The Old Dark House
theatrical poster
Directed by James Whale
Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Written by J.B. Priestley (novel)
R. C. Sherriff
Benn Levy
Starring Boris Karloff
Melvyn Douglas
Charles Laughton
Music by Bernhard Kaun
Cinematography Arthur Edeson
Editing by Andrew Cohen
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date(s) October 20, 1932 (1932-10-20)
Running time 71 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $250,000 (est)

The Old Dark House (1932) is an American comedy and horror film directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff. The film is based on the 1927 novel Benighted by J. B. Priestley.[1][2] The supporting cast includes Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton and Ernest Thesiger.


The film is based on the 1927 novel Benighted by J. B. Priestley, published in the United States under the same title as the film,[3] and was adapted for the screen by R. C. Sherriff and Benn Levy.

The movie also stars Melvyn Douglas and features Charles Laughton (in his first Hollywood film), Ernest Thesiger, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart and Lilian Bond as the ingenue. According to the Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural, the Femm family's ancient patriarch was played by a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon (billed as "John Dudgeon"), because Whale could not find a male actor who looked old enough for the role.

In spite of the presence of Karloff, The Old Dark House was largely ignored at the American box office, although it was a huge hit in Whale's native England. For many years, it was considered a lost film and gained a tremendous reputation as one of the pre-eminent gothic horror films. In 1968, a print of the film was discovered by Curtis Harrington in the vaults of Universal Studios[3] and was restored with the help of George Eastman House.


Seeking shelter from a pounding rainstorm in a remote region of Wales, several travellers are admitted to a gloomy, foreboding mansion belonging to the extremely strange Femm family. Trying to make the best of it, the guests must deal with their sepulchral host, Horace Femm, who claims to be on the run from the police, and his religious, obsessive, malevolent sister, Rebecca.

Things get worse as the brutish mute butler, Morgan, gets drunk, runs amok, threatens Margaret Waverton and releases the long pent-up brother, Saul, a psychotic fantasist and pyromaniac who gleefully tries to destroy the residence by setting it on fire.


  • Boris Karloff as Morgan: an alcoholic mute butler employed by the Femm family
  • Melvyn Douglas as Roger Penderel: a war veteran who arrives at the Femm household with Margaret and Philip
  • Raymond Massey as Philip Waverton: Margaret's husband who arrives at the house with Roger
  • Gloria Stuart as Margaret Waverton: Philip's wife, who arrives at the house with Roger
  • Charles Laughton as Sir William Porterhouse
  • Lilian Bond as Gladys DuCane Perkins: a chorine who is the girlfriend of Sir William
  • Ernest Thesiger as Horace Femm: the host of the house, brother to Rebecca and Saul, and son of Sir Roderick
  • Eva Moore as Rebecca Femm: the near deaf religious fanatic sister of Horace
  • Elspeth Dudgeon as Sir Roderick Femm: the 102 year old bed-ridden father of the Femm family
  • Brember Wills as Saul Femm: a pyromaniac member of the Femm family, locked up in the house


Universal Studios producer Carl Laemmle invited screenwriter Benn Levy from England to Universal City after being impressed with Levy's screenplay for Waterloo Bridge (1931) which was also directed by James Whale. Levy was loaned to Paramount Pictures, where he worked on the screenplay for Devil and the Deep. When Levy finished work on the film, he returned to Universal to start work on The Old Dark House.[4] The film is based on 1927 novel Benighted by J. B. Priestley, a novel about post-World War I disillusionment.[5] The film follows the original plot of the book, while adding levels of comedy to the story.[5]

The film appeared on Universal's schedule in February 1932 and the script was submitted to the Hays Office in March. Filming finished by May 1932.[4] Whale worked with many collaborators from his previous films including Arthur Edeson, who was the cinematographer for Frankenstein (1931) and Waterloo Bridge (1931), set designer Charles D. Hall, who also worked with Whale on Frankenstein, and playwright R. C. Sherriff, who wrote the original play for Journey's End which Whale made into a film of the same name in 1930.[6][7]


The Old Dark House was previewed in early July 1932 and was re-issued into theaters in 1939.[4] In 1957, Universal Studios lost the rights to the original story.[4] Whale's fellow director and friend Curtis Harrington helped to prevent The Old Dark House from becoming a lost film. Harrington repeatedly asked Universal to locate the film negative and then persuaded the George Eastman House film archive to finance a new duplicate negative of the poorly-kept first reel.[8]


In the United States, Variety and The Hollywood Filmograph gave the film negative reviews, with Variety calling it a "somewhat inane picture".[9] All nine of the New York dailies gave the film positive reviews.[4]

The New York Times praised the film stating that "there is a wealth of talent in the production" and "like Frankenstein, it has the advantage of being directed by James Whale who once again proves his ability".[9] The box office reception started well in the first week of release, but later suffered through negative word of mouth.[4] It was booked for three weeks at the Rialto Theatre in New York where the audience turn-out dropped to less than half in its second week and the film was pulled after ten days.[4] The film performed better in England, where it broke house records at the Capitol Theatre in London.[4]

Modern reception has been more generally positive, with the film-ranking website Rotten Tomatoes reporting that 100% of critics had given the film positive reviews, based upon a sample of six reviews.[10] Ali Catterall of Channel 4 referred to the film as "Impressively atmospheric and hilariously grim".[11] Time Out London praised the film stating that "Whale manages to parody the conventions of the dark house horror genre as he creates them, in which respect the film remains entirely modern."[12] Karl Williams of the film database Allmovie wrote that "by the 1960s attained a grail-like status among fans of director James Whale...The Old Dark House came to be reconsidered a cult gem, part of the renewal of interest in Whale's talents many years after his creative peak".[8]


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