Cinema Fearité presents The Old Dark House, an unsung Universal horror movie.
Long before Tilda Swinton donned makeup to play an old man in Suspiria, Elspeth Dudgeon did it in James Whale's The Old Dark House.
One of the biggest mysteries surrounding this year’s Luca Guadagnino remake of Suspiria had to do with an enigmatic actor named Lutz Ebersdorf, who turned out to be the chameleonic Tilda Swinton in old man makeup. It was a brilliant promotional ploy, but it wasn’t the first time that an actress was tapped to play an old man. That phenomenon goes all the way back to 1932 with James Whale’s unsung Universal classic The Old Dark House.
The Old Dark House is about a man named Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey from Possessed) who is traveling by car with wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart, who played the Old Rose in Titanic) and friend Roger Penderel (The Changeling’s Melvyn Douglas). The trio gets caught in a rainstorm and seeks refuge at a creepy mansion belonging to Horace Femm (The Ghoul’s Ernest Thesiger) and his sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore from Of Human Bondage). The Femms reluctantly let the group stay, and during dinner, they are joined by two more lost travelers – a gentleman named Sire William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton from Island of Lost Souls) and his chorus girl date, Gladys DuCane (The Maze’s Lilian Bond).
Over the course of the night, the five houseguests ponder the mysteries of the house, including the psychotic drunken mute butler Morgan (the legendary Boris Karloff from The Black Room and The Black Cat), the sequestered elder Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon from Mystery House), and a mysterious locked upstairs door from behind which voices can be heard.
Universal Studios legend James Whale directed The Old Dark House after just having made Frankenstein with Karloff the year before. The screenplay was adapted by Benn W. Levy (Blackmail), based upon the 1927 novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley (Last Holiday). On the surface, it seems like a typical spooky mansion story, but it’s not a ghost story at all.
Even though the house looks and feels haunted, The Old Dark House is one of those cases of man being the monster. It’s an old fashioned, multi-layered mystery, sprinkled with just enough comedy to keep the movie from taking itself too seriously.
The patriarch of the Femm family, Sir Roderick Femm, is the male character that is actually played by a female actor in The Old Dark House. Elspeth Dudgeon, listed as John Dudgeon in the credits, portrays the old man, and while she’s not under quite as much special effects makeup and costuming as Tilda Swinton is as Lutz Ebersdorf, she’s still unrecognizable.
Through twenty-first century eyes, it’s pretty obvious that Sir Roderick is played by a woman, but to 1932 audiences, it just looked like an elderly man with stringy grey hair and wrinkly skin. Reportedly, Whale cast Dudgeon after not being able to find a male actor who looked as old as the character warranted. Through movie magic, however, Whale was able to transform the 60-year-old Dudgeon into the 102-year-old Sir Roderick.
Thanks to his legendary performances in Frankenstein and The Mummy, Boris Karloff was transformed into one of the most influential figures in horror history. The Old Dark House was made around the same time, and true to form, Karloff played a hulking, lumbering, voiceless beast. The character of Morgan is somewhat of a enigmatic red herring in the movie, a fearsome presence with which to be dealt but not the true threat to the heroes, and Karloff plays him with all of the unsubtle mystery that he can muster.
Years later, Karloff would get to spread his wings with more challenging roles in movies like Isle of the Dead and The Man They Could Not Hang, but in the early thirties, nobody played a better mute monster than Boris Karloff.
From a photographic standpoint, The Old Dark House earns the “dark house” part of its name. The film was shot by uncredited cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who was also behind the camera for James Whale’s better-known Universal horror movies Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, and it’s full of the long shadows and dark corners that are usually associated with gothic horror and German expressionism. There’s even a shadow puppet scene that almost seems to mock the high-contrast, film noir technique.
Edeson also plays with warped mirror shots and camera angles, giving certain scenes an almost carnival funhouse-like look. The cinematography in The Old Dark House is a clever combination of the spooky and the whimsical, and it works perfectly for the horror comedy atmosphere that Whale creates with the story.
Aside from an uncredited title theme composed by David Broekman (who also worked uncredited on the music for Universal classics like Frankenstein and The Phantom of the Opera), there is no real musical score in The Old Dark House. The soundtrack consists mainly of the ambient sound of wind and rain, which adds to the dark-and-stormy-night vibe of the movie. Sound supervisor C. Roy Hunter (another uncredited Universal regular who also worked on Frankenstein and Dracula) seamlessly blends the external element noises with creaky building effects and bump-in-the-night sounds to create one big haunted house soundscape upon which the actors can riff. It’s both economical and effective.
In truth, Tilda Swinton was way more believable as an old man in Suspiria than Elspeth Dudgeon was as one in The Old Dark House. But the fact that James Whale pulled the trick off back in 1932 just goes to show that everything has been done before, and that there’s nothing new under the sun.