Cold Light of Day

It’s only gin, you know. Only gin. I like gin.

– Horace Femm

Day 10 and I went back to the Universal well for today’s entry in the Fright Festival – James Whale’s 1932 effort, The Old Dark House. This one is new to me; generally with Universal’s output, I stick to the classics. But of late, I’m trying to broaden my horizons so I decided to go for one I hadn’t seen before.

Karloff gets top billing, but he doesn’t do much as the mute, troglodytic Morgan save grunt unintelligibly and flip over a table while menacing Gloria Stuart’s Margaret Waverton. I always pop for an appearance by Ernest Thesiger – for my money, his catty nervousness as Horace Femm helps sell the creepiness of the setting more than Karloff’s lumbering presence. And his back and forth with Eva Moore, as Rebecca Femm, alternates between the subtle and the over-the-top.

It’s the sort of film that hits my sweet spot. There’s a nice vein of banter between newlyweds Gloria Stuart and Raymond Massey, and between Melvyn Douglas and Lilian Bond. Charles Laughton adds to the humour as Porterhouse, another traveller stranded at the benighted Femm residence. But there’s a gothic touch to the humour – everything about the Femm clan is unsettling and off-kilter.

As much as Horace and Rebecca appear to hate each other, they are united in their fear of both Morgan and their brother Saul, played with demented delight by Brember Wills. His appearance in the final act is both subdued and sinister, as he flickers between chill lucidity and cackling madness. And yet, for all the sturm und drang of the film’s climax, there’s a sense that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the secrets hidden in the old dark house.

All in all, I look forward to making this one part of my regular Halloween rotation. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.