The Old Dark House (1932)

The Old Dark House, is a 1932 Universal comedy-horror film. The film centers on two groups of travelers who are caught in a storm, and have to stay over night in a country manor filled with characters who range from eccentric to lunatic. Boris Karloff plays a deformed sexually frustrated alcoholic who protects the family from the crazy guy in the attic. There’s also a girl in a slip.

The film is a riff on the 19th century syphilis drama, best known from Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, and the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Third Generation“. The genre is based in the incorrect belief that congenital syphilis is passed on from father to child (it is passed through the mother, who is often infected by the father). The genre was eventually overtaken by the incest narratives, usually in comedy-horror form, a genre that goes back at least to the “Fall of the House of Usher,” and probably even further. The best of the later “stuck in a house with crazy people” films is “Spider Baby: or the Maddest Story Ever Told,” which accredits the family’s insanity to inbreeding.

The Old Dark House was quite funny, and still managed to have a surprising amount of social commentary. Several of the “guests” were victims of England’s class system – a businessman who couldn’t fit into society, a traumatized veteran of the great war, a prostitute – and they had to defend themselves from a wealthy family that had been driven insane by debauchery. Eventually the crazy older brother was embraced by his deformed servant, so, a happy ending?

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