If you're searching for the haunted house formula at its most basic, look no further than The Old Dark House. It's on a particularly stormy evening that the Wavertons (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their roguish amigo (Melvyn Douglas) find themselves in dire need of shelter. Luckily, the pals make their way to a foreboding mansion, home to the eccentric Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) and his religious fanatic sister Rebecca (Eva Moore). The reception they receive is chilly indeed, one that only grows more arctic after learning about the house's other residents. In addition to the Femms' disfigured butler Morgan (Boris Karloff), there's a brother who may or may not be mad locked up on the top floor. As more wayward travelers stop by, the group can only bide their time before dawn breaks and hope that neither the Femms nor their extended brood do them harm.
I can forgive older horror flicks for many things. The budgets weren't always there, and the acting often skewed overdramatic, but if a film's effect surpassed these hurdles, it made the success all the more savory. But one thing I can't overlook is a poorly-drawn story, in which case I must unfortunately call out The Old Dark House. It kills me to do so, especially as it's regarded as one of the finest early screen chillers. My gripes have nothing to do with the film's atmosphere, which really is spot-on. With darkness inhabiting virtually every frame, it's as if the characters have gone back in time, from modern society into an older world that constantly gazes upon them with judging eyes. Style is not one of the film's shortcomings, especially since director James Whale (Frankenstein) has fun playing with shadows and, consequently, the audience.
But looks are only part of the equation, and here, they can't conceal what proves to be a thematically hollow interior. Plain and simple, The Old Dark House has no story. There's a sizable collection of characters, but their actions qualify as little more than busywork. When asked to cough up something substantial for them to do, the script offers up a nervous shrug before bolting for the door. The story's been hailed for its gallows humor, but if it was there, I sure as hell never chuckled. I ended up watching most of the film through eyes half-closed out of sheer boredom; when it did finally grow a plot, it did so with 15 minutes left to go, hardly enough time to stir viewers from their slumbers. True suspense is already doled out in microscopic increments, but being spread as thinly as they are only dilutes what could've been a creepy masterpiece.
The Old Dark House is must-see viewing for classic horror buffs, if only for the sway it would come to hold over proceeding thrillers with the same idea in mind. But quite like its genre contemporary White Zombie, it's a film best seen muted; visually, it's a stirring piece of work, but try to put together a semblance of a story, you'll find yourself giving up the ghost pretty fast.