B&W, 1932, 71 mins.

Directed by James Whale

Starring Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Gloria Stuart, Raymond Massey, Eva Moore, John (Elspeth) Dudgeon, Brember Wills / Written by Benn W. Levy / Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr. / Cinematography by Arthur Edeson

Format: DVD - Image (MSRP $29.95)

Full Frame / Dolby Digital Mono

The spooky old dark house genre made famous in The Cat and the Canary had already become a timeworn cliche by the time director James Whale decided to fling a few satiric barbs in its direction with a film called, appropriately enough, The Old Dark House. Based on the J.B. Priestly novel Benighted (also the basis for William Castle's 1963 color version), Whale's film was lost for decades, a fate which has been attributed to everything from Priestly's dissatisfaction with the film to Columbia's attempts to suppress it to favor their remake. In any case, thanks to the efforts of director Curtis Harrington, the film was rescued from oblivion in 1968 but remained largely unseen by the general public aside from muddy bootleg copies until it was screened on American Movies Classics in conjunction with its first video release through Kino Home Video.

On a dark, stormy night in Wales, several weary travelers find their way to a foreboding old house run by the prissy Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger, doing a dry run for Bride of Frankenstein) and his religious fanatic sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore). Their mute butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff), shambles around and generally gets drunker as the night progresses; when the power goes out, strange things begin to happen, mostly involving two other members of the household mysteriously kept behind closed doors.

Light on plot but heavy on atmosphere and witty dialogue, this Charles Addams-style black comedy no doubt confounded many horror fans expecting a traditional monster show. At first glance the film feels like a slightly elaborate stage play, though Whale's evocative use of shadows and sound effects manages to transcend any possibility of a stagebound presentation. While Karloff looks great and has a fun climactic fight, he has surprisingly little screen time through the rest of the film, thus leaving most of the work to the speaking cast members. Most of the cast does a fine job, particularly Thesiger's hilarious portrayal featuring the infamous "have a potato" dinner scene;" surprisingly, only Laughton disappoints with a grating fake-Welsh comic boy performance that wears out its welcome very quickly. Gloria Stuart (best known as the narrator of Titanic) brings some welcome glamor as the nominal heroine of the piece, while Lilian Bond adds a quirky and vaguely kinky twist to her role of a showgirl anxious to find a husband and extricate herself from platonic sugar daddy Laughton. Of course, the film is almost stolen entirely by the final act appearance of Cousin Saul (Brember Wills), a cackling pyromaniac whose few minutes of screen time are arguably the creepiest Whale ever committed to film.

The print originally released by Kino on VHS and shown on AMC was something of a muddy mess, but thankfully the Image laserdisc was struck from far superior source materials reportedly discovered in a private collection. Though a few imperfections exist (the conversation with Elspeth Dudgeon in old man drag as the 102 year old Roderick Fenn suffers from constant frame shifting), this version looks extremely clean and crisp considering the tattered distribution history. The DVD reproduces the same extras from the laser and looks even better, with stronger shadows and smoother contrast. Of course, the commentary by Stuart (the only surviving cast member) will be of particular interest since it inspired James Cameron to cast her in that famous big boat movie. The packaging, which features extensive historical liner notes and two nice poster reproductions, makes this a nice deal all unto itself for horror fans and film historians; fortunately, the film itself has held up and should provide more than a couple of laughs and shivers on a dark and stormy night.

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