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It was a dark and stormy night

by David-Elijah Nahmod

Boris Karloff and Gloria Stuart in director James Whale's "The Old Dark House." Photo: Cohen Film
Boris Karloff and Gloria Stuart in director James Whale's "The Old Dark House." Photo: Cohen Film  

In 1931 director James Whale (1889-1957) terrified the world when he directed "Frankenstein," an adaptation of Mary Shelley's 19th-century novel about a mad scientist who created a monster. In Whale's version of the story, the monster was seen as a confused, lost and lonely creature who didn't understand why people were repulsed by him. The monster just wanted to be loved.

Whale was a gay man who lived during a time when coming out was not an option, and when many LGBT people were forced to live lives of isolated loneliness. It is now believed that the monster, as presented by Whale, was a reflection of his own isolation, living as he did in a world that would not accept him, though it's been said that he refused to remain in the closet.

Besides "Frankenstein," Whale is best remembered for three other horror films of the period: "The Invisible Man" (1933), "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) and "The Old Dark House" (1932). The last of these has recently been released on BluRay in a newly restored and remastered print.

The plot of "The Old Dark House" is simple. Five travelers along the Welsh countryside seek refuge in a large, spooky old mansion during a raging storm when the roads become flooded. There they meet the bizarre family that inhabits this house of secrets. They're admitted to the house by Morgan, the scarred, mute and very creepy butler. Most people might have preferred to brave the storm upon first glance of this horrific-looking character, who's played by Boris Karloff, who was so memorable as the monster in "Frankenstein." But Morgan is only the beginning.

"My name is Femm," says the effeminate man who comes down the winding staircase to greet them. "Horace Femm."

Femm, a bit queenie and terrified of the storm, is played by gay actor Ernest Thesiger (1879-1961). They're soon joined by Horace's sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), a religious fanatic who all but attacks traveler Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart).

"You're wicked," Rebecca tells Margaret. "Young and handsome, silly and wicked. You think of nothing but your long, straight legs and your white body and how to please your man. You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don't you?"

As the thunder rages outside, Margaret runs shrieking from the room, her long white dress billowing with the curtains as the winds howl through the open windows of the cavernous dark hallway.

Things get stranger and stranger, yet the travelers just won't leave the house. Morgan gets drunk and begins attacking people. Sir Roderick Femm, Horace and Rebecca's bedridden 102-year-old father, tells Margaret and her husband Philip (Raymond Massey) about his son Saul, who's kept in a locked room because he likes to set fire to the house — and they still don't leave!


Sir Roderick is played by an actor billed as John Dudgeon. In actuality the character was played by a woman, actress Elspeth Dudgeon, who was made up to look like an old man. This sort of gender-bending casting was unheard of in 1932, but Whale was not your average director.

Also in the cast was gay actor Charles Laughton in his American film debut. Laughton was for many years married to the actress Elsa Lanchester, who accepted his homosexuality. The couple were more like best friends than husband and wife.

For many years "The Old Dark House" was considered a lost film. By the 1960s there were no prints left, but film director Curtis Harrington, a friend of Whale's, made it his personal mission to find and save this film. After a search of the vaults of Universal Studios, the film's negative was found. But Universal had no interest in paying to restore a film that they felt no longer had commercial value. Harrington convinced Eastman House to restore the film. Were it not for Harrington's efforts, the film would not be available today.

It's a film worth seeing. Whale's camera glides in and out of beautifully expressionistic settings, at times creating an almost dreamlike atmosphere. The film is also filled with macabre, dark humor, which makes it great fun to watch. The performances are magnificent, with Thesiger and Moore stealing every scene they're in. Both offer wonderfully over-the-top performances. Thesiger's Horace Femm was particularly daring, appearing at a time when gay characters were nonexistent on the screen. But from his very first appearance it's obvious that Femm is a gay man, though of course the G word could never be uttered in 1932.

Current prints of the film are clear and sharp, making this 86-year-old chestnut look as though it were just being released to theaters for the first time. The film's BluRay features a wealth of extras. There's an interview with Sara Karloff, Boris Karloff's daughter, who talks about her dad's career. Curtis Harrington is seen in another interview in which he recalls his efforts to save the film. There are also two commentary tracks, one from Gloria Stuart, which was recorded soon after she played Old Rose in "Titanic" (1997), and another from James Whale biographer James Curtis.

If you're a fan of classic horror, you've no doubt seen Whale's "Frankenstein" films. While certainly a different type of film from those masterpieces, "The Old Dark House" is a great film in its own right, and is well worth seeing. Happy Halloween!


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