When a buddy asked if I wanted to see the classic, pre-code, James Whale directed haunted house pic The Old Dark House (Universal, 1932) on the big screen, I jumped at the chance. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen any of the classic Universal horror films from the 1930s on the big screen, so this was a rare opportunity to see a James Whale pic the way it was intended to be seen.
The film stars Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, and Charles Laughton among others as hapless voyagers who take shelter in a large and scary looking house for the night after a relentless rain storm washes out the nearby roads. Boris Karloff (in some seriously creepy makeup) terrifyingly answers the door which sets off a 24-hour period of one bizarre event after the other (memo to me–never go up the staircase in one of these haunted houses…better yet, don’t go into the house at all).
The film was released the year after the wildly successful screen retelling of Frankenstein (1931), also directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff, and was initially a disappointment at the box office. According to an informative article on TCM.com, “After its mediocre theatrical run, The Old Dark House was put on the shelf at Universal and, until 1968 – unavailable for bookings. That year, Whale’s protégé, director Curtis Harrington, helped find the negative and convinced Kodak to return a print to its original brilliance. When the film was once again viewed in its original form, critics hailed it as a lost masterpiece. That might be overstating the case a little, but it still bears the mark of one of the studio era’s more insistently unique directors.”
One other interesting bit of trivia from the TCM.com article–“When director James Cameron watched a laserdisc release of The Old Dark House, he was so taken with Gloria Stuart’s amusing audio commentary, he wound up casting her in a little film he was planning called Titanic (1997).”
Mostly what was fun for me was seeing an incredibly cheesy yet creepy film in glorious black and white on the big screen. I typically stay away from most modern horror pics, but seeing this film provided an insight at the simple, basic pleasures of watching a scary movie in a theater—the collective jumps, screams, and dread; the wincing when bad things happen or are about to happen; and the cheers and relief when the evil threat has been defeated (or when you think it has been…). James Whale definitely knew how to direct a good horror pic, Boris Karloff definitely knew how to act in one, and The Old Dark House made for some simple, scary Halloween season fun at the movies.
(And I’m still holding out for a big screen double feature of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein…someday.)
A big thanks and shoutout to the Cohen Media Group for the beautiful 4K restoration of the film and to the Salt Lake Film Society for their cool “Tower of Terror” Halloween programming at the Tower Theatre again this year.
And check out this cool poster art (I believe this is the U.S. theatrical release one-sheet, but I’m not 100% certain).
All images ©️ Universal Pictures/Cohen Media Group