The Old Dark House

Horror movies are endlessly popular—why are so few any good? This year has brought only one keeper (Amat Escalante’s Mexican feature The Untamed), and last year was the same (Robert Eggers’s low-budget indie The Witch). Fortunately, Halloween always prompts a few theatrical revivals of essential horror movies. On Friday at Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago Film Studies Center presents Tod Browning’s silent shocker The Unknown (1927), with live accompaniment by local musicians Kent Lambert and Sam Wagster, and on Halloween night at Northeastern Illinois University Auditorium, Chicago Film Society screens The Seventh Victim (1943), the most unnerving of the legendary B movies produced by Val Lewton at RKO Pictures. A new 4K restoration of the late George A. Romero’s epochal Night of the Living Dead (1968) opens Friday at Music Box, and Gene Siskel Film Center has a new restoration of James Whale’s overlooked gem The Old Dark House (1932).

None of these relics will let you down, but The Unknown and The Old Dark House are of particular interest because they showcase the talents of Browning and Whale, two pillars of the American horror movie. In February 1931, Browning rescued Universal Pictures from bankruptcy with his runaway hit Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi as the undead count, and nine months later Whale pushed the studio further into the black with Frankenstein, featuring Boris Karloff as the monster. Whale and Browning were very different artists, the former known for his elegance and wit (in Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man), the latter for his macabre, transgressive content (in a string of silent melodramas with Lon Chaney and later the notorious Freaks, all for MGM). Yet The Unknown and The Old Dark House share a fascination with repressed sexuality that speaks to their era and might explain why the horror genre has met with both popular success and moral condemnation.

Many people know about Whale from the 1998 movie Gods and Monsters, a fictionalized account of his last days (starring Ian McKellen) that stresses his professional frustrations as an openly gay man in Hollywood. The Old Dark House, by contrast, came along when Whale was enjoying his greatest industry clout, as the director of Frankenstein, and shows him beginning to experiment with the camp sensibility that would distinguish his horror projects. The movie opens with English spouses Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margaret (Gloria Stuart) bickering as they and a friend drive through the countryside in a torrential downpour. After the trio are forced off the road by a landslide, they seek shelter in a decrepit manor owned by the quivering Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger, later the sinister Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein) and his deaf, Bible-thumping sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore), and presided over by their mute and hulking butler, Morgan (Karloff in bangs and a thick beard).

The Femms offer their visitors a grudging welcome, but Margaret gets a fiery sermon when Rebecca leads her to a bedroom to change out of her wet things. “They were all godless here,” Rebecca says, recalling her father and his friends, as Margaret strips down to her slip. “They used to bring their women here. Brazen, lolling creatures in silks and satins. They filled the house with laughter and sin, laughter and sin!” As she speaks, Whale edits together close-ups of Rebecca, shot from mirrors that increasingly distort her features. “You’re wicked too!” she accuses Margaret. “Young and handsome, silly and wicked! You think of nothing but your long, straight legs and your white body, and how to please your man! You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you?” After she departs, her words echo through Margaret’s mind as Whale returns to the grotesque reflections of Rebecca, this time with extreme close-ups of the brutal Morgan threaded through them.

Adapted from a novel by J.B. Priestley, The Old Dark House became a Hollywood prototype with its tale of unsuspecting travelers trapped in a house full of maniacs. What gives the film real power, however, is one’s growing sense of the house not as a building but as a psyche, and of the individual characters as its emotional components. Horace Femm is fear, and Rebecca Femm is shame. Margaret in her silk slip is desire, and Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton), who arrives at the house with his girlfriend not long after the first party of travelers, is rage, still brooding over how his late wife was snubbed by his wealthy friends. When the travelers begin to explore the house, the forbidden upper floors seem like far reaches of the unconscious. Philip and Margaret, venturing upstairs, discover the siblings’ bearded, bedridden, 102-year-old father, Sir Roderick Femm, who speaks with a woman’s voice; in a perverse bit of gender-bending, Whale gave the role to actress Elspeth Dudgeon, billing her in the credits as “John Dudgeon.”

<i>The Unknown</i>
The Unknown

Born to a working-class family in Dudley, England, Whale had gotten his start in the British repertory theater (where he met Thesiger) and came to the U.S. as a respected stage director before going to Hollywood in 1929. Tod Browning, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, ran away from home to join a carnival, where he worked as a barker, a magician’s assistant, and, at one point, the Hypnotic Living Corpse, a role that required him to be buried alive for hours at a time. As a young actor Browning fell in with pioneering film director D.W. Griffith and moved to Los Angeles, but his days in the carnival stuck with him. At the turn of the 20th century, the carnival and the circus brought thrills and chills to small towns across America; they also supported a relatively licentious moral code that drew the ire of local religious and civic leaders. Browning understood the kind of sexual repression that drove common folk to the outskirts of town in search of sensation.

By the time Browning and Chaney collaborated in the mid-20s, the film colony in Hollywood had begun flirting with the psychoanalytic concepts of Sigmund Freud, at least in their popular form. “As transmuted into an American fad, Freud’s science verged on pseudoscience,” report Browning biographers David Skal and Elias Savada. “Twenties-style psychobabble thus overlapped with the quintessentially Browning milieu of faith healing and occult hucksterism.” These muddled concepts found furious expression in Browning’s original story for The Unknown, a lurid tale of frigidity and castration anxiety. Chaney stars as Alonzo the Armless, a double amputee who performs with a big-top show, and young Joan Crawford plays his beautiful assistant, Nanon, who suffers from a creeping phobia of men’s hands. “Men! The beasts!” she exclaims at one point. “God would show wisdom if he took the hands from all of them!” Clearly these two are a match made in heaven.

The circus acts that bookend the story are weirdly sexualized. At the beginning, Alonzo sits at one end of a rotating platform, holding a rifle with his feet, while Nanon, his target, stands at the opposite end against a wall. Squeezing off perfect shots with his big toe, he cuts the shoulder straps of her gown, which drops to reveal her in shorts and a bikini top. At the end, after Nanon has gotten over her phobia and deserted Alonzo for the arms of Malabar, the Strong Man (Norman Kerry), the rejected hero plots to sabotage Malabar’s act, a surreal tableau in which the scantily clad Nanon poses atop a ladder while, down below, the strongman, arms outstretched from his sides, grips in each hand a tether leading to a straining stallion (for Freud, a symbol of sexual potency). The stunt makes use of hidden treadmills beneath the horses that neutralize their movement, though Alonzo knows that the pull of a lever will halt the treadmills and Malabar’s arms will be torn from their sockets.

Whale and Browning may have invented the American horror movie, but by 1941 both men had been flushed out of the movie business. Freaks, with its cast of genuinely deformed sideshow performers, was greeted with revulsion in the U.S. and banned in the UK for 30 years; Browning clawed his way back professionally and made two more notable horror movies for MGM (Mark of the Vampire, The Devil-Doll) before the studio unloaded him. Whale, a more gifted and versatile director, triumphed at Universal with Show Boat (1936), his lavish screen adaptation of the stage musical, but his antiwar movie The Road Back (1937) was ruined by meddling studio executives and proved to be a costly flop. Both men lived for several years in quiet seclusion: Whale in Pacific Palisades, where he drowned himself in his swimming pool in 1957, aged 67, and Browning in Malibu, where he rarely spoke of his movie career and died five years after Whale, at 82.

A half century later, we live in a more socially liberated time, but sexual impulse has hardly diminished as an aspect of horror movies. (Spoilers ahead.) That Mexican feature The Untamed, which you can still catch next weekend at University of Chicago Doc Films, involves two women who venture into the woods outside their town to enjoy mind-bending orgasms with a strange creature from outer space. The Witch, from last year, takes place in an early Puritan community so rigid that the heroine is lured by the promise of freedom and excitement to a coven of witches in the woods, where she sheds her nightgown and dances naked in the moonlight. As The Unknown and The Old Dark House proved many years ago, no monster could be as exciting or as terrifying as the spell cast by our own bodies.  v