There is a running gag in Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace involving the psychotic Jonathan Brewster, whose drunken plastic surgeon cut him to look like Boris Karloff. Brewster was played by Raymond Massey, who knew full well what Karloff looked like, because they co-starred together in classic, but under-appreciated gothic romp twelve years earlier. It had a cast for the ages, yet Universal allowed the film to waste away to an almost unwatchable state. Happily, a spiffy new 4K restoration of James Whale’s Old Dark House (made possible by late cult director Curtis Harrington) opens this week in New York (trailer here).
Why yes, it was a dark and stormy night. So much so in fact, the Wavertons (Philip and Margaret) and their snarky pal Roger Penderel in the back seat, are forced to seek shelter in the creaky old Femm family mansion. Dissolute Horace Femm and his moralizing sister Rebecca are clearly uncomfortable at the prospect of putting them up for the night, but they reluctantly relent. The Femms are odd, but it is their hirsute mute butler Morgan, who gives everyone the creeps. Soon, they are joined by more weary travelers: the blustery but deeply sad Sir William Porterhouse and his heart-of-gold chorus girl girlfriend Gladys “DuCane” Perkins.
Before you can say “bump in the night,” Morgan gets roaring drunk and starts intimidating the heck out of everyone. That makes the Femm siblings act even weirder. Eventually, the Wavertons realize there are more Femms hidden away upstairs, who were not able or not allowed to come to dinner.
Bizarrely, Old Dark House was a flop in America (but a smash hit in England), yet it since has become an archetypal classic of gothic cinema. We even call them “old dark house movies.” ODH is richly atmospheric, featuring wonderfully sinister sets and props, but the narrative is more larky than scary. However, there is method to its madcapness. Through Penderel, the disillusioned WWI veteran, screenwriters R.C. Sheriff and Benn W. Levy inject some interesting subtext, suggesting gothic horror pales in comparison to the ghastly horrors of trench warfare and mustard gas.
Regardless, whenever Karloff glowers into the camera as the shaggy-haired Morgan, it is just plain awesome. ODH was his first horror movie following Frankenstein, released before The Mummy and The Mask of Fu Manchu. Apparently. Universal had yet to fully figure out how to market him.
Of course, in retrospect, ODH represents a once in a lifetime collection of talents. It assembled Frankenstein director Whale, Karloff, and character actor Ernest Thesiger (as Horace Femm) three years before their iconic work in Bride of Frankenstein. It also happened to be Charles Laughton’s first Hollywood movie and an early film in the careers of Massey, Melvyn Douglas (whose final movie role came in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story) and Gloria Stuart (who become the oldest Oscar nominee for Titanic). Plus, there is a weird, gender-bending element due to Elspeth Dudgeon (who also appeared in Bride), playing a wizened old man (and billed under the name John Dudgeon).