This Halloween, instead of hanging with old pals like Freddy, Leatherface, and Jason, why not carve out (so to speak) a bit of time for the Femms of The Old Dark House? Ah, you’ve never heard of them? Not surprising. James Whale’s sophisticated, pre-Scream mix of goosebumps and giggles has always been the cobwebbed cousin of his more renowned Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man. Too bad: It’s an exquisite goof.
On a very dark and stormy night, five travelers (including Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, and Titanic‘s Gloria Stuart) take refuge with the eccentric Femm family. There’s Horace (Ernest Thesiger), who warns, ”You will have to stay here — the misfortune is yours”; his deaf, religious sister Rebecca (Eva Moore); and Morgan the butler (Boris Karloff, pictured with Stuart), a scarred, hairy brute given to cryptic grunts (and who, according to author James Curtis’ splendid commentary, was the model for Addams family manservant Lurch). Upstairs resides Roderick, the 102-year-old bedridden patriarch (played by actress Elspeth Dudgeon). And tucked away in a locked room lurks fire-obsessed Saul (Brember Wills).
The fun is in how adroitly Whale tightropes between droll nonsense — via the effete Thesiger, who injects ticklish humor into lines like ”Have a potato” — and the macabre. A close-up in which the escaped Saul morphs from frailty to full-blown insanity is hair-raising, and it’s topped by a pyromaniacal reverie that would make Hannibal Lecter jealous. Pay a visit. You won’t regret it.