Husband and wife Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart come across a mudslide when travelling with friend Melvyn Douglas one dark and stormy night in rural Wales. They seek refuge at a nearby house, which turns out to be full of absolute nutters and neurotics. They include cultured but neurotic old man Ernest Thesiger, his bitter, bickering, and largely deaf sister Eva Moore, and their brutish mute butler, played by Boris Karloff. Staying for dinner with their (kinda) hospitable hosts, they are soon joined by fellow stranded travellers Sir Charles Laughton and Lillian Bond, the latter of whom tickles the fancy of Douglas. And that’s when the power goes out, the butler gets drunk and belligerent, and secrets of this eccentric family emerge, including a pyromaniac relative named Saul (Brember Wills), and another relative (Elspeth Dudgeon, a woman playing an elderly man!) bedridden upstairs. It’s going to be a long, long night.
Pretty much the originator of every spoofy ‘spook house’ movie you’ve ever seen, this 1932 film stands tall, being directed by a real pro in James Whale (“Frankenstein”, “The Bride of Frankenstein”), featuring a mostly stellar cast, and well, most other films of this type are just awful, including the disappointing 1962 remake from William Castle (the normally reliable king of schlock films like “House on Haunted Hill”). Certainly “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters” owe an awful lot to this film.
This one manages to hold up pretty damn well in 2014, including a fairly convincing muddy, stormy, and flooded atmosphere for the exterior scenes. As far as I’m concerned, Whale was a much better, more artistically-inclined director than say, Universal stable mate Tod Browning, and the terrific interior set design is obvious evidence of his artistic vision, even with schlocky material like this. I’m not sure what the pre-credits crawl is all about, suggesting audiences in the early 30s were morons who thought Boris Karloff really was a re-animated monster rather than an actor capable of playing other roles. Wow.
Karloff (whom I’ve always strongly favoured over Bela Lugosi) is actually underused here, Universal never really gave him much to do, and I reckon there was more subtlety to his performance as the Monster in the “Frankenstein” films. He just can’t do much with this role. Thankfully, he’s surrounded by a film full of scene-stealers, especially impressive are Melvyn Douglas, a skeletal-looking Ernest Thesiger, a youngish Sir Charles Laughton (Porterhouse? You ain’t kidding!), and most impressively of all, a memorable Brember Wills and Eva Moore. It truly is an experience to watch two of cinema’s all-time greatest hams in Thesiger and Laughton doing their stuff in the same film, though more scenes with Laughton would’ve been appreciated. Thesiger’s character is a long way from Dr. Pretorius, but his skittish and morose old man is interesting nonetheless. Moore is excellent, giving off creepy Maria Ouspenskaya vibes throughout, and probably even upstaging Thesiger. As the family pyromania, Brember Wills makes one helluva impression in short order. Melvyn Douglas brings a relaxed charm and humour to the film, as he and Lillian Bond prove much more interesting and entertaining than the other couple played by Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart.
It’s a shame that the conclusion is really flat here, because this is otherwise a very entertaining, good-looking, and atmospheric comedy-horror film that spawn just about every other story set in a creepy house full of eccentrics that you’ve ever seen. The screenplay is by Benn W. Levy (Hitchcock’s “Blackmail”) and R.C. Sheriff (“The Invisible Man”, “Goodbye Mr. Chips”) from a novel by J.B. Priestley (“An Inspector Calls”, Hitchcock’s “Jamaica Inn”).
The one spook house comedy-horror film you absolutely have to see, this one’s got a good sense of humour, a great cast, and a director with a real eye for visual detail. Great fun.