Classic Horror Movie Week, Day 5: The Old, Dark House

Oct 31 2008

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I’ve saved the best for last.

I stumbled on this film on an internet search for classic horror movies. It was made in 1932, directed by James Whale (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Show Boat, The Man in the Iron Mask), and produced by the great Carl Laemmle, Jr. (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, All Quiet on the Western Front), and stars a first-rate group of actors. It doesn’t matter who they are; they all play their roles perfectly.

It starts with the hoariest of scary movie cliches: a couple folks are out driving in a terrible storm, and take refuge in an Old, Dark House. At least they aren’t horny teenagers, I suppose.

The house’s tenants hide dark secrets, of course, which are slowly revealed over the course of the night. It feels like a stage play, at times, and I mean that as a compliment; I felt the stage’s intensity as characters faced off.

One relationship shifts dramatically in the course of the night, and that was part of my big surprise. This being 1932, not that far into the talkie era, the film industry’s code of decency hadn’t quite solidified yet. As such, not only do we see a woman change out of a dress, wearing only a short shift beneath it, we’re treated to this bit of dialogue from a girl describing her boyfriend:

Gladys He gives me a little money. Oh, not very much, just enough to keep me going. You probably won’t believe me, but…Bill doesn’t…he doesn’t expect anything. D’you know what I mean by “anything?”
Bill Yes, I know what you mean by “anything.”

Remarkable. We all know exactly what she means, but it’s entirely implied.

In any event, the dark secrets are revealed, one by one. And it’s done masterfully. The dread just builds, and builds, and builds, until a final climactic confrontation. There’s nothing magical or fantastical about it; no ancient spells or science fiction hand-waving (though the family is said to be under a curse). It’s just personalities, people, some deranged and some afraid and some grimly determined to get through it all.

A tremendous film.

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