Review of “The Old Dark House” (1932)

trailer from YouTube

This is our latest Saturday night pizza and bad movie offering. Last week, Svengoolie was unavailable. The cable channel has not explained. Oh, well. The dearly beloved found the film scheduled for then, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, through the library. It should arrive shortly. This week’s film is a bit less cheery.


Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their friend Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) are lost in a storm in the Welsh countryside. After a landslide cuts off their retreat, they stop at a creepy dark old house when the see a light burning.

(Here I heard Brad and Janet singing, “There’s a light…”)

They drive up to the house and bang on the door. Eventually, it swings inward wide enough to reveal a hideous, scared face. The party explains their predicament and asks for shelter. The man (Boris Karloff) mumbles something and closes the door.

While our heroes complain outside, a gong sounds. The door opens again, and the man waves them inside. The homeowner, Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), a tall, thin man with a pinched face, then greets them. He explains the bulter, Morgan, is mute (“dumb”) and had a difficult time telling him what was going on. With some reluctance, he agrees to let them stay the night. His sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore), then appears holding a candle, demanding to know who the people are and what they want. On being informed of the situation, she says, “They can’t stay here.” She further tells them, “No beds. You can’t have beds.”

The travelers agree to sit up around the fire. Two more storm refugees arrive, the obnoxious Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his companion, the chorus girl, Gladys.

If it were that simple.


The action is slow. The eccentric people—the horrifically scarred, mute butler; the easily panicked Horace Femm; and his deaf, fanatically religious sister Rebecca are all outrageous, over-the-top characters. The intent is to engage viewers in figuring these people out. (Good luck!)

An underlying sardonic humor runs just below the surface of the dialogue. Philip and Margaret squabble during the drive. When it becomes clear that the three are lost, Philip says, “Ten to one, we don’t see Shrewsbury tonight.”

“Oh,” Penderel says, “I don’t mind.”

When Morgan answers the door mumbling, Penderel says, “Even Welsh ought not sound like that.”

There is also absurdity. A mute butler and a deaf sister? Some of the dialogue plays on Rebecca’s deafness. I found this in bad taste, but consider the era when the film was made.

Not all of the subtext jumps out at the viewer. Some is obscured by changing times. Penderel seems to be a joker, but he’s haunted by the horrors of the Great War. Even the money-grubbing Porterhouse, who appears jovial and obnoxious, grieves for his wife. He blames her death on the upper class—especially upper-class women—like Margaret Waverton.

At an uncomfortable dinner, Horace tries to distract everyone and ignore all conflict with one of the movie’s taglines, “Have a potato.” This is after the loud, obnoxious Porterhouse has proclaimed (with a bit of song) how excited he is about roast beef.

The guests may have their problems, but those problems pale in comparison to those of the inhabitants of the house. All you need is Jane Eyre to show up for a governess job.

One of the first bits of dialogue is Philip Waverton swearing at the storm. A pre-Hayes Code film, it could get away with some salty language and some mild—really mild—mentions of sex.

Because the director, James Whalen, was gay, many tend to find expressions of gay sexuality in the movie. IMHO, there’s some reaching. One of the tenderest scenes is between two men. Is it an expression of gay love? Or merely human affection as one character dies? A woman plays one male character. Is that an expression of gender-bending? Could there have been a more mundane reason, such as a need for a frail actor with small bone structure? I don’t know.

Genuine menace appears in the movie as well as genuine silliness. In fact, it was remade as a comedy in 1963.

This movie is also reputed to be one of the inspirations behind The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Aside from the initial setup, there is little resemblance, but I can still see it.

I liked this movie, but it takes a little effort to get what’s happening. The big surprise adds depth but is not the point of the flick. Nevertheless, it answers (in part) Horace’s question of why anyone who didn’t have to would live there.

The Old Dark House can be watched free with ads here.

Title: The Old Dark House (1932)

Directed by
James Whale

Writing Credits
J.B. Priestley…(from the novel The Benighted by) (as J.B. Priestly)
Benn W. Levy…(screenplay)
R.C. Sherriff…(additional dialogue) (uncredited)

Cast (in credits order)
Boris Karloff…Morgan
Melvyn Douglas…Penderel
Charles Laughton…Sir William Porterhouse
Lilian Bond…Gladys (as Lillian Bond)
Ernest Thesiger…Horace Femm
Eva Moore…Rebecca Femm
Raymond Massey…Philip Waverton
Gloria Stuart…Margaret Waverton
Elspeth Dudgeon…Sir Roderick Femm (as John Dudgeon)
Brember Wills…Saul Femm

Released: 1932
Length: 1 hour, 12 minutes

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

2 thoughts on “Review of “The Old Dark House” (1932)

  1. I might actually give watching this one a try. If for no other reason than to see how many tropes are used in the telling of the tale. And I like Charles L and Melvyn D as actors.

    1. I hope you enjoy it if you do. I’ll be interested in hearing what you think of it. The movie in the link I included has been restored. There are some out there that have not been restored and are difficult to watch. It’s also available for rent w/o ads. The library may be able to get it for you as well. The DVD/blue ray versions have the advantage of often containing commentary or liner notes.

      Happy viewing!

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