Arts

Cult Movie: The Old Dark House is the original spooky mansion mystery

The Old Dark House (1932), directed by James Whale 
Ralph McLean

MUCH of what we know today as 'classic horror' was delivered fully formed by Universal Studios in the 1930s.

To this day, when we think of onscreen Draculas the suave Eastern European tones of Bela Lugosi, and the studio’s 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, spring immediately to mind.

Likewise, the lumbering, blot jawed monster that Boris Karloff, and make-up man Jack Pierce, created for the Universal version of Frankenstein the same year remains the definitive cinematic portrayal of Mary Shelly’s literary creation for many.

In 1932 James Whale, the same director who birthed both of those game-changing films, made an equally influential movie for the studio that came to define the classic old dark mansion mystery.

The Old Dark House is a masterpiece of 1930s mood and menace. Long considered a 'lost' film, it was rediscovered a few years back and has now been given a glorious 4K restoration job that you can enjoy at the Queen's Film Theatre in Belfast from tonight.

The creaky old house mystery had been a stage favourite for years, of course, and success stories like The Cat And The Canary (1926) prove that others had been there before him, but Whale’s film has a mix of scares, laughs and unease that is truly unique.

All the classic requirements for this type of film are present and correct here. A band of sophisticated travellers find themselves seeking refuge in a creepy old Welsh mansion when a rainstorm hits hard. There they meet a range of manic characters that range from the deaf owner Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore), her horribly wizened brother Horace (Ernest Thesiger) and a hulking psycho of a butler called Morgan (Boris Karloff) whose scarred visage remains one of the most iconic images of the entire film.

Meanwhile, up in a locked bedroom, the 102-year-old father of the family, Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon), is wasting slowly away.

Our bewildered visitors are forced to spend the night in the old house and they swiftly find out that it holds more than its fair share of nasty secrets.

There are none of the trap doors and mysterious passages that pop up in most old house epics but Whale has a ball with the creepy array of characters and delights in making the most of the dysfunctional family stories that lie at the heart of the whole nightmarish scenario.

As such, it feels almost like a satire at times on family values and the secrets that all families hold in their darkest corners. Whale enjoys playing with the morality of the time and there are great, crowd-pleasing performances from the likes of Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas and Lilian Bond.

There are moments of genuine horror but mostly it’s all off set with jet-black humour and the stunning visuals of cinematographer Arthur Edeson and art director Charles D Hall, all seen now in their full crisp black and white glory thanks to this stunning restoration.

:: The Old Dark House, QFT Belfast, tonight until May 3.

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