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The Old Dark House: Wikis


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For the 1963 William Castle film, see The Old Dark House (1963 film).
The Old Dark House

theatrical poster
Directed by James Whale
Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Written by J.B. Priestley (novel)
R. C. Sherriff
Benn Levy
Starring Boris Karloff
Melvyn Douglas
Charles Laughton
Music by Bernhard Kaun
Cinematography Arthur Edeson
Editing by Andrew Cohen
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date(s) October 20, 1932
Running time 71 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $250,000 (est)

The Old Dark House is a 1932 American horror film directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff, produced just one year after their success with Frankenstein. It is based on the 1927 novel Benighted by J. B. Priestley, published in the United States under the same title as the film,[1] and was adapted for the screen by R. C. Sherriff and Benn Levy.

Filled with humorously sophisticated dialogue, the movie also stars Melvyn Douglas and features Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger (Doctor Pretorius in Whale's 1935 The Bride of Frankenstein), Raymond Massey, and Gloria Stuart (the elderly "Rose" in 1997's Titanic) as the ravishing young ingenue. According to the Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural, the Femm family's ancient patriarch was played by a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon (billed as "John Dudgeon"), because Whale couldn't find a male actor who looked old enough for the role.

In spite of the presence of Karloff, The Old Dark House was largely ignored at the American box office, although it was a huge hit in Whale's native England where the audience was more in tune with the director's distinctive, ironic sense of black humour. For many years, it was considered a lost film and gained a tremendous reputation as one of the pre-eminent gothic horror films. Finally, in 1968, a print of the film was discovered by Curtis Harrington in the vaults of Universal Studios[1] and restored so that it could once more be shown in public.



Seeking shelter from a pounding rainstorm in a remote region of Wales, several travellers are admitted to a gloomy, foreboding mansion belonging to the extremely strange Femm family. Trying to make the best of it, the guests must deal with their sepulchral host, Horace Femm, who claims to be on the run from the police, and his religious, obsessive, malevolent sister, Rebecca.

Things get worse as the brutish mute butler, Morgan, gets drunk, runs amok, threatens Margaret Waverton and releases the long pent-up brother, Saul, a psychotic fantasist and pyromaniac who gleefully tries to destroy the residence by setting it on fire.


  • Boris Karloff as Morgan: an alcoholic mute butler employed by the Femm family
  • Melvyn Douglas as Roger Penderel: a war veteran who arrives at the Femm household with Margaret and Philip
  • Gloria Stuart as Margaret Waverton: Philip's wife, who arrives at the house with Roger
  • Charles Laughton as Sir William Porterhouse: the knighted boyfriend of Gladys DuCane
  • Lilian Bond as Gladys DuCane: a chorus line girl who is the girlfriend of Sir William
  • Ernest Thesiger as Horace Femm: the host of the house, brother to Rebecca and Saul, and son of Sir Roderick
  • Eva Moore as Rebecca Femm: the near deaf religious fanatic sister of Horace
  • Raymond Massey as Philip Waverton: Margaret's husband who arrives at the house with Roger
  • Elspeth Dudgeon as Sir Roderick Femm: the 102 year old bed-ridden father of the Femm family
  • Brember Wills as Saul Femm: a pyromaniac member of the Femm family, locked up in the house


Universal Studios producer Carl Laemmle invited screenwriter Benn Levy from England to Universal City after being impressed with Levy's screenplay for Waterloo Bridge which was also directed by James Whale. Levy's arrival was unexpected at the time and Levy put on loan to Paramount Pictures where he worked on the screenplay for The Devil and the Deep. When Levy finished work on the film, he returned to Universal to start work on The Old Dark House.[2] The film is based on 1927 novel Benighted by J. B. Priestley, a 1927 novel about post-World War I disillusionment.[3] The film follows the original plot of the book, while adding levels of comedy to the story.[3]

The film appeared on Universal's schedule in February 1932 and the script was submitted to the Hays Office in March. Filming finished by May 1933.[2] Whale worked with many collaborators from his previous films including Arthur Edeson, who was the cinematographer for Frankenstein and Waterloo Bridge, set designer Charles D. Hall, who also worked with Whale on Frankenstein, and playwright R. C. Sherriff, who wrote the original play for Journey's End which Whale made into a film of the same name in 1931.[4][5]


The Old Dark House was previewed in early July 1932 and was re-issued into theaters in 1939.[2] In 1957, Universal Studios lost the rights to the original story.[2] Whale's fellow director and friend Curtis Harrington helped The Old Dark House from becoming a lost film. Harrington repeatedly asked the Universal Studios to locate the film negative and then convinced Kodak's Eastman House to finance the creation of a new duplicate negative of the poorly kept first reel.[6]



In the United States, the Variety and The Hollywood Filmograph gave the film a negative reviews, with Variety calling it a "somewhat inane picture".[7] All nine of the New York dailies gave the film positive reviews.[2] The New York Times praised the film stating that "there is a wealth of talent in the production" and "like Frankenstein, it has the advantage of being directed by James Whale who once again proves his ability".[7] The box office reception started well in the first week of release, but later suffered through negative word of mouth.[2] It was booked for three weeks at the Rialto Theatre in New York where the audience turn-out dropped to less than half in its second week and the film was pulled after ten days.[2] The film performed greater in England, where it broke house records at the Capitol Theatre in London.[2] The film ranking website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 100% of critics had given the film positive reviews, based upon a sample of six reviews.[8]

Modern reception has been more generally positive. Ali Catterall of Channel 4 referred to the film as "Impressively atmospheric and hilariously grim".[9] Time Out London praised the film stating that "Whale manages to parody the conventions of the dark house horror genre as he creates them, in which respect the film remains entirely modern."[10] Karl Williams of the film database Allmovie wrote that "by the 1960s 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".[6]


The Old Dark House was remade in 1963 by director William Castle for Columbia Pictures. It starred comedian Tom Poston, and the Boris Karloff role was taken on by Danny Green.[11] The remake has not been as well received by modern critics in comparison to the original film. Craig Butler of the film database Allmovie wrote in a review of the 1963 film, that "When compared with the James Whale original upon which it is based, this remake of The Old Dark House is pretty sorry stuff."[12]


Further reading

External links


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