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Tuesday, June 24, 2002

Old, Dark Houses

By Kevin John

I read user comments and customer reviews on the Internet Movie Database or Amazon as diligently as I do criticism proper. I don't do it to access unmediated empirical responses, but, quite to the contrary, to observe how mediated these responses actually are. For instance, we know from classical Hollywood cinema that characters must be causal agents with coherent traits. So when a film like James Whale's "The Old Dark House" (1932) fails to fit into that pattern, many viewers meet the film with consternation, duly registered on the IMDb.

The opening scenes feel as if they adhere to a universal pattern: a group of lost travelers, dishwater-dull hets the Wavertons (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their forever wisecracking companion Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), stumble upon an old dark house populated by weird characters. Here, it's the incredible Femm family. No mad scientists, no ungodly creations. Instead, we're introduced to the brutish brother and de facto butler Morgan (Boris Karloff in an outrageously thankless role), initially creepy but soon an easily beatdownable drunk; the nail-biting, fussy Horace (the great Ernest Thesiger); the shrill, God-fearing Rebecca; Saul the pyro; and the 102-year old patriarch Sir Roderick (listed in the credits as John Dudgeon but actually played by a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon).

I outline this dramatis personae at the expense of synopsis because this old dark house works like a repository for lovingly drawn subcultural types rather than a setting for a story that's less character-driven than character-laden. So let these questions asked by a perplexed London, England, chap on the IMDb stand in for the film's narrative illogic: "Why doesn't Saul finish off Penderel when he has him at his mercy on the hearth? And where does Horace disappear to when the action is going on? How come everyone is so matter-of-fact the following morning? And why are the travelers leaving, when the road is still blocked by the landslides?"

I'd like to fire back with another question ("who cares?"), but that won't get at what's working, or rather, not working here. Whale, it seems, would rather sacrifice consistent character motivation for a bitchy or peculiar line. Warmly partaking in a fireside chat one moment, dishing out disses like the rulingest snap diva the next, Horace, for one, exists within a system governed by wit rather than logic. But whatever the source of the chaos theorem that is "The Old Dark House," a viewer needs some other framework besides the norm of causal agents with coherent traits to account for it.

It's not as if I don't ask the same questions of the film; everyone tries to makes sense of cultural production, usually via a series of questions. But when answers aren't forthcoming, you have to ride the void somehow. For sure, trying to wrap your eyes around "The Old Dark House" is like stumbling around... well, an old dark house, with floorboards giving way and the like. You may fall through to the floor beneath. But you have to get your ass back up to face the next challenge. Or hope someone finds your broken bones sometime soon.

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