Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.
USA, 1932. Universal Pictures. Screenplay by Benn W. Levy, from the novel by J.B. Priestley. Cinematography by Arthur Edeson. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.. Music by David Broekman. Production Design by Russell A. Gausman. Film Editing by Clarence Kolster.
James Whale could rarely make a movie without defining a genre, and here we have him delivering one of the first major haunted house movies made in the sound era. The content itself isn’t that notable, it’s a forgettable ensemble piece about a couple (Gloria Stuart, Raymond Massey) and their friend (Melvyn Douglas) needing shelter in a dangerous storm, but the style with which it is told is remarkable and, at times, terrifying. Taking refuge in what the title aptly calls an old, dark house, the visitors are put off by the mute, threatening butler (Boris Karloff) but willing to risk it for the sake of getting in out of the torrential rain. When another couple (Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond) shows up under similar circumstances, they all band together to protect themselves against their creepy old host, his religious fanatic sister and what they’ve been warned is a madman in the attic. There aren’t the kind of thrills that would be developed in the genre, most of the story’s set-up doesn’t pay off, but the charcoal-smudged, nightmarish shadows are the sort of thing that pristine, big-budget studio movies wouldn’t allow to stand in the coming years. There are images straight out of bone-chilling Victorian photography that make up for the points of utter nonsense, like the fact that Stuart is terrified to stay in a damp and windy haunted house but puts on a skimpy negligee to sleep in anyway.