Spooky houses are in style during this years Splatter Time Fun Fest!
Screenplay By: Benn W. Levy
Directed By: James Whale
In modern horror the haunted house film has reached stereotypical status. There are movies that are the exception, but for the most part haunted house films are now about moments of silence followed by hysterical screaming, possible bloodshed, and a lot of jump scares. These are the hallmarks of the haunted house film. If all of your exposure to the haunted house sub-genre of horror is modern films then there is no reason for one to think that the haunted house film can be anything but said hallmarks.
James Whale is a name that should be known to all horror fans, but sadly he is not a man who ever gets his due among the casual horror fan. He is a man who with The Old Dark House single handedly shatters the myth that the haunted house sub-genre has always been about hysterical screaming, possible bloodshed, and jump scares. Long considered a forgotten classic of Gothic horror, The Old Dark House is now a readily available film that shows just how easily rudimentary elements can be used to create a fantastic haunted house film.
First and foremost, The Old Dark House is not a haunted house film in the traditional sense of the term “haunted house.” There are no ghosts to be found in Mr. Whale’s lesser known horror film. That tried and true element of the haunted house picture is not present at any moment during The Old Dark House. Yet, the house in the film is very much haunted, haunted by the living, breathing family that inhabits its shadowy corners. The Femm’s are alive, but they are also ghosts trapped within their house. They cannot escape, they cannot get away from one another and their strange ways can only wreak havoc upon all those who unwittingly enter their abode.
With a crazy family playing the role of the ghosts it falls on Mr. Whale to provide the atmosphere to make them horrific. Mr. Whale makes the Femm’s horrific by lambasting the classically regal nature of the British. Throwing in elements like Rebecca Femm’s religion pushing and Horace Femm’s funny, yet sad, upright way of standing and speaking add a certain level of darkness to the Femm’s. They don’t know their own madness, they don’t see how ridiculous they have become and that makes them even more horrific.
The rest of the film is drenched in shadow and atmosphere. There is one sequence where Margaret Waverton is playing in the shadows. She is making bunny ears and letting birds free with her imagination. Then Rebecca Femm enters to yell at her, but we never see Miss Femm. All we see is her shadow wagging a menacing figure at Margaret. The shadows in The Old Dark House are not for games or flights of fancy. The shadows in The Old Dark House add menace and make the house feel alive. As the shadows traipse across every nook and cranny of the Femm estate we know that this house isn’t just any ordinary house.
All of these elements add up to the most important factor in The Old Dark House’s classical horror, its atmosphere. I could sense the darkness in the corners of the house. The silence was eerie and when the wind howled I believed it was a dangerous predator waiting to pounce on the inhabitants of the house. All of this was possible because of the atmosphere Mr. Whale created. Without that atmosphere The Old Dark House would be more of a comedy than a horror film. But, the atmosphere of The Old Dark House is thick with apprehension and lurking darkness.
It is for all of these reasons that The Old Dark House is a deliciously laid out horror movie. James Whale further added to his legend, and I am further convinced that he is the great forgotten horror master. The Old Dark House is a haunted house film that relies on atmosphere, strangeness, and well acted characters. There are no jump scares and there’s not a drop of blood to be seen. It doesn’t resemble a modern haunted house film in any way, and that’s what makes The Old Dark House such a devilishly great haunted house film.