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The Unconventional Haunts in ‘The Old Dark House’

No ghosts or spirits inhabit the haunted house in this once lost Universal horror film. What is still alive is much scarier.
The Old Dark House
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on October 11th, 2020

Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she highlights The Old Dark House.

For many horror movies, appreciation doesn’t come until years after its release. The Old Dark House is a great example of this journey that horror movies take to finally reach the right audience. Despite being among the legendary early Universal horror movies of the 1930s, it didn’t remain one of the must-see releases of the era like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. This odd thriller was buried in the filmographies of director James Whale and lead actor Boris Karloff after they had both moved on from their classic monsters. Thankfully, The Old Dark House was unearthed from Universal’s vault decades later. Now, we can enjoy the atmospheric, off-beat horror of this pre-Code look at a haunted house.

Adapted from the J.B. Priestly novel BenightedThe Old Dark House finds married couple Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margaret (Gloria Stuart) and their bachelor friend Roger (Melvyn Douglas) stuck driving in a horrendous storm. The rain pours into their bumping jalopy, and they barely miss a landslide that prevents them from turning back. Luckily, they come upon a house with a light on inside. Once past the boorish butler, Morgan (Karloff), the troupe realizes that the Femm family has some dark secrets hiding in the house. Their safe haven is really filled with a dysfunctional and violent family that could keep them and another pair of travelers from making it to daylight.  

Where most haunted house stories use ghosts and evil spirits to frighten strangers, The Old Dark House‘s scares come from those still alive in the house. Siblings Rebecca and Horace Femm are weird, even hostile hosts to their guests. They take them to scary parts of the house and traumatize them worse than any intangible ghost could. In one of the most memorable scenes, Rebecca brings Margaret to an empty bedroom so that she can change out of her wet clothes. As Margaret changes into a totally out-of-place cocktail gown, Rebecca chastises her for embracing her beauty and ultimately her sexuality, just like Rebecca’s dead sister did years ago. She implies that her sister’s sinful ways were the cause of her death and Margaret is soon to follow. The beauty she holds dear will soon fade and so will Margaret herself.

The camera shows Rebecca through distorted broken mirrors, giving her an evil and haggish look as she berates Margaret. When Rebecca leaves the room, Margaret stares at her own distorted reflection in the mirror and is horrified at what she sees. Margaret has visions of Rebecca laughing at her in the broken mirrors and Morgan’s predatory gaze. Even if just for a scene, Rebecca has driven Margaret to her level of madness. She doesn’t do this by convincing Margaret that her sister’s ghost will haunt her. She brings a more existential terror to Margaret by having her fear the end to everything Rebecca didn’t have in life: beauty, sex, and love. The result is a more long-lasting trauma than any ghost could incite.

Both Rebecca and Horace warn their guests that their “dumb” butler is one to be feared. Morgan is oftentimes a docile barbarian for the family to take advantage of. When he drinks, though, he wreaks havoc on their family and ravages anything in sight. He even tends to drunkenly let out an even more dangerous member of the family. Coincidentally, he is drinking tonight.

In gruesome makeup, Karloff groans and slowly embarks on his victims in this role, as he does as his other monsters. The underlying humanity in Karloff’s creatures from Frankenstein or The Mummy is not as pronounced in Morgan. The family makes it clear that he has no conscience to appeal to, which makes him an unreachable violent offender. Morgan resembles the indestructible slashers that came decades later in Halloween and the Friday the 13th sequels more than the other characters Karloff is remembered for. There is no evil science or supernatural reason for his preying on the strangers in the house. We are made to believe that he is just a violent human being because he wants to be, and there is no stopping him.

The Old Dark House has a plot set-up that has since become a horror staple. Travelers, usually young people, get lost and stumble upon a house they think will be their saving grace, but becomes their personal hell. Think of how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Wrong Turn all use this kind of story to set up a violent killing spree. The Old Dark House doesn’t aim for that same violent conquest. It traumatizes its guests by way of torture that leaves them all living, but it’s interesting that this movie foreshadowed a kind of horror story that would become popular much later in history.

Remarkably, the movies that in retrospect seem to be influenced by The Old Dark House actually came out before the movie had a significant place in horror history. Upon its initial release in 1932, The Old Dark House didn’t draw the crowd that Universal was expecting by pairing up Whale and Karloff just a year after their hit Frankenstein. It did very well in England, partly because most of the actors as well as the source material were English. However, audience numbers plummeted by the second week of its run in the United States. Some theaters pulled the movie from playing after just ten days, and it faded from view.

Universal then buried the film in its archives while Whale and Karloff went on to make more popular movies, both together and apart, like The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Black Cat. The allure of the Universal horror films that were popular during the 1930s soon became out of style once World War II began and showed the world scarier monsters than any mummy or vampire. To make matters worse for The Old Dark House, Universal then lost the rights to the story in 1957, preventing the sort of rerelease that kept old movies in the minds of audiences as time passed.

This also came just before the 1930s horror movies had a resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s. Karloff and Bela Lugosi, once thought to be washed up stars of the past, became a campy delight for young people. As other old horror movies were airing on television for a new generation of horror fans, The Old Dark House stayed buried. That is until 1968 when Whale’s friend Curtis Harrington begged Universal to give him a copy of the original negative. It was in very poor condition and still could not air on television. For a long time, the only way to see The Old Dark House was to watch poor, often bootlegged prints of the film in late-night screenings. The George Eastman House film archive eventually duplicated and restored the negative, and it was finally broadcast on television in 1994.

Since then, it has given us a funny, yet still chilling Universal film to explore. The Old Dark House is the kind of kitschy, creepy Old Hollywood movie that is a delight to watch with a modern eye. That eye may have more of a knack at sensing gay undertones in the characters than did 1930s audiences, which brings a whole new meaning to this film today. The Old Dark House holds its own against the other Universal classics in terror and provides a self-awareness that the classics lack.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_