With its “Universal Monsters” series dedicated to the likes of Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and others, Universal Studios relied on the mechanics of the studio system — combining popular actors, directors, writers, and other creative personnel under contract — to carve out its own horror niche from the 1920s through the ’50s. Director James Whale and actor Boris Karloff comprised one of the most noteworthy teams, with three films that are now deemed fright classics. Although their first and most famous collaboration, 1931’s Frankenstein, established hallmarks of the nascent horror genre, their second feature, The Old Dark House (1932), which screened at Quad Cinema and will soon be released on DVD, adds polish to many of the same visual and thematic tropes, codifying them in the horror canon.
The London-born Karloff is a key element of these films’ appeal. In his work with Universal the actor became typecast as a silent, hulking brute, despite his rather average height of 5’11”. As the nameless monster in Frankenstein, he is a childlike force of destruction, unaware of his own strength in a way that immediately endangers everyone around him. When the monster is first revealed, close-ups on his face — brow prominent and expression vacant —indicate his fundamental distance from anything recognizably human, presaging the inhuman havoc he will wreck on a small European village.
Similarly, Morgan, Karloff’s House persona, is a mute, scarred butler who is revealed to the audience in the concealing sliver of an open door. Soon after meeting the character, his employers (Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore) lament his penchant for drunken wildness. The Karloff characters in both films establish a link between deformity and evil, a trope that extends to modern horror icons from Freddy Krueger to the Babadook. Both films are under 80 minutes in runtime, so this shorthand — along with Karloff’s gift for pantomime — works effectively in establishing antagonists as soon as possible.
Each film’s tone is likewise established wordlessly through the broad expanse of Whale’s frame. The set design is elaborate and both films favor long shots, showing this scenery in full detail. By pulling the camera as far back as possible, the viewer is treated to intricate images of protagonists’ homes, full of opulent chandeliers dangling from high ceilings and encased in gilded moulding. In wide exterior shots dark, foreboding houses sit atop mountains as rain pours down. Inside these houses, painted backgrounds portray depth through vanishing points and offer a distorted backdrop that calls to mind the previous decade’s German Expressionism. Whale lulls viewers into a false sense of security by immersing them in upper-crust luxury, then horrifies by dragging them into the depravity of monsters and madmen. Jarring shifts in ambience elicit an unease that can still terrify at a time when the genre defaults to gore for its shocks.
The shadows woven into the scenery of Frankenstein and House provide a master class in how to employ light and darkness in a horror film. The film’s ample sets provide a vast canvas for casting shadows, and Whale takes full advantage, using the light of the moon and bright, amorphous fire to create mirror images of figures. In a scene where Dr. Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) goes to answer their castle’s front door, a perfect silhouette of his body and the lantern he holds is cast on the wall. The line of the image is sharp, making this phantom even more threateningly close to a living being. The complex, expressive shadows blanketing the heroes and their environments augment the constant sense that something can go horribly wrong for our protagonists at any moment.
While both films provide prototypes for future horror films, Whale’s growth as a filmmaker makes House the more powerful of the two. In particular, his visual storytelling becomes more exciting when shooting physical combat involving Karloff. In Frankenstein, a multi-person brawl with the monster is portrayed in a single wide shot, depriving the audience of the detail and nuance that would make them gasp and swoon with each blow. Fight scenes in House become a living, breathing, essential part of the film’s ability to terrify, which remains undiluted today.
The Old Dark House will be released in 4k restoration on DVD/Blu-ray this month by Cohen Film Collection.