The Horror Archaeologist: The Old Dark House

From Kris’s Blog The Horror Archaeologist

One of my favorite sub-genres of horror films is “the old dark house” films.  Generally consisting of a group of people stuck in a house for a multitude of reasons. In modern cinema, the house has been substituted by various other locations like a hotel (The Shining), a cave (The Descent), or even outer space (Alien).  The overall feel is isolation with no possible means of escape.  Let’s begin.

We open on a married couple, the Wavertons, driving through the Welsh countryside in the pouring rain.  Their friend, Penderel, is sleeping in the back seat.  The rain causes a landslide and closes the road behind them.  The travelers assume the road ahead is also blocked and they pull up to the first house they see.  A mute man, played by the brilliant Boris Karloff, opens the door and immediately closes it.  The three friends continue to bang on the door until another man opens the door.  This is Horace Femm.  He and his sister, Rebecca, live in the house.  The mute is called Morgan and he is a servant of sorts.  They reluctantly allow the Wavertons and Pederel to stay for the night.

Mrs. Waverton asks Rebecca if she may change her wet clothes.  She takes Mrs. Waverton back to her bedroom and explains that her family is “Godless” and cursed.  Her family would have wild parties in her youth.  Rebecca was told to go away and pray.  She had another sister Rachel , who died in a horrible accident.  Rebecca proceeds to tell Mrs. Waverton that she is similarly Godless and it will cost people like her their lives.  After thoroughly  frightening Mrs. Waverton, Rebecca leaves her. What follows continues to upset Mrs. Waverton until the strengthening storm blows open a window and scares her out of the room and back to the others.

Everyone is called to supper.  There is more tension between Horace and Rebecca and a build up terror felt by Mrs. Waverton about Morgan.  During supper, there is another banging at the door.  Morgan opens the door to a vivacious young woman and a Welshman.  The Welshman is Sir William Porterhouse and the girl is his companion, Gladys.  They are also asking for shelter from the storm.  The Femm’s again agree to harbor them and join the others for supper.

After supper, the Wavertons, Penderel, Porterhouse, Gladys, and Horace are talking around the fire.  It is revealed that Horace is hiding from the police and no one is in this house that wants to be.  Rebecca flies in to say that Morgan is drunk which is troublesome because Morgan becomes extremely violent when he drinks.  They decide to lock him in the kitchen until he sobers up or passes out.  Penedrel and Gladys head out to the stables to find a bottle of brandy in the car.  And thus begins the separating of the party.  Horace and Mr. Waverton go upstairs to fetch a lamp when the power goes out.  Porterhouse goes to close the window in Rebecca’s bedroom.  This leaves Mrs. Waverton alone in the main room.

I’m a Dungeons & Dragons player.  One of our mottos is “Never split the party.”  There is a very good reason for this.  Your party is strongest when its all together and bad things happen when you are on your own.  The same is true in horror films.  It’s one of the “golden rules” of surviving horror.  While Mr. Waverton and Horace go upstairs, Mrs. Waverton is making shadow puppets on the wall by the light of the fire.  She is frightened by the shadow of Rebecca (who isn’t there).  Then, Morgan comes in to do . . . treachery.  He chases Mrs. Waverton around the room.  She manages to escape up the stairs and reaches her husband coming down with the lamp.  He knocks out Morgan with the lamp and they head back upstairs.

Mr. Waverton explains he heard a voice coming from one of the bedrooms when going for the lamp.  They investigate to find a very old man lying in bed.  He is Sir Roderick Femm, Horace and Rebecca’s father.  He warns them of his eldest son, Saul Femm.  Once before, Saul tried to burn down the house for, you know, reasons.  Even though Saul is locked up in the room on the top floor, Sir Roderick fears that Morgan will let Saul out to finish what he started years ago.  The Wavertons leave Sir Roderick to see that Morgan has regained consciousness and disappeared.  They run down stairs to meet up with the others.

Morgan comes down and begins a fight with the other men, except for Horace, who locks himself in his room.  They try to get Morgan back into the kitchen and lock him inside.  Penderel goes back to the ladies in the main room.  Rebecca locks herself in her bedroom.  Penderel tells Mrs. Waverton and Gladys to go in the closet and not make a sound while he confronts Saul.

I genuinely love this film.  Boris Karloff is incredibly menacing as Morgan.  Mrs. Waverton is a great example of the proverbial “damsel in distress”.  She as a character is witty and likable so you want to see someone come in and save her.  Both Mr. Waverton and Penderel are convincing as heroes.  The suspense is well paced and the comedy is perfectly timed.  I believe this film is very underrated if only because it is not very well known.  As usual, I left a link below so you may enjoy the film, hopefully, as much as I do.  Until next time.

The Old Dark House


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