Before we see anything else in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, we see this:
And why not? Karloff was a big draw at this point and you can't fault a film for exploiting its most exploitable elements. But that card does mislead a little in that it makes you expect a movie that orbits around KARLOFF THE MAD BUTLER~. What we really get is a solid ensemble piece in which Karloff is fun, but not any more important than CHARLES LAUGHTON THE PORTLY BRITISH CAPITALIST~ or other members of the cast. Karloff is pretty dreamy here, excelling at another speechless role, but he's working as part of a unit here.
Three people break down in muddy puddles after a rock slide. They trudge on over to the nearest house, which houses shriekingly religious Rebecca Femm and her cadaverous and potato-loving brother Horace. More folks arrive, romance is kindled, and the old dark house reveals its secrets, including murder, arson, and withered old bedridden men. I feel like I should discuss why I think OLD DARK HOUSE qualifies for inclusion on this blog, but the movie that almost took its spot, DOCTOR X, does not.
So this is not strictly an unadulterated horror film. There's romance, as stated, and comedy of the Addams Family type. But OLD DARK HOUSE meets my standards, since at least a plurality of it is devoted to frightening the audience or delving into the macabre. I watched DOCTOR X and it had some horror, but the horror was there mostly to steer the movie into moar wacky dialogue and such. OLD DARK HOUSE is clearly constructing suspense for its own sake, not as a springboard for lesser things. And even the comedy here has a ghoulish tint, like Eva Moore going on a tirade about flesh rotting while poor Gloria Stuart is just trying to change out of her wet clothes. It's not positively goofy like lots of misguided comedy-horror; if anything, all the humor here has a very dark tinge and some of it isn't immediately recognizable as joke content at all.
James Whale basically did the same thing with FRANKENSTEIN, which isn't regarded as a laugh-a-minute rib-tickler, but has plenty of gallows humor if watched with the right eye. That same style gets pressed to the fore in OLD DARK HOUSE, but without being counterbalanced by sad old drowning-kid scenes. There are undoubtedly better experts out there than me, but I view the "old dark house" style as, essentially, fun horror (not wacky/goofy horror). The situations and revelations are ridiculous, the characters are unbelievable, and everything proceeds like a light stage play about murder and madness.
This movie is helped by wise direction and an incredible cast. There's not a weak performance here, but give special consideration to Elspeth Dudgeon and her TCM's Grandpa-style turn as the Femm family's patriarch. Yes, that is a woman down there, you were bound to see such things on the Internet eventually. Also noteworthy are Brember Wills as Saul, who is so crazy that he only escapes the attic during the film's final wind-down, and Melvyn Douglas as Penderel, the dashing male lead.
I still think FREAKS is the best horror flick of 1932 (so far), but THE OLD DARK HOUSE certainly adds to the argument that '32 was a great year for the genre. It has admirable goals and accomplishes them in an entertaining way. Good times all around.