Friday, October 20, 2017

Review: 'The Old Dark House' Blu-ray


Frankenstein is an undisputed masterpiece of Gothic horror with one of the great on screen performances from Boris Karloff as what is probably the most iconic depiction of a classic monster ever seared into celluloid. James Whale never made a more famous film—and not many other filmmakers have either—yet Frankenstein still doesn’t feel like his definitive work because it is almost completely lacking in a key Whale element: droll humor. He did not start stirring this essential ingredient into his horror movies until his next one: a nutso adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s novel Benighted called The Old Dark House.

The Old Dark House is a classic old dark house set up: on a stormy night, a rag-tag group of strangers seek shelter at a creepy manse full of ooky kooky weirdos. Plot-wise, there is very little else to The Old Dark House, but Benn W. Levy’s script gives a remarkable cast featuring Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Eva Moore, and the divine Ernest Thesiger oodles of delicious things to say. As a leering butler without the ability to speak, Karloff does not get to roll Levy’s words over his tongue as the rest of the gang does, but he still makes his presence felt in an unhinged and unsettling performance. And the cool thing about The Old Dark House that distinguishes it from Whale’s other horror-comedies—The Invisible Man, and his real defining piece, Bride of Frankenstein—is that it still hold up as true-blue horror, blending in some genuinely chilling moments among the clowning.

Universal lost the right to release The Old Dark House after the Priestley estate resold the story to Columbia so it could remake Benighted in 1963 (and though I love director William Castle to death, it’s a lousy film), but this may actually be a good thing since Universal now only seems interested in its golden age horrors featuring the Big-Six monsters. If Universal still had dibs on The Old Dark House, we may never have gotten a Blu-ray release, which we now have thanks to the Cohen Film Collection. This 4K restoration looks miraculous compared to Kino’s 1999 DVD. The picture is clean and boasts beautiful contrast. The grain can get a bit intense, but these moments are few and hardly disrupt what is overall a fabulously clean presentation for a film of this age. Even the opening reel, which is only a dupe since the original was too decayed to use, looks pretty great. However, the soundtrack is somewhat tinny and noisy in patches, and the noise gets particularly hairy in the penultimate reel.

Most of the extras—feature commentaries with Gloria Stuart and James Curtis (who wrote the essential James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters) and an interview with Curtis Harrington, who knew Whale and hunted down the original negative of the film—were ported over from the Kino DVD (only an image gallery was lost in translation). Cohen only adds a booklet interview with Harrington and a 15-minute video interview with Boris’s daughter Sara Karloff, who discusses her dad’s career, difficulty in the makeup chair, and unique voice and body language. However, a lack of abundant new bonuses are of little consequence considering how much one of the great old films now looks like a great new film.
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