Halloween Review: The Old Dark House


Yes, boys and ghouls, it’s time once again for the Bureau’s Halloween Reviews. This year’s hellish harvest takes picks from the early days of talking film to last summer, with the emphasis on scary houses and homes under attack.

Between Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, many of the same people adapted J.B. Priestly’s bizarre (and, at present, out of print) 1927 novel Benighted into the archetypal horror/dark comedy. Rocky Horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Addams Family, Scooby-Doo and countless other productions have since echoed this oddball film.1

“Fine stuff, but it’ll rot. Finer stuff still, but it’ll rot, too.”
Rebecca, feeling Margaret’s gown, and then her skin.

Cast and Crew

Director: James Whale
Writers: J.B. Priestly (novel) and Benn W. Levy.

Boris Karloff as Morgan
Melvyn Douglas as Roger Penderel
Ernest Thesiger as Horace Femm
Eva Moore as Rebecca Femm
Raymond Massey as Philip Waverton
Gloria Stuart2 as Margaret Waverton
Charles Laughton as Sir William Porterhouse
Lilian Bond as Gladys Perkins
Elspeth Dudgeon3 as Sir Roderick Femm
Brember Willis as Saul

Available from Amazon.


A storm forces an ill-sorted group of travelers to spend the night in an old, dark house occupied by one of the most bizarrely dysfunctional families in cinematic history. The Femms, no one will be surprised to learn, guard an old, dark secret.

Actually, they guard a few of these.

High Point

The first third of the movie works very well, establishing a farcical mood that still admits horrors. The film works best when it focuses on the Femm Family.

Ernest Thesiger shines as the bizarre and effeminate Horace, a predecessor of sorts to Dr. Pretorius, the character he would play in Bride of Frankenstein. Eva Moore gives a hilariously disturbed performance as fanatical Rebecca, while an elderly Elspeth Dudgeon plays the family’s decaying male patriarch. And these are not the strangest of the lot. The Femms make Charles Addams‘ family seem cosily hospitable.

Low Point

The film becomes a comparatively conventional horror movie in the final act, losing some of its quirky, deranged charm.

The Review

Originality: 4/6 Creepy old houses with unintended guests were hardly new to horror, even in 1932, but this may be one of the first films to use this particular plot, and possibly the first time car trouble brought the heroes and victims to the horror.4

Effects 4/6 The only effects consist of a passable but obviously studio rainstorm and some great lighting. Universal, having established the horror movie genre when films were silent, knew how to use light and shadow to effect.

Story 5/6 This is a tale of characters and mood. The plot serves its purpose.

Acting 6/6 The film features a broader style of acting than we’re used to in films, but the excellent cast does that style very well. Ernest Thesiger manages to be both creepy and funny as effeminate Horace. It takes talent to draw the humour from a line like, “Have a potato.” Karloff, fresh from his success as the Frankenstein Monster, plays yet another inarticulate giant who exerts a powerful sense of menace without entirely losing our sympathy.

Production 4/6 The film manages on a comparatively low budget.

Emotional Response 5/6

Overall 5/6 This film established a foundation. While it fared better in the U.K. than at home, horror films everywhere have been building on it for generations.

In total, The Old Dark House receives 33/42.


1. William Castle remade the film itself in 1963. That production does not have the most positive reputation. At that point in history, the original was believed lost. The negative was rediscovered a few years later, and the film was restored.

2. More recently known as old Rose from Titanic.

3. Elspeth was billed under a male name, John Dudgeon. Her other great contribution to horror occurs in the disastrous and little-seen Sh! The Octopus, where her transformation, performed live on camera, remains the only worthwhile scene. She also appears briefly, uncredited, in The Bride of Frankenstein.

4. The Monster (1925), starring Lon Chaney, used the device a few years earlier, but the villains set up the road accident, so it’s not quite the same.