I'm out of the office for a few days, so as Halloween approaches, I'm reposting some essays about classic horror films. I'll catch up on comments early next week.
Although he directed all sorts of movies, including the musical Show Boat, the name James Whale will always be linked with horror. During an age characterized by great horror films, Whale directed four of the greatest—Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and Bride Of Frankenstein. If he didn't invent the genre, Whale redefined it so thoroughly that it's difficult, even now, to make a horror film without dipping into his bag of tricks.
Born in Worcestershire, England, in 1889, the son of a factory worker and a nurse, Whale discovered an interest in the theater while putting on productions for his fellow prisoners of war in a German POW camp during World War I. After the war, he worked as an actor and director in London, with his big break coming in 1928 when he directed Journey's End, R.C. Sherriff's anti-war play about life in the trenches. Starring Colin Clive, later the star of Frankenstein, the play ran on London's West End for two years and brought Whale to the attention of Hollywood. There, he directed a film version of Journey's End as well as an adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood's Waterloo Bridge, the latter starring Mae Clarke.
Seeking to cash in on the box office phenomenon of Dracula, the classic thriller about a vampire turned loose on Victorian England starring Bela Lugosi, Whale directed one of the most famous and influential movies ever made, a screen adaptation of Mary Shelley's horror novel Frankenstein. The story of a young scientist who soon regrets cracking the secret of creation, Frankenstein contains more iconic images than any other movie of the period and it made an international star of Boris Karloff, who was both menacing and sympathetic as the monster.
Although he began his career as a theater director, Whale took full advantage of the opportunities film presented, using any number of techniques to distance Frankenstein from its literary and stage antecedents. In addition to the memorable use of sound effects, Whale abandoned the so-called proscenium arch—that is, the now long-forgotten habit of photographing a set from only one position, as if the camera had bought a ticket in the third row of a Broadway theater, that makes early sound movies feel so stagy—moving the camera around the room to get interesting angles, indeed, actually moving the camera, rather than leaving it bolted to the floor, such as for the long tracking shot of the father carrying his drowned daughter through the village square.
Frankenstein was 1931's box office champ, grossing $5 million (with an additional $7 million overseas) on a budget of $291,000.
Producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., wanted a sequel to Frankenstein, but Whale resisted. Ironically, despite helping to define the genre, he didn't much care for horror, and would have preferred to direct more movies like Waterloo Bridge—dramas and romances with literary antecedents. Business, though, was business, and after directing The Impatient Maiden, a little-seen drama starring Mae Clark and Lew Ayres, Whale turned back to the horror genre with an adaptation of J.B. Priestley's novel, Benighted, retitled The Old Dark House for the U.S. market.
The plot is a staple of the horror genre—strangers forced to spend the night in a scary house—although the threat, in this case, is not supernatural but based in the psychotic behaviors of the people who live there. Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart play a quarrelsome couple stranded by a storm in the mountains of Wales with Melvyn Douglas, their good-natured traveling companion. The three seek shelter in a nearby farmhouse belonging to Horace and Rebecca Femm, an elderly brother-sister couple played by Ernest Thesinger (later Dr. Pretorius in Bride Of Frankenstein) and a particularly belligerent Eva Moore.
"What are they doing here? What do they want? No beds! No beds!"
Upstairs is their crazy father and an even crazier brother.
Playing the Femm's mute butler is Boris Karloff, so heavily made up the producers added a note at the beginning of the movie to say that, yes, he was the same Karloff who had portrayed the monster in Frankenstein. Soon added to the mix are two more stranded travelers, Charles Laughton in his American film debut, and his mistress, played by Lilian Bond.
The fun lies in trying to decide who's merely eccentric and who's a homicidal maniac. Whale and cinematographer Arthur Edeson (All Quiet On The Western Front, Casablanca) do a wonderful job of creating a sense of foreboding with shadows and Expressionistic camera angles. Whale was also one of the first directors to grasp the possibilities of the sound medium, and rain, wind, creaking boards, screams and howls, contribute to the mood.
TV Guide also praised Whale's ability to "emphasize an actor's entrances and exits, or to delay them as needed (as in the case of Saul). His striking flair for composition and editing works an audience over thoroughly, and he adds to the film's impact by deliberately playing with the buildup of suspense."
And Nick Pinkerton in The Village Voice noted that Whale—who was born in a working class slum and invented for himself a cool, aristocratic bearing—was particularly sensitive to class distinctions, an awareness that shows in Laughton's character, "a knighted bigmouth industrialist, still smarting from slights before his social rise."
Despite a generally warm critical reception, The Old Dark House was a box office failure in the United States (it set records in Whale's native England). The film was thought lost for decades until it's rediscovery in the 1970s and its reputation has grown over the last few years until it is now regarded as one of Whale's best.