“Have a potato”- Horace Femm
This entry into the Thirteen Scares of Halloween was chosen by Steve Pierce, who never gets tired of the classics.
And make no mistake, this one IS a classic, albeit an often overlooked one. Made by Universal Studios in 1932, which places it right up there with Universal’s horror output in their heyday.
Karloff, fresh from starring as the iconic monster the previous year plays the role of Morgan, a disfigured, mute (though back in those politically incorrect days, he’s referred to as being “dumb”) who can only grunt and becomes a brutish homicidal maniac when drunk. It was a busy year for Boris – he would star as The Mummy in the same year. He is billed here as “Karloff”, and his credit is preceded by a title card that assures the audience that it is indeed the same Karloff who had stunned them in Frankenstein, thus allaying any argument regarding the versatility of the actor (and of course ultimately it’s a great piece of showmanship from the studio’s publicity dept). As a note of trivia, this is also Karloff’s first star billing, as in Frankenstein, to keep the mystery – his credit was a question mark.
Other notables in the cast are Ernest Thesiger, better known I guess for his role as Doctor Pretorious in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). A skeletally thin, angular faced actor – and probably one of the most flamboyantly camp men to ever hit the screen. Here he plays the uniquely well named Horace Femm. With James Whale directing, that can’t have been an accident or coincidence. Whale was well known for his sense of humour, which is evidenced throughout his most famous films, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man.
Gloria Stuart plays a female lead, here in her heyday, BUT she had a late in life career resurgence that you’ll be aware of. I would think most of you would know her better as old “Rose” in James Cameron’s Titanic.
As can be expected of a Universal feature of the early thirties, the running time is an economical 71 minutes and as can be expected of a James Whale directed feature, those seventy one minutes are totally off the scale of quirky!
As I mentioned at the beginning, this is an often overlooked film and never sees the light of day when Universal release their classic legacy collections on DVD, and oddly never used to feature on those late night horror themed seasons on the BBC. In fact, for years, it was considered a lost film until a copy was discovered in 1968 in the Universal vaults. (Hopefully, one day a print of Lon Chaney’s London by Midnight will be discovered in a similar way.) So, despite having enjoyed the Universal classics since I was in my early teens, I had read about The Old Dark House, but didn’t actually get to see it until my early to mid twenties when it shown on TV for the first time and that in itself was quite a story.
There’s a TV channel here in Wales, S4C, which is dedicated to Welsh language programming, but in the early days of its launch they would also carry English language programmes and films. In that respect, it was like Channel 4 lite, with a lot of Welsh. Anyhow, back them, they were showing about 50% English and were screening The Old Dark House, which was shown on a Thursday night. As a lead-in to this during the preceding evenings, they would show a trailer – a clip from the film. And it was gut bustingly hilariously inappropriate. It’s making me smile just thinking about it, a real shoot yourself in the foot moment.
As the Welsh had fought hard for their channel and politically, it was and remains a sensitive issue, I often wonder what mentality was behind repeatedly showing a scene of travellers on a stormy night stranded in a flood somewhere in Wales. Seeing a light in a house in the middle of nowhere, they make their way to it and knock the door of the house in question. Karloff answers the door with a guttural grunt, before slamming it shut in the face of the visitors. The traveller (Melvin Douglas) remarks and I quote: “Even Welsh ought not sound like that”. Ya gotta laugh.
The plot itself would undoubtedly be written off as hopelessly clichéd by today’s jaded “there must be an explosion every thirty seconds” audience, but given this was the early thirties, movies about spooky houses on stormy nights, inhabited by sinister and strange individuals perhaps weren’t commonplace enough to become a parody of themselves. Although the plot is lightweight, the running time rapid, thus dictating the pace – the charm of the piece is in the angular shadowiness of the incredible set design and of course, the ensemble cast of Whale’s resident weirdoes.
The three travellers who wind up at the house are “normal” but those living there are off the hook batcrap crazy. And Whale revels in their (to put it politely) idiosyncrasies. Along with Thesiger’s Horace Femm and Karloff’s thug of a butler there’s Rebecca Femm, Horace’s obsessively religious nut-job shrew of a sister played by Eva Moore, a 102 year old family patriarch who, if he seems a tad peculiar and effeminate in his ways, you’re right – he’s played by a heavily made up woman (which kind of explains Horace Femm, I guess) and there’s the lunatic pyromaniac locked away in case he burns the house down.
It doesn’t pay to travel through Wales on a stormy night – you might well end up the reluctant guests of this lot. Needless to say, Morgan gets in a drunken rage, the shameful secret of the family gets hold of some combustible material and…..well, let’s halt the spoilers there. You’re going to have to savour the rest of this treat for yourselves. Needless to say, it comes highly recommended.
You can check it out for yourself here.
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Next movie up - Pumpkinhead (1988)
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