Expressionism in the Old Dark House (1932)

     One of the forgotten Universal Horror films is The Old Dark House (1932).  James Whale, the director of Frankenstein (1931), directed this film also.  Arthur Edeson was the cinematographer.  Edeson had been influenced by the Expressionist Directors like Paul Leni, who came to Universal during the 1920s.


German Expressionism and The Cat and the Canary on Amazon

     The film begins with the Wavertons and their friend Penderal travelling on a rain soaked night.  The Wavertons are played by Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart, while Penderal is portrayed by Melvyn Douglas.  A landslide forces them to stop at the Femm House, a mysterious old dark house on the side of the road.

     It is clear that the Femms are no ordinary family.  Horace Femm, played by Ernest Thesiger,greets the travelers but is obviously put out by their arrival.  He also seems fearful of something within the house.  Ernest Thesiger would be famous for his portrayal of Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).


Charcoal of Ernest Thesiger circa 1911 from the Public Domain

     Eva Moore plays Rebecca Femm, a religious fanatic, who continues to speak but does not always direct her words towards someone.  Boris Karloff plays the mute butler Morgan, who may be more than meets the eye.  Two other travelers, played by Charles Laughton and Lilian Bond, arrive and the guests get ready to settle down for the night.  However, a shadow looms over the household.

     The main Expressionistic style trait in this film is the dark, sparse interior.  When Rebecca Femm escorts Mrs. Waverton to a room to change out of her wet clothes, the hallway scene is right from The Cat and The Canary (1927) including the curtains blowing in from the wind outside.

     Edeson sparsely furnished the large rooms of his sets with old furniture and decorations to create a feeling of overwhelming space for the characters much like Leni did in The Cat and The Canary.   The house seems to overwhelm the characters.

     Expressionism was primarily expressed visually through mise-en-scene or the visual elements of set design, props, costuming, etc.  This film movement had its beginnings in the early German silent films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), as well as art and architecture, so sound was not an option.  However, I noticed with this film, and Frankenstein as well, how Whale and Edison used a constant soundtrack of wind, rain and thunder to create an eerie atmosphere in this and other Universal Horror Films.

     I hope you will check out this film that runs only 72 minutes.  You can watch it for free on YouTube by clicking here.

      With such a short time investment, you will be able to see some of the Universal stock players give some of their better performances.  Tell me what you think of this film.

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