The Old Dark House

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 W. Levy
Starring Boris Karloff
Melvyn Douglas
Charles Laughton
Gloria Stuart
Music by Bernhard Kaun
Cinematography Arthur Edeson
Edited by Clarence Kolster
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • October 20, 1932 (1932-10-20)
Running time
71 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $250,000 (est)

The Old Dark House is a 1932 American Pre-Code horror comedy film directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff. The film is based on the novel Benighted (1927) by J. B. Priestley.[1][2] The supporting cast includes Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton and Ernest Thesiger.


Seeking shelter from a pounding rainstorm in a remote area of Wales, several travellers are admitted to a gloomy, foreboding mansion belonging to the 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 imprisoned and pent-up brother, Saul, a psychotic fantasist and pyromaniac who gleefully tries to destroy the residence by setting it on fire.



The film is based on the 1927 novel Benighted by J. B. Priestley, published in the United States under the same title as the film,[3] and was adapted for the screen by R. C. Sherriff and Benn Levy.

The movie also stars Melvyn Douglas and features Charles Laughton (in his first Hollywood film), Ernest Thesiger, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart and Lilian Bond. According to the Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural, the Femm family's ancient patriarch was played by an actress, Elspeth Dudgeon, (billed as "John Dudgeon")[4] because Whale could not find a male actor who looked old enough for the role. The Old Dark House was largely ignored at the American box office, although it was a huge hit in Whale's native England.


Universal Studios producer Carl Laemmle invited screenwriter Benn Levy from England to Universal City after being impressed with Levy's screenplay for Waterloo Bridge (1931) which was also directed by James Whale. Levy was loaned to Paramount Pictures, where he worked on the screenplay for Devil and the Deep. When Levy finished work on the film, he returned to Universal to start work on The Old Dark House.[5] The film is based on novel Benighted (1927) by J. B. Priestley, a novel about post-World War I disillusionment.[6] The film follows the original plot of the book, while adding levels of comedy to the story.[6]

The film appeared on Universal's schedule in February 1932 and the script was submitted to the Hays Office in March. Filming had finished by May 1932.[5] Whale worked with many collaborators from his previous films including Arthur Edeson, who was the cinematographer for Frankenstein (1931) and Waterloo Bridge (1931), 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 1930.[7][8]

Original release and reception

The Old Dark House was previewed in early July 1932.[5] In the United States, Variety and The Hollywood Filmograph gave the film negative reviews, with Variety calling it a "somewhat inane picture".[9] All nine of the New York City dailies gave the film positive reviews.[5]

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".[9] The box office reception started well in the first week of release, but later suffered through negative word of mouth.[5] It was booked for three weeks at the Rialto Theatre in New York City where the audience turn-out dropped to less than half in its second week and the film was pulled after ten days. The film performed better in England, where it broke house records at the Capitol Theatre in London.[5][10] It was re-issued into theaters in 1939.[5]

Rediscovery and reputation

In 1957, Universal Studios lost the rights to the original story,[5] and an inferior remake was released in 1963 directed by William Castle. For many years, the original version was considered a lost film and gained a tremendous reputation as one of the pre-eminent gothic horror films. Whale's fellow director and friend Curtis Harrington helped to prevent The Old Dark House from becoming a lost film. Harrington repeatedly asked Universal to locate the film negative, although it was Harrington who discovered a print of the film in the vaults of Universal Studios in 1968.[3] He persuaded the George Eastman House film archive to finance a new duplicate negative of the poorly kept first reel,[11] and restore the rest of the film.

Modern reception has been more generally positive than the reviewers in 1932, with the film-ranking website Rotten Tomatoes reporting that 100% of critics had given the film positive reviews, based upon a sample of six reviews.[12] Ali Catterall of Channel 4 referred to the film as "Impressively atmospheric and hilariously grim".[13] Time Out London praised the film; "Whale manages to parody the conventions of the dark house horror genre as he creates them, in which respect the film remains entirely modern."[14] 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".[11]

In the early 2010s, Time Out conducted a poll with several authors, directors, actors and critics who have worked within the horror genre to vote for their top horror films.[15] The Old Dark House placed at number 71 on their top 100 list.[16]

See also


  1. Erickson, Hal. "The Old Dark House". Allmovie. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved January 23, 2013.
  2. Hallenbeck 2009, p. 21
  3. 1 2 Booklet essay of the Region 2 Network DVD
  4. Elspeth Dudgeon profile,; accessed August 9, 2015.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 The Old Dark House (Booklet). James Whale. New York, New York: Kino Video. 1999 [1932]. K113.
  6. 1 2 Nollen 1991, p. 63
  7. Mank 2001, p. 38
  8. Nollen 1991, p. 66
  9. 1 2 Mank 2001, p. 48
  10. Stephen Jacobs, Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster, Tomohawk Press 2011 p 117
  11. 1 2 Williams, Karl. "The Old Dark House > Review". Allmovie. Retrieved 2009-05-04.
  12. "The Old Dark House – Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. IGN Entertainment, Inc. Retrieved 2009-05-04.
  13. "The Old Dark House Movie Review (1932) From Channel 4". Channel 4. Retrieved 2009-05-04.
  14. "The Old Dark House Review. Movie Review. Time Out London". Time Out. Retrieved 2009-05-04.
  15. "The 100 best horror films". Time Out. Retrieved April 13, 2014.
  16. NF. "The 100 best horror films: the list". Time Out. Retrieved April 13, 2014.

Further reading

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