Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: As The Conjuring creeps into theaters, we look back on some of our favorite old-dark-house movies.
The Old Dark House (1932)
Creaky-mansion mysteries were a staple of stage and screen throughout the 1920s and early ’30s. The year after James Whale directed Frankenstein, he tried his hand at that genre; the result was The Old Dark House, a macabre mix of Expressionist horror and smart-alecky comedy. The film’s self-referential humor—which anticipated Whale’s own Bride Of Frankenstein—didn’t go over well with audiences, and the movie flopped so hard that, at one point, no prints of it existed in circulation. Rediscovered in the 1960s, The Old Dark House has rightly become something of a minor classic, its reputation effectively eclipsing the movies it originally set out to parody.
The film follows a group of travelers—including Charles Laughton, making his Hollywood debut—who are stranded at an isolated mansion by a rainstorm. While their host, aristocratic kook Ernest Thesiger (best known as Bride Of Frankenstein’s Doctor Pretorius), drops hints about a dark family secret, the travelers chat and flirt, ignoring the warnings of Thesiger’s deaf sister and the menacing stare of the mansion’s mute butler, Boris Karloff.
As much as The Old Dark House is a send-up of Gothic horror conventions, it works equally well as a horror movie, thanks in no small part to Whale’s visual sensibility, which emphasizes strange textures and surfaces: curved mirrors, cobwebs, over-sized shadows. One shot is framed from the perspective of a fireplace, with flames dancing along the lower half of the screen. As a result, the movie’s humor eventually becomes unsettling, an effect best encapsulated by Brember Wills’ scene-stealing turn as an absent-minded psychopath. The fact that he doesn't understand that he’s creepy only makes him creepier; for the movie’s sarcastic protagonists, nothing is scarier than a total lack of self-awareness.
Availability: Disc delivery via Netflix and streaming for free on YouTube.