code treasure with a rich cast? Let’s start with the predicament of the leads: Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart are in a car, caught in a terrible storm that triggers massive landslides and flooding, almost washing away and then burying them all in mud. They brave the danger with some choice sarcasm and wry observations, then happen to spy a mansion in which to seek refuge. The door they knock on is opened by Boris Karloff as a grim, hirsute, heavy-lidded, mumbling figure with a battered face. Melvyn Douglas comments: “Even Welsh ought not sound like that!” Karloff leads them inside the home where they meet the owners, the curiously named Femms, brother and sister played by Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore. After some argument over whether or not they will be allowed to stay the night– “no beds! They can’t have beds!” screams Moore repeatedly– another couple arrive, also seeking shelter from the storm, namely Charles Laughton and his chorus girl companion Lilian Bond. Little do these guests know, they’ll all soon be seeking shelter from the spectrum of weirdos in the Femm house.
The Old Dark House is not full-on horror; it gets increasingly dangerous and spooky toward the end, but is a picture dominated by brilliant weirdness and warped comedy. I love the deadpan delivery, the rich sarcasm, the clever passive-aggressive putdowns and easy to miss gestures, some of which rival the most sophisticated and sparkly romantic comedies of the era. For example, as Thesiger welcomes the first trio of guests, he grabs a pitcher of flowers and dryly states, “my sister was just about to arrange these” before pitching the bouquet into the fireplace. It’s an efficient gesture, absurd on its own, one of many darkly funny touches by Whale, and it also speaks volumes about Thesiger’s feelings for his sister, as well as his sense of futility about doing anything beautiful or productive in this cursed house. Thesiger, whom Whale fans will know well as Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein, is fabulous as the gaunt, prim, easily rattled yet somehow intimidating host.
During dinner his reply, rebuttal and punctuation to any statement is to offer a side dish. “Have a potato,” he repeats, in a way that sounds like an order and effectively cuts off all conversation. The sight of Massey scraping something black off those potatoes is a fun part of the camera’s pan across the dinner table to show us the uncomfortable meal; it ends at Eva Moore’s side so we can watch her stuffing forkfuls into her face at a dizzying pace. Thesiger turns white as a sheet at the prospect of having the roads blocked by the storm; that puzzles Massey, Stuart and Douglas but not the viewer, who is correct to sense there’s something in that house far scarier than the questionable food and the two Femms we’ve met so far.
As the storm rages on, Stuart goes to change out of her wet clothes into a revealing and clingy white dress, which Whale wanted so that Stuart would seem like a glowing flame running through the dark house. Stuart is watched, pawed and harshly judged by Eva Moore, who tells the story of a dead Femm sister, scorns Stuart’s taste in showy, silky garb, tells her how those wardrobe choices lead to sin, depravity and doom, and how her fine, pale skin will soon “rot.” The speech Moore launches into was used verbatim by Dom Deluise in Haunted Honeymoon (1986) which says more than I ever could about the campy value of the monologue. The fascinating thing about Moore’s speech is that, as she’s delivering it, Whale cuts and assembles the footage in mid-sentences from various angles so that it seems unreal and ready-made for the next sequence where the same words ring in Stuart’s memory and send her screaming from the room. Poor Stuart is later pawed by Karloff who flips over the dinner table and chases her around the house until Massey brains him with a lamp.
Massey and Thesiger go up the stairs for a replacement lamp but Thesiger freezes, giving the excuse that the lamp is heavy, gosh this a lot of stairs to climb, they should just say they went, and anyway he shouldn’t go places he doesn’t want to go; the non sequitur strongly hints to Massey that they are no longer speaking of lamps. Sure enough, Massey discovers a third Femm, Sir Roderick the centenarian patriarch, locked in an upper floor bedroom. Sir Roderick is played by a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon, in drag and beard, with makeup by master monster maker Jack Pierce and credited as Jack Dudgeon, but there’s no attempt to disguise her frail female voice and hands. Whale never told anyone he cast a woman until the shoot was over, which must have brought the right amount of real strangeness to the scene. Dudgeon tells Massey and Stuart about a fourth Femm living on an even higher floor (the higher you go the more insane presumably). That one is a pyromaniac played by Brember Wills who keeps being let loose by his close buddy Karloff; when you next spot a hand sliding down the bannister, you know Femm #4 is roaming about and the fireworks are about to begin.
Quirky, creative and off-kilter throughout, The Old Dark House is delightfully disturbing and many fans’ picks for the greatest movie James Whale made. It was also Charles Laughton’s first Hollywood film, and he’s great as the brash and bitter braggart and overachiever with a heart, who generously sprinkles nervous laughter into every sentence. He tells the story of losing his wife to her insecurity around the upper class, and of his wanting success as the best revenge. His lady friend Bond is a down to earth showgirl who dances around in Douglas’ shoes (earning a dirty look from Moore) and then tells Melvyn Douglas that Laughton never touches her, expecting her to act only as attractive arm candy to maintain his showy facade. Douglas is another valuable player in this looney bin, bringing to some great moments and comebacks his signature easy and mocking spin, and he gets to romance and play dashing hero to Bond. With perfect timing, Douglas plays along with Thesiger’s dramatics in offering food and drink; Thesiger: “I’ll give you a toast that you will not appreciate, being young. I give you — illusion!” / Douglas: “Illusion, huh? I’m precisely the right age for that toast, Mister.” Douglas will need that gin for the final graphically violent struggle he has with firestarter Femm.
There’s comedy in Eva Moore’s partial deafness that works more like delayed hearing, as she answers queries made three sentences ago. There’s comedy in Laughton’s snoring through a romantic scene and marriage proposal, and comedy in most of the inane yet gripping and revealing conversation, the reaction shots, and side-eyeing that makes up the bulk of the film. The sad part came when the movie, though fairly successful at the box office, was rumoured lost by the late 1950’s, remade weakly (to put it kindly) by William Castle in 1963, and went unseen until restoration in 1970. It may have struck some as an incongruous piece for Whale to drop between things like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man but I’m one of many who finds it his essential work, and terrific, sinister fun. Come for one of Karloff’s best performances, stay for the ensemble insanity until the rooster crows in the “cold light of day.”
Have a potato?
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