Saturday, October 21, 2017

Restored and re-discovered: James Whale's black-and-white wonder THE OLD DARK HOUSE

Plenty of us avid moviegoers are familiar enough with the name James Whale. This guy, after all, directed the original Frankenstein (and The Bride of..., too) plus The Invisible Man, as well as the original filmed versions of Journey's End, Waterloo Bridge and Showboat. Many of us know him, too, from Ian McKellen's lovely portrayal of the filmmaker in Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters. What most of us don't know much about, however, is his 1932 movie THE OLD DARK HOUSE, a 72-minute, non-stop delight -- funny, scary, and full of surprises -- that was long thought to have gone the "disappeared" route of so many old and unfairly forgotten films.

Now, thanks to Cohen Media Group (as well as, or so we learn from one of the marvelous bonus features on the new Blu-ray and DVD, to the now-deceased filmmaker Curtis Harrington), a wonderful 4K restoration of the film opened in theaters earlier this month (after playing both the Venice and New York film festivals) and arrives on home video this coming Tuesday, October 24, on Blu-ray, DVD and digital format.

Director Whale (shown at right) with 23 credits on his resume, was gifted in a number of genres, but the amazement of The Old Dark House comes, as much as anything, via the masterly manner in which he mashes so many of these -- mystery, thriller, horror, comedy, romance, satire and even a look at class, economics, religion and morality of the day -- together so goddamned gracefully. It's a wonder.

The film is based on a novel by J.B. Priestley, and the cast assembled here is a wonder, as well. Where else might you possibly see Boris Karloff (below, left), Melvyn Douglas (above), Charles Laughton and Raymond Massey together in the same film? (Mr. Laughton is as likable and surprising here as you may ever have seen him.)

On the distaff side are three wonder women: Gloria Stuart (above, right, and yes, she who made that great comeback in a certain Mr. Cameron's over-rated Titanic) plays a gorgeous dish who fills out a negligee like few others; the beautiful, pert and utterly winning Lilian Bond (below, right), who bring such immediacy and delight to her been-around-the-block ingenue role that you'll not easily forget her; and Eva Moore, who manages the nutty-old-bat role as though we'd never seen such a thing before. (There's one scene between Moore and Stuart that is so jaw-dropping even now, that one wonders what audiences must have thought about it 85 years ago when the film first opened.)

The less said about the plot the better, for it is filled with such bizarre turns-of-events that you'll simply hang on for the ride. And yet, for all its sense of terror and dread, the movie is finally so surprisingly endearing that you may find yourself remembering it less as a fright film than as a sweet, sad, fractured movie about family -- both the blood kind and the sort that's created suddenly out of need and determination.

Whatever: don't let this one pass you by. Its home video release is scheduled for this coming week, and the bonus features on the Blu-ray and DVD are wonderful indeed, especially the interview with Mr. Karloff's daughter, Sara. Though the film runs just 72 minutes, the disc's extras are enough -- in quantity and quality -- to make this much more than merely an evening's entertainment.

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