Sunday, July 07, 2002


Back in the 60's, when I was 11 or 12 and was a big fan of horror movies, I saw a remake of OLD DARK HOUSE with Tom Poston. I remember thinking it was sort of funny, but also that as a kid, I didn't get a lot of the humor. The original movie, I discovered later, was considered to be a lost classic. Just a few years ago, I saw the Poston movie on TV and was surprised how terrible it was--I didn't even finish watching it. Then, the original was re-discovered and AMC showed it (back when they actually showed "classic" movies) on a Film Preservation weekend. It was an odd movie, to say the least: sort of funny, a little bit creepy, but mostly just weird. Afterward, I was left still not sure what this movie was all about. When I saw recently that it was on DVD, and supposedly in better shape than the print that AMC showed, I decided to give it another try.

The DVD print is in much better shape, although given that almost all of the action takes place in, yep, an old dark house, there were still some scenes without a lot of detail. The author of GOLDEN HORRORS calls this movie the only "flawless" horror movie of the 30's, but in many ways, I'd say that it isn't really a horror movie at all. Five travelers are stranded by very bad weather in an old, dark house inhabited by an eccentric (today, we'd say "dysfunctional") family, the Femms--since James Whale directed it and his buddy Ernest Thesiger plays a family member, I'm sure that puns on the family name were flying fast and furious during production. Thesiger is Horace, the nervous brother; Eva Moore is his sister Rebecca who is mostly deaf. Horace is disdainful of his sister's religion, a theme that crops up occasionally. There's a mute and scary butler (Boris Karloff who, though given top billing, really doesn't have much to do) who is frequently on the verge of being threatening; in one scene, he seems to try to rape a young woman, but he exhibits a tender side at the end. Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, and Gloria Stuart are among the stranded travelers--Stuart is especially effective as a "damsel in distress"--and a couple of other family members are hidden away upstairs to give us the frights. But aside from a couple of horror-movie scare moments, it's more a character-driven dark comedy, even if the characters don't ultimately come to much. It's a very odd film, in plot and tone, not really creepy or funny enough for me, though Thesiger's "Have a potato!" scene is memorable.

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