James Whale (director)
21 May 2018 (released)
01 June 2018
For many years this 1932 classic from one of the great masters of the early horror film, James Whale, was considered lost. Its source material is a slim novel first published in 1927 under the title 'Benighted' by the much respected Bradford writer and playwright J.B. Priestley.
On the whole the film adheres pretty closely to the novel (addressing post-WW1 disillusionment) while for the film, elements of darkly twisted humour were added by screenwriters Benn Levy and R.C. Sherriff. It is true to say that the film is a 'little masterpiece' and could easily make a very good stage play (Priestley WAS a playwright!).
The action begins late at night somewhere in the Welsh mountainside during a torrential rainstorm. A car containing three passengers is battling somewhat futilely against the elements. The three passengers in question are a young married couple, Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey) and Margaret (Gloria Stuart), and their friend of sorts Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas). After a landslide they are forced to seek shelter and fortunately - if indeed this is the right word - they soon come across a large isolated house. The home belongs to the eccentric Femm family (and they don't come much more eccentric than this lot - forget about the Addams Family!). After much knocking, the front door of this gloomy mausoleum is eventually opened by the disfigured, mute and hulk-like Morgan (Boris Karloff, a year after FRANKENSTEIN), who mumbles something incomprehensible. The somewhat cynical but big-hearted Penderel turns to his friends and remarks “Even Welsh shouldn't sound like that!” and already we are made aware that this is not a horror film but a black comedy, which was very much 'Whale Country'. The Femms reluctantly agree to put the stranded guests up for the night. Ah yes, the Femms: Horace is played by the one and very much only Ernest Thesiger, a mere lad of 53 at the time with a skull-like visage and the largest nostrils ever (four years later Whale used him again as ‘Dr. Praetorius’ in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and Thesiger stole the film - this was a man who gave a whole new meaning to the word 'camp' which probably hadn't even been invented then). Horace Femm is also a blasphemous atheist unlike his bickering hag of a near deaf (and not exactly identical) twin sister Rebecca (Eva Moore - Laurence Olivier's then mother-in- law), who is a religious maniac. If this isn't bad enough we have the almost constantly drunk and aggressive ‘butler’ Morgan to contend with and upstairs we have the 102 year old, bedridden patriarch Sir Rodrick Femm (played in fact by a woman in her early 60's called Elspeth Dudgeon) - another of Whale's idiosyncratic comic touches. To cap it all, at the very top of the house we have the maddest family member of the lot - Saul Femm (Brember Wells), a violent pyromaniac who is kept locked in his room for obvious reasons.
If all this isn't enough to inflame the bizarre atmosphere we have the arrival of bluff northern working class industrialist Sir William Porterhouse (a young Charles Laughton (who was actually from Scarborough) and his 'companion' – the considerably younger and bubbly showgirl Gladys DuCane (Lillian Bond, who was a showgirl at the time). Their arrival serves to intensify the proceedings, not least because Gladys and Roger Penderel take an instant shine to each other while married couple Philip and Margaret find enough reasons to continue with their marital difficulties. The stage is set for one flaming showdown not easily forgotten…
Whale manages to pack a hell of a lot of action into a mere 72 minutes running time. In addition the film is peppered with memorable one liners and Arthur Edeson’s terrific cinematography borders on the expressionistic – making the most of the light and shadow opportunities this old dark house offers.
It is thanks to Whale’s friend and fellow film director Curtis Harrington that he discovered a print in the Universal vaults in 1968 and persuaded the George Eastman House finance a new duplicate copy and restore the remaining film.
This new and stunning 4K restoration comes with the usual plethora of Extras including Collector’s Booklet, Interviews, Archive material, Trailer etc.