“It was a dark, and stormy night…”
It’s easy to see why The Old Dark House rarely gets brought up among classic horror, so little of note happens during the picture. Rather, the chief success of this James Whale feature is the oppressively dark atmosphere. It’s locked into place when a group of friends knocks on the door of the foreboding Flemm mansion looking to escape a heavy storm and their greeted by a bedraggled, monosyllabic Boris Karloff.
The various members of the Flemm family are balanced in their insanities and physical decrepitude. Each claims to be the sane one, and over the course of the film each reveals themselves to be furthest from that.
The Old Dark House could be written off as a tease or an exercise. There’s no body count, which for some is the sole metric to grade horror films. When the night ends, the friends leave the Flemms and the idiosyncrasies behind, physically unscathed. But The Old Dark House stayed with me much longer than most genre work. A film that is a work of almost pure atmosphere is a welcome novelty. Even if the payoff is an anti climax I can appreciate the layers of setup and mythology, wonderful cinematography and sets.
Director James Whale was openly gay, and many cinephiles have scoured his Frankenstein films for metaphors and commentary on his view of his homosexuality. Quite frankly, there’s not much there to hang such theories on. Such scrutiny is better applied to The Old Dark House which reveals one of its characters to be gay. Contrary to the trend of other period films, indeed most films throughout the first three quarters of the twentieth century, this man is painted not as a criminal or creature of the underworld but instead as pitiable and willing to pay for simple companionship and to maintain social appearances.