Happy Birthday Boris Karloff: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Universal 1932)

William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, but horror movie icon Boris Karloff was “born” when he teamed with director James Whale for 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. The scary saga of a man and his monster became a big hit, and Universal Studios boss Carl Laemmle Jr. struck while the horror trend was hot, quickly teaming the pair in an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel THE OLD DARK HOUSE. This film was considered lost for many years until filmmaker and Whale friend Curtis Harrington discovered a print in the Universal vaults. Recently, a 4K restoration has been released courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection, and a showing aired on TCM this past Halloween. I of course, having never seen the film, hit the DVR button for a later viewing.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE has not only been restored to its former glory, but is a delightful black comedy showcasing Whale’s macabre sense of humor. Karloff gets top billing for the first time in his career as the brutish mute butler Morgan, though he’s not the “star” in the true sense of the word. Instead, he’s part of an ensemble of actors who’re engaged in a mission to send a shiver down the audience’s collective spine. Whale, screenwriters Benn Levy and R.C. Sheriff, cinematographer Arthur Edeson, art director Charles B. Hall, and Universal’s make-up genius Jack Pierce all collaborate to create a memorable mise en scene inside the creepy old Femm house of horrors.

The story: it was a dark and stormy night (as Snoopy would say), and bickering couple Philip and Margaret Waverton, with their wayfaring travelling companion Roger Penderel, get stranded deep in the Wales countryside. They seek shelter at a gloomy mansion, where they’re greeted at the door by the mute, horribly scarred butler Morgan. Entering the foreboding domicile, the three are introduced to brother and sister Horace and Rebecca Femm, he a gaunt looking weirdo with a fondness for gin, she a half-deaf religious fanatic. To say the siblings are lacking in the social graces is an understatement!

During the bizarre supper ritual, two more wanderers knock at the Femm door, boisterous Sir William Porterhouse and his “friend” Gladys DuCane (formerly Perkins). The storm outside rages on, and then a storm front moves indoors as Morgan gets “at the bottle again”, attempting to rape Margaret, and releasing brother Saul Femm from his locked room, a milquetoast looking pipsqueak who turns out to be the biggest maniac of the bunch…

Boris is menacing as Morgan, aided by Jack Pierce’s make-up job, but isn’t given much to do in the acting department. His is a mostly physical role, threatening Margaret Waverton in his drunken stupor, needing three men to subdue him. It’s Morgan who lets loose the psychotic Saul, putting things in motion that lead to the film’s conclusion. Morgan may not be the focal point of THE OLD DARK HOUSE, but it’s an important film in the Karloff canon. It’s his first top-billed role, and the movie’s posters herald him as only KARLOFF, the last name alone now recognized by audiences of the day as the last word in terror! Boris would have many more opportunities to show his acting skills in the horror genre (and others), thanks in large part to his popularity in FRANKENSTEIN and this, his second Universal Horror.

“A Universal Cast is Worth Repeating”, and this one’s a doozy! Let’s start with Melvyn Douglas , just beginning his film career in the part of Penderel. His character’s from ‘The Lost Generation’, a disillusioned WWI vet whose aimless life contains no meaning, until fate steps in. Raymond Massey (Philip) was already an established star, with his iconic role as Abraham Lincoln waiting in the wings. Gloria Stuart (Margaret) was a WAMPAS Baby Star and Universal contract player just getting started; modern audiences fell in love with her as the elderly Rose in TITANIC. Charles Laughton (Porterhouse) makes his American film debut here, bringing both humor and pathos to his role. Lilian Bond (Gladys) never quite made the impact her costars did, but she’s more than good as the ex-chorus girl, and had a long career.

The family Femm are certainly a grotesque lot, with marvelous Ernest Thesiger as the emotionally dead Horace and Eva Moore his completely creepy sister Rebecca. Thesiger, known to horror fans as the sinister Dr. Pretorius in Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, is perfect as the cadaverous Horace, so uncomfortable around people he can’t connect with anyone, except his palpable hatred for sister Rebecca. Moore is a revelation as the  religious nut, obviously sexually repressed, especially when talking about her late sister (“She was a wicked one… with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck”). In a scene that’s pure Pre-Code, Margaret gets out of her rain-soaked clothes, stripping down to her slip. Rebecca feels the smooth fabric, stating, “That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot”. Then, placing her hand on Margaret’s breast, says “That’s finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too, in time”, causing Margaret to withdraw in repulsion, the vanity mirror behind them distorting both women’s faces. It’s a frightening scene, beautifully staged by Whale and acted by the two ladies.

Brember Wills is Saul Femm, who is feared by his siblings, but looks harmless at first. But as the cameras roll, we see his demeanor change before our eyes, and this little man becomes a psychopath of the first order, obsessed with flame and fire, and determined to burn the family homestead to the ground. Wills was primarily a stage actor, with only six film credits, but this movie elevates him to the pantheon of Universal Monsters! As for 102 year old patriarch Sir Roderick Femm, confined to bed and looking like he’s already past his expiration date, actor John Dudgeon is credited. Only there’s no such person… Sir Roderick is played by 61-year-old actress Elspeth Dudgeon, a Whale in-joke. Loaded up with Jack Pierce’s old age makeup, Elspeth does a gender-bending splendid job. If I hadn’t known beforehand that it was a woman behind all that makeup, I never would’ve guessed it!

James Whale seems to have had a good time experimenting with oddly tilted camera angles and moody lighting on this, a warm up perhaps for his THE INVISIBLE MAN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. He certainly leaves his stamp on the film, with its expressionistic look and warped sense of humor. THE OLD DARK HOUSE, unlike some films I’ve long heard about, did not disappoint me upon my first viewing, and I’d highly recommend anyone with a Blu-Ray to purchase a copy pronto. Boris Karloff may not be the star of the show, but his Morgan is suitably gruesome enough to satisfy die-hard horror fans, as is the movie as a whole. Happy birthday King Karloff; long may you reign in the nightmares of monster lovers everywhere!

Halloween Havoc!: Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY (Universal 1932)

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Boris Karloff is as slow and still as death itself in THE MUMMY. His performance as Ardeth Bey/Imhoptep conveys the horror of a living dead man with the romance of a love across the ages. This Mummy isn’t just a shuffling instrument of some High Priest; Imhotep was a High Priest himself, brought back to half-life by foreign interlopers and now searching for the woman he lost 3700 years ago. Aided by two of Jack Pirerce’s fantastic make-up jobs, Karloff brought all his sinister power to the role and created yet another masterful characterization that still frightens audiences today.

A British Museum expedition in 1921 digs up the sarcophagus of Imhotep, high priest of Karnak who, according to the hieroglyphics, was buried alive for committing sacrilege. A smaller box comes with an ominous warning: “Death, eternal punishnet, for anyone who opens this casket…Amon-Ra”. While Sir Joseph Whemple and occult expert Dr. Muller discuss the ramifications of the find, impetuous young Ralph Norton opens the box and begins reading from the Scroll of Thoth. As he mouths the ancient incantation, the mummy of Imhotep slowly opens its eyes, its hands sliding down its dusty, gauze-wrapped body. Norton screams as Imhotep grabs a papyrus and slinks out of the tent. Whemple and Muller come running, only to find Norton laughing hysterically. “It decided to take a little walk”, Norton howls, driven mad by the ghastly sight he witnessed.

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We only get a brief glimpse of Karloff as Imhotep in the first mummy make-up by Pierce. Universal reused it for its  40s Mummy series, with Tom Tyler as Kharis in THE MUMMY’S HAND, then Lon Chaney Jr. in three sequels. The rest of THE MUMMY has Karloff as Ardeth Bey dressed in fez and kaftan, coal black eyes shining from his wrinkled face, eyes that have stared into the face of death and know it’s terrible dark secrets.

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Fade in to 1932 and another expedition, this one headed by Whemple’s son, Frank. This is where Ardeth Bey arrives on the scene, telling Frank and Prof. Pearson he knows where to find the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. The workers find steps buried in the sands, and the discovery is made. The princess’s coffin and other artifacts go on display at the Cairo Museum, and Bey hides in the shadows afterhours, lighting incense and reading from that ancient papyrus. Across town, Helen Grosvenor, patient of Dr. Muller, is compelled by an unseen force to the museum, banging on the door until fainting.Frank and his father bring the girl to their hotel. Helen mutters a name familiar to the elder Whemple…Imhotep!

Frank is enamored of the enigmatic Helen, who has no recollection fo being at the museum. Bey arrives at the Whemples and Helen is immediately drawn to her (“Haven’t we met before, Miss Grosvenor?”). Bey has come for the Scroll of Thoth, and Muller and Whemple realize he’s Imhotep incarnate. “If I could get my hands on you”, says Muller, “I’d break your dried flesh to pieces”. But Bey’s willpower is too strong, and he leaves after telling Whemple to have his Nubian servant (now under Bey’s control) to bring him the scroll or suffer the consequences.

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Muller urges Whemple to burn the scroll, but when he attempts it, Bey’s mystical powers cause him to have a heart attack. The Nubian retrieves the scroll and delivers it to Bey. Summoning Helen, Bey puts her in a trance and, in his pool, shows her “memories of love and crime and death”. The scene turns to ancient Egypt, where after the death and burial of Ankh-es-en-amon, Imhotep steals the Scroll of Thoth and goes to her forbidden tomb to revive her. Caught in the act, he’s wrapped completely in gauze (except his eyes) and buried alive, the slaves who buried him killed so no one will find his grave. Helen awakes, remembering nothing. Frank and Muller decide the only way to stop Bey is let Helen lead them to her. When next she’s summoned, Bey dresses her in the clothing of Ankh-es-en-amon. She’s now overtaken by the dead princess’s spirit, and Bey tells her she must be sacrificed in order to be resurrected as he was those centuries ago. Frank and Muller arrive but are powerless over Bey, but Helen, now truly Ankh-es-en-amon, prays to the statue of the god Isis for help. The statue’s arm lifts and destroys both Bey and the scroll, freeing Helen and letting the princess’s spirit have its final peace. Ardeth Bey/Imhotep’s flesh turns to dust, with nothing left of him save a skeleton and a pile of rotted rags.

Director Karl Freund’s career has been discussed this month in my look at MAD LOVE, so I’ll just say e does a tremendous job with the supernatural material. The set designs are superb, evoking ancient Egypt, and Pierce’s make-ups are always meticulous in their design. The cast features exotic-looking Zita Johann (Helen), whose screen career was short but was well known on the Broadway stage (and was once married to actor/producer John Houseman). Universal’s resident heartthrob David Manners (Frank) served the same function in horror classic DRACULA and THE BLACK CAT. Then there’s Edward Van Sloan (Muller), the Grand Old Man of Horror. The original Van Helsing to Lugosi’s DRACULA, Van Sloan contributed support to macabre movies like FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, THE BLACK ROOM, the serial THE PHANTOM CREEPS, and dozens of other films in his distinguished career. Arthur Bryan, Bramwell Fletcher, Leonard Mudie, and Noble Johnson add strong support in their roles as well. Boris Karloff was a star for almost 40 years, acting right up until his death in 1969. His presence in THE MUMMY and other shockers helped give them the longevity they deserve. Horror movies wouldn’t exist without these early excursions into the fantastic, and I’m grateful to be able to revisit these classics and turn new generations on to Karloff, Lugosi, and all the other pioneers of dark cinema. .