The Old Dark House (1932 film)

The Old Dark House is a 1932 American pre-Code comedy horror film directed by James Whale. It is based on the novel Benighted (1927) by J.B. Priestley.[1][2] The ensemble cast includes Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, and Ernest Thesiger.

The Old Dark House
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJames Whale
Produced byCarl Laemmle Jr.
Written by
Based onBenighted (1927 novel)
by J. B. Priestley
CinematographyArthur Edeson
Edited byClarence Kolster
Universal Pictures
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • October 20, 1932 (1932-10-20)
Running time
72 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$250,000 (est)


Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey), his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart), and their friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) are lost while driving at night in a heavy storm. They come upon an old house in the Welsh countryside where they receive shelter by Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) and his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore). Horace fears that the storm will trap the guests inside. He also warns them that their mute butler Morgan (Boris Karloff) is a dangerous heavy drinker. As Rebecca escorts Margaret to a bedroom to change clothes, she tells her about the Femm family, which Rebecca says was sinful and godless. She accuses Margaret of being sinful as well. Rebecca reveals that her 102-year-old father, Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon), still lives in the house.

During dinner, the group are joined by Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and a chorus girl with the stage name Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond), who also seek refuge from the storm. As the group chats by the fireplace, Gladys reveals her real last name is Perkins. Roger and Gladys go to retrieve some whiskey from his car. The electric lights go out and Rebecca tells Horace to get a lamp from an upstairs landing. Horace is afraid to go upstairs, so Philip goes instead. As he fetches the lamp, he notices a locked room and hears a voice coming from another room. William goes to help Rebecca close a window, leaving Margaret alone. Morgan, now drunk, attacks her and chases her up the stairs to Philip, who is coming down with the lamp. Philip throws the lamp at Morgan, knocking him down the stairs.

Roger and Gladys begin flirting while they drink and smoke. Gladys says her relationship with William is platonic, and suggests she should live with Roger instead. They go back to the house, where they wake up William and tell him about their new romance. Meanwhile, Philip and Margaret go into the room where he heard the voice; they find Roderick Femm there. He warns them about his eldest son, Saul (Brember Wills), a crazed pyromaniac kept in the locked room. Philip and Margaret discover that Morgan has let Saul out; they go downstairs to warn the other guests. Morgan comes downstairs and charges at Margaret. Philip and William drag Morgan into the kitchen while Rebecca flees to her bedroom. Roger tells Margaret and Gladys to hide in a closet. Saul comes downstairs and knocks Roger out. Saul steals a burning branch from the fireplace and sets fire to a curtain before Roger awakes. They fight and fall off a landing; Saul is killed and Roger injured. Morgan breaks out of the kitchen and returns to the main room. He frees Margaret and Gladys from the closet before taking Saul's body upstairs.

The next morning, the storm has stopped. Saul's attempt at burning the house has caused little damage. Philip and Margaret leave to get an ambulance, while Gladys and William stay behind to tend to Roger's injuries. Roger awakes and asks Gladys to marry him.


Development and production

Universal Studios producer Carl Laemmle Jr. invited screenwriter Benn Levy from England to Universal City after being impressed with Levy's screenplay for Waterloo Bridge (1931), which was also directed by James Whale. Levy was loaned to Paramount Pictures, where he worked on the screenplay for Devil and the Deep. When Levy finished work on the film, he returned to Universal to start work on The Old Dark House.[3] The film is based on novel Benighted (1927) by J. B. Priestley, about post-World War I disillusionment.[4] It was published in the United States under the same title as the film.[5] Adapted for the screen by R. C. Sherriff and Benn Levy, the motion picture follows the original plot of the book, while adding levels of comedy to the story.[4]

The Old Dark House appeared on Universal's schedule in February 1932 and the script was submitted to the Hays Office in March. Filming was completed by May 1932.[3] Whale worked again with many collaborators from his previous films, including Arthur Edeson, who was the cinematographer for Frankenstein (1931) and Waterloo Bridge and set designer Charles D. Hall had also worked with Whale on Frankenstein. Whale's film, Journey's End (1930), was based on R. C. Sherriff's play of the same name.[6][7]

According to the Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural, the Femm family's ancient patriarch was played by actress Elspeth Dudgeon (1871–1955) (credited as "John Dudgeon"), because Whale could not find a male actor who looked old enough for the role.[8]

It was Charles Laughton's first Hollywood film.

Original release and reception

The Old Dark House was previewed in early July 1932.[3] In the United States, Variety and The Hollywood Filmograph gave the film negative reviews, with Variety calling it a "somewhat inane picture".[9] All nine of the New York City dailies gave the film positive reviews.[3]

The New York Times praised the film, stating, "there is a wealth of talent in this production... like Frankenstein, [it] had the advantage of being directed by James Whale, who again proves his ability."[9][10] The film did well at the box office in the first week of release, but later suffered through negative word of mouth.[3] It was booked for three weeks at the Rialto Theatre in New York City, but the audience turn-out dropped to less than half in its second week and the film was pulled after ten days. The film performed better in the United Kingdom, where it broke house records at the Capitol Theatre in London.[3][11] It was re-issued into theaters in 1939.[3]

Rediscovery and reputation

In 1957, Universal Studios lost the rights to the original story,[3] and a remake was released in 1963 directed by William Castle. For many years, the original version was considered a lost film and gained a tremendous reputation as one of the pre-eminent gothic horror films. Director Curtis Harrington, a friend of Whale, helped to rediscover The Old Dark House, having repeatedly asked Universal Studios to locate the film negative. Harrington eventually discovered a print of the film in the vaults of Universal in 1968.[5] He persuaded the George Eastman House film archive to finance a new duplicate negative of the poorly kept first reel,[12] and restore the rest of the film.

Modern reception has been more generally positive than reviews in 1932, with the film-ranking website Rotten Tomatoes reporting that 100% of its listed critics have given the film positive reviews, based upon 23 reviews with an average rating of 8.49 out of 10.[13] Ali Catterall of Channel 4 referred to the film as "Impressively atmospheric and hilariously grim,"[14] and Time Out London praised the film; "Whale manages to parody the conventions of the dark house horror genre as he creates them, in which respect the film remains entirely modern."[15] Karl Williams of the film database Allmovie wrote, "by the 1960s [the film had] attained a grail-like status among fans of director James Whale ... The Old Dark House came to be reconsidered a cult gem, part of the renewal of interest in Whale's talents many years after his creative peak."[12]

In the early 2010s, Time Out conducted a poll of several authors, directors, actors and critics who had worked within the horror genre to determine their top horror films.[16] The Old Dark House placed at number 71 on their top 100 list.[17]

See also


  1. Erickson, Hal. "The Old Dark House". Allmovie. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved January 23, 2013.
  2. Hallenbeck 2009, p. 21
  3. The Old Dark House (Booklet). James Whale. New York, New York: Kino Video. 1999 [1932]. K113.CS1 maint: others (link)
  4. Nollen 1991, p. 63
  5. Booklet essay of the Region 2 Network DVD
  6. Mank 2001, p. 38
  7. Nollen 1991, p. 66
  8. Sullivan, Jack, ed. (1986). Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural. New York City: Viking. p. 308.
  9. Mank 2001, p. 48
  10. Hall, Mordaunt (October 28, 1932). "Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton and Raymond Massey in a Film of Priestley's 'The Old Dark House'". New York Times.
  11. Stephen Jacobs, Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster, Tomahawk Press, 2011, p. 117
  12. Williams, Karl. "The Old Dark House > Review". Allmovie. Retrieved May 4, 2009.
  13. "The Old Dark House – Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. IGN Entertainment, Inc. Retrieved December 13, 2018.
  14. "The Old Dark House Movie Review (1932) From Channel 4". Channel 4. Retrieved May 4, 2009.
  15. "The Old Dark House Review. Movie Review. Time Out London". Time Out. Retrieved May 4, 2009.
  16. "The 100 best horror films". Time Out. Retrieved April 13, 2014.
  17. NF. "The 100 best horror films: the list". Time Out. Retrieved April 13, 2014.

Further reading

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