The Old Dark House would not have been possible without the city slicker's discomfort with rural environs. Based on J.B. Priestly's novel Benighted, The Old Dark House is almost an ur-horror narrative: traveling companions from the city get caught in a torrential downpour, and thus have to find quarters for the night. Unfortunately for them, the lodging they find is owned and occupied by an uncouth family that includes a violent deaf/mute butler, a pyromaniac, a criminal on the run, and a religious nut who sees sin seeping out of every wall.
While The Old Dark House, which was directed by the great James Whale, is partially a comedy, the Femm family are more Sawney Bean than Mr. Bean. Their legion include: Morgan (played by Boris Karloff), the drunken brute of a butler, Horace Femm (played by Ernest Thesiger), Rebecca Femm (played by Eva Moore), the raving puritan, Sir Roderick Femm (played by Elspeth Dudgeon), the ancient and bed-ridden patriarch, and Saul Femm (played by Brember Wills), the murderous pyro who spends the majority of the film locked in his room upstairs.
The people who get stranded in the crumbling Femm mansion are just as motley: the jocular war hero Roger Penderel (played by Melvyn Douglas), the blonde goddess Margaret Waverton (played by Gloria Stuart), the stiff upper-lipped Philip Waverton (played by Raymond Massey), and the odd couple of the Mancunian capitalist Sir William Porterhouse (played by Charles Laughton, who was acting in his first American film) and his chorine girlfriend Gladys Perkins (played by Lillian Bond). In The Old Dark House, different worlds collide in a secluded Welsh mansion. More than just an exercise in "the trope of urban sophisticates confronting a sinister countryside" (Farran Smith Nehme, "Spirits By Starlight"), The Old Dark House is a chronicle of class and perversion.
In the case of the former, Priestly was just the man for the job. As a lifelong socialist, Priestly was attuned to what he considered the inequities among the social classes, and in many of his works (most importantly his play An Inspector Calls), the domestic sphere is the background for a fairly elaborate interrogation into what makes certain classes "tick." In The Old Dark House, Priestly's mouthpiece is the outwardly cheery Porterhouse, who in fact holds deep resentment towards those members of the gentry who scorned his dead wife due to their shared working-class roots. Along with Porterhouse, Gladys Perkins, the perky showgirl who catches the heart of Penderel, is depicted as the opposite of Margaret. Gladys is headstrong and capable, while Margaret spends the majority of the film being terrified, prodded (most notably by Rebecca in one sexually-charged scene), and stalked by Morgan. Also, while Margaret and Philip are the film's staid couple, Gladys and Roger are the dynamic, fun one.
Scripted by Benn W. Levy (a politician with the Labour Party and a playwright) and R.C. Sheriff (the screenwriter who had trouble getting his version of Dracula's Daughter passed by the censors [see: "Garrett Fort: The Bard of Classic Horror," Schloss Orlok]), The Old Dark House maintains some of Priestly's radicalism, but a lot of the film's political points are lost because of Whale's obvious love of Femm family.
Besides Whale favorite Thesiger (most famous for his portrayal of Doctor Septimus Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein), each member of the Femm household is given time to shine in this strange, decidedly British American film. A year removed from his breakout performance in Whale's Frankenstein, Karloff again plays a quiet, hulking figure, but this time Karloff is given two motivations, one sexual (Margaret) and one duty-bound (keeping Saul caged). All in all, the role of Morgan is nowhere near as profound as that of Frankenstein's monster, but Karloff still manages to give the butler some humanity, and ultimately, redemption.
Rebecca Femm might the film's most interesting character. Practically deaf but oh-so chatty, Rebecca is the more lesbian precursor to the later, more latent homosexuality of Doctor Pretorius. Now, it's never been my forte to indulge in matters of sexuality (especially when it comes to art), but whatever the case, both Rebecca Femm and Doctor Pretorius are obvious deviants of some kind. In The Old Dark House, Rebecca is Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards turned female, and her obsessions seem all the more bastardized given the diabolical family structure that she surrounds herself with.
By the film's final minutes, it's no question who the real draw is. Kept from the audience until the very end, Saul is revealed to be the big evil in a house swimming in malevolence. Brember Wills plays the insane Saul with an almost reckless abandon, and in fact Saul Femm seems like the prototype for the smutty Dr. Meirschultz in Dwain Esper's exploitation flick Maniac. A frightening fantasist with the nerve to kill whenever, Saul is the character who pushes The Old Dark House into both the realm of horror as well as the realm of camp. The duality of this mixture has not been lost on critics, who usually either love or hate this film (although the passage of time has dulled the harshest edges, and most now consider the film a classic).
A darkly comic, surprisingly terrifying film with interesting undertones, The Old Dark House is unlike many of the era's monster movies. The film's emphasis on claustrophobia and a sort of savage inbreeding presages later cannibal family films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. In this regard, it can and should be considered a very modern horror film.