The Old Dark House was less of a horror movie than I expected, but it wasn't bad. I should have expected as much from director James Whale. Let's talk about him for a minute or two.
Whale's movies really stick out from other films from the dawn of the sound era in Hollywood. For example, he wasn't afraid to move the camera for purposes other than following the physical action. There's a scene where the camera pans across a dinner table and back, focusing on the diners and what they're eating. It doesn't necessarily advance the plot, but it's an unexpected and unique little character moment in an ensemble film with a variety of unusual roles.
Whale got great and memorable performances out of his actors. Here, in a cast featuring such heavyweights as Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton, and solid players such as Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Stuart (old Rose from Titanic), the one who stood out for me was Eva Moore as the crazy old lady who steals scenes left and right. A religious fanatic, she mocks her brother, Ernest Thesiger, for his weakness and taunts Stuart in this terrific scene where she goes into the history of her effed up family.
Notice in this scene in particular how the shots are composed and edited: During her soliloquy, we see Moore surrounded by candles in one moment, then there's a cut to another shot of her, deeper in shadow, and then another cut to a bizarre, distorted image of Moore through a cracked mirror. After she's gone, we see Stuart looking at herself through that same distorted mirror and then there are cuts to those previous shots of Moore, as her words ("Laughter and sin!") echo through Stuart's brain and freak her out. Whale creates a sense of dread and paranoia with this sequence, and he pulls it off brilliantly, but it's Moore who sells this scene as her character's jealousy and spite towards her family comes gushing forth, taking out her frustrations on poor Stuart. Dynamite stuff.
|This was another nice character moment.
There's a disclaimer in the beginning of House which clarifies that Karloff is, indeed, the same guy from Frankenstein. It turns out that his name was omitted from the publicity materials for that movie (but not from the closing credits), so House is actually his first credited starring role. In the early days of his career, he, like Greta Garbo, was a one-name-wonder, billed as simply "Karloff." (Nobody does that these days, it seems, except pop singers.) His role as the stalking butler isn't far removed from that of the Frankenstein monster, though I think he's better in that than in this.
Whale had the goods, having directed some of the most iconic monster movies of all time, including Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, of course. The 1998 film Gods and Monsters was a wonderful tribute to the man, as portrayed by Ian McKellen. If you've never seen it, it's worth checking out.