Hindsight can be a terrible burden to approach an older film with; lagging hard on the back of the viewer whose inability to contextualise what they’re seeing disengages their perception. When watching James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), it could be tempting to accuse the film of being full to the brim with stock horror clichés. Yet Whale’s film is special and quite unnerving in its premonition of horror’s go-to narrative clicks which include a group stuck in the middle of nowhere, an old dark house, mysterious inhabitants hiding secrets as well as being socially inept through lack of contact and even the sound of a whistling wind.
A long list tracing the influence of these factors could no doubt be made, tying them in to horror from much later on, yet to do so simply wouldn’t do the film justice. It may have foreseen much within the spectrum of the genre but, like Whale’s other horror films, they are layered and complex critiques, satires and allegories on subjects that interested Whale and that were very obviously a taboo in the day. The narrative by J.B Priestly already has much symbolic reference to post-World War One Britain in the form of the house’s guests but Whale sees fit to add all sorts of elements to the mix including class, race and sexuality.
The narrative is relatively simple allowing for these issues to breath. Three travellers are forced off the road in a storm and take refuge in a house hidden in the middle of nowhere. The group increases in size as two more travellers are forced to take shelter with the house’s odd inhabitants that appear to be hiding some secret from their guests; the absolute blueprint for a stock “lost in the woods” horror film. However, it is in these characters, their reactions to each other and their stated value beliefs where the viewer can find most of the Whale style allegory.
The three initial travellers, Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), Margaret (Gloria Stuart) and Philip (Raymond Massey) seem to be archetypical British characters. Gladys exudes seductive charm but is also rather useless because of Whale’s disinterest in female characters. The two men are again heroic archetypes; stiff upper lip Britannia able to joke about the war while hiding more inner suffering, only released when in fear or worry. This factor of hidden emotions, hidden beliefs and secrets is something that is reflected in both the film’s characters and its setting. Whether it’s the occupants of the house or the travellers forced to stay there due to the weather, they are all wallowing in some personal inner turmoil about a subject that could easily change their own constructed identities.
The second pair of travellers showcase this in a far more obvious way and also address one of the topics mentioned previously. Charles Laughton’s Sir William Porterhouse is quintessentially northern, the sort of character that would have surrounded Whale when he was back in his native West Midlands. Porterhouse is with dancer, Gladys (Lilian Bond), who is very obviously his companion for money and the night in the house brings out this truth like venom from a wound. Porterhouse is actually the most complex character in the film in spite of Karloff’s presence as an ethnic, mute butler. Out of all the characters in the film, he is the one who the viewer is told the most about. At first he seems brash, loud and overconfident, clearly a man used to getting his own way. His bullish attitude is explained later on during a story about the loss of his wife due an apparent public dismissal of her working class clothing.
His success seems due solely to this hatred of the class divisions, working to earn more money than the people that scorned him and his wife in order to achieve a release. The house and isolation brings this truth out of him which in turn leads to the truth about his partner Gladys who leaves him for Philip during the latter half of the film. Sir William doesn’t seem too fussed at this whirlwind romance, more inconvenienced. Though this is knowingly played for a more humorous take on the fustiness of a northern business man, it also seems quite sad with the loss of his wife still being a clear burden on the character’s shoulders.
Class isn’t the only aspect of everyday life channelled into Whale’s film. The presence of Ernest Thesiger almost automatically questions and provides a channel for Whale’s sexuality. This would become highlighted further in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) with Thesiger’s character having to physically create a woman, perverse in its image of womanhood, in order to gain some fabricated form of reproduction. Here though, Thesiger’s Horace Femm is far more subdued and lacks the flamboyance of Dr Pretorius.
Instead Horace is more like a proto-Carry On character; mildly camp and bitchy like a nervous Kenneth Williams. Like all of the house’s characters, his secret lies in the attic in the form of his crazed pyromaniac brother (Brember Wills) but this seems too simple for a Whale/Thesiger combination. He appears dominated by his deaf sister (Eva Moore), though in reality they are both at the mercy of Karloff’s Morgan who is the only character able to control their demented brother. Yet they both treat him as slave, perhaps due to his muteness, perhaps due to his race. Horace is spineless and fearful but enjoys the break in solitude. He will not, however, confront the secret that lurks in the loft of the house, doing all in his power to avoid going up there to fetch an oil lamp. Perhaps this is a metaphor for Whale’s homosexuality though only a fleeting one as it would further imply that he was closeted for the moral safety of others (an idea pedalled heavily at the time).
Karloff’s butler is the last aspect to investigate. The family’s crazed brother only seems to be a mild allegory for the darker elements of a family gestalt, i.e. the darker thoughts found in even the most placid of minds. Morgan is different. Whale never really tells the viewer about him, instead using Karloff’s physicality to produce the film’s more obvious horror elements. His lack of background instantly makes him dangerous and he becomes even more so when it is shown that he is the only one who does not fear the crazed brother. He is still playing the tragic figure of Frankenstein fame. The chaos may be down to his drunken rampage but it is portrayed as a reaction to years of torment and bullying finally brought to the fore by the arrival of more people rather than an inherently evil act.
He is also the only character who appears to feel sadness at Saul’s demise. Perhaps he found solace in the madness of this other character locked and chastised by the family, at least for different reasons. As he carries his limp body up the stairs, it appears to be the death of his reason to go on. Whale never shows any of the potential interaction that causes the resulting emotion but by hinting at this rather than concentrating on it, he allows the film to enjoy its horrific role as entertainment while also subtly showing that, in between the cracks and floorboards of The Old Dark House, there is much more being said than was perhaps comfortably allowed at the time.