Some movies have a reputation that is larger than the actual film. If a film is rather rarely seen and has been considered lost for long times, this reputation can easily take on mammothly proportions, as is the case with James Whale’s "The Old Dark House". I had heard and read much about the film in the past, heard about its status on the brink of extinction. Although prints of the film had been available in Europe after World War II, the film had to be considered lost to US audiences until 1968 when director Curtis Harrington, a friend of the later James Whale, made it a personal obligation of his to uncover the film’s negative from Universal’s film vaults where it sat after Universal’s rights to the movie had expired. It took a lot of effort on his behalf to physically find the negative and then have it completely restored by the Eastman House, a subsidiary of Kodak Eastman that is specialized in restoring deteriorated films. In the early 70s finally, James Whale’s "The Old Dark House" was fully restored and presented to audiences.
In the meanwhile the picture had taken on a gigantic reputation as Whale’s ultimate work. Impressed by the various beautiful still photographs that were available for the film and the ominously lit pictures with Boris Karloff, the film steadily generated expectations as one of the biggest gothic horror films ever. Interestingly, "The Old Dark House" is a film that will undoubtedly disappoint most viewers who see the film for the first time. That is not because it is a bad film but because the film is different that what those still images suggested. You will not see Boris Karloff as the menacingly looming monster as suggested by the stills and there is nothing really shocking about the film. However upon second viewing, the film will start to emanate a beauty that is almost unparalleled by any other gothic horror film. Without the expectancy of horrific things to happen, the viewer finally has the time to enjoy the movie’s images, take them in and behold their artistic and stylistic beauty. There is not really much going on in the film. During a vehement rainstorm five people are stranded at an ominous old house and have to share the night with the weird and eccentric owners. Each of the characters in the film is clearly defined and each one has its edges that we learn to see as the night progresses. The characters are the central focus of the film, and for emphasis Whale stages the film almost entirely like a theater piece. Most of the film takes place in one room where actors have their dramatic entrances and exits, including the extreme close-ups when they enter the screen for the first time - an unwritten law at the time. Carefully Whale presents the characters and when finally the film’s most anticipated character enters the stage during the film’s finale he does so extremely dramatically to an almost empty stage for greatest effect.
Nevertheless, "The Old Dark House" is a very aesthetic and cinematic film and every picture, ever camera angle, every light has been placed and chosen for a purpose. The smooth camera movements are elaborate and clearly designed to get the best out of the limited sets. Every shot has been carefully framed and it is remarkable how Whale made use of the film’s budget to create something that looks and feels larger than life by actually showing less, but in a very certain way. Take the titular old dark house for example. Whale stays away from using it as the visual element of evil and shows us the complete house in only one single shot for a very brief moment. Long enough to set the stage for the film’s morbid setting, but not enough to make it a presence.
"The Old Dark House" is clearly one of the best films of its genre, eclipsing films like "The Cat and The Canary" or any other of the early haunted house films. Whale used influences from these films to create something that is better still, absorbing their key elements and adding his very own touch to it. He leaves much to the viewers imagination and works actually the best when it is not showing certain things. His characters are strong, vulnerable and eccentric as you would expect from the film, but they are also very sarcastic and humorous, giving "The Old Dark House" a very own flair. Although often threatening the characters in the film often win over the viewer with a short quip, making the character almost sympathetic for a little while, only to turn around as the threat they were originally perceived as, during the film’s last act. The way Whale uses the character’s to play with the viewer once again shows his masterly talents. Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore as the house owners are brilliantly played and presented with dark edges in their personalities emphasizing their dark humor. Never has a simple line like "Have a potato!" sounded so shrewd and menacing as in Thesiger’s delivery in one of the film’s key scenes. Throughout the film we see that those people who appear the most frightening at first actually turn out to be the most frightened ones, and that the real terror is coming through someone the viewer is introduced only late in the movie. Altogether the film is yet another perfect example of James Whale’s unique sense of humor and his skills to toy with viewer expectations during a time when most other directors were still struggling frantically only to manage the basics of the medium.
Image Entertainment has now released "The Old Dark House" on DVD with commentary tracks and an interview featurette with Curtis Harrington. Sadly the film print shows serious signs of wear and age and is littered with scratch marks, broken out sprocket holes and dust. Through digital technology Image got rid of much of the problems, but unfortunately at a cost. Some of the shots exhibit signs of trails and the edges appear overly soft. Considering the film’s age and the fact that it was hard enough to find a printable negative at all, I guess this is just as good as it gets without a major restoration effort.
The film contains a monaural Dolby Digital soundtrack that is also quite damaged with serious pops and hisses throughout. The noise floor is extremely high, washing over some of the dialogs and much of the ambient sound effects that help build the film’s intensive atmosphere. "The Old Dark House" has no music at all, but unlike many other films of the time, you never really notice the lack. The story keeps going along at a good pace without the low points a number of other classic horror films exhibited.
The disc contains two separate commentary tracks, one very informative one with Whale-biographer James Curtis who not only attempts to dissect the film and its stylistic elements, but also gives some good insight into the classic gothic horror genre and James whale’s influence in general. The second commentary track is with Gloria Stuart, one of the film’s main actresses. If you start wondering about the name, yes this is the same Gloria Stuart that appeared in "Titanic" and as matter of fact the reason she got cast for "Titanic" was a result of her commentary track for "The Old Dark House". James Cameron had listened to her commentary on the Laserdisc a few years ago and decided that it was the voice he wanted to tell the story of the Titanic.
The documentary that comes with the disc is interesting and gives some first-handed insight into the recovery of the film and other aspects of Whale’s work. Unfortunately the title and credits screens used for the documentary are some of the most tasteless, off-the-shelf images I have seen in a while. They would be appropriate in a wedding video but are completely out of place in something as classic, stylish and gothic as this memorable film, I’m afraid.
"The Old Dark House" is a fascinating film and this presentation of DVD will give many people the chance to see this masterpiece for the first time. I am very impressed with Image Entertainment’s commitment to bring this and other classic films to DVD, films that might otherwise never find a renewed release at all. As I mentioned before, allow yourself some time to explore and enjoy the film and you will start to see the entire beauty of Whale’s work. Enjoy the settings, the witty dialogues, the edgy characters, the ominous photography and the great, almost theatric performances. For all lovers of classic horror films this release is one of those rarest gems you simply have to own!