Universal Studios were most famous for their moody tales of midnight monsters, supernatural ghouls, and science gone awry: Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and his Bride, the Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man. A large number of Universal's classic monster films, however, did not involve a monster at all... At least not a supernatural one. Some of their most celebrated were based very loosely on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, including Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat (1934). There were also the Inner Sanctum Mysteries of the 1940's: a series of six murder mysteries starring Lon Chaney Jr. based on the eponymous radio show. Another informal sub-genre within the non-supernatural mysteries developed, known by its most famous entry, the "Old Dark House" movie.
The ingredients of an Old Dark House mystery are simple: take a cast of eccentric characters, maybe one or two actual sane ones, and lock them in a dilapidated manor on a dark and stormy night. It is a durable recipe that, among other things, gave rise to the board game Clue and its 1985 film adaptation starring Tim Curry. Many Old Dark House films began life as a stage play, as the setting is uniquely suited to classical performance. The oldest example of the genre is The Monster, MGM's 1925 film starring Lon Chaney Sr. and based on the 1924 play of the same name. Universal's Dracula, though not an Old Dark House film, does spend an awful lot of time in drawing rooms and was also a stage play before it was committed to celluloid. A better example is Arsenic and Old Lace, a stage satire of the Old Dark House genre with a running joke about a character who looks like Boris Karloff... played by Boris Karloff. It was adapted to film in 1944 starring Cary Grant and not Boris Karloff (thus killing the joke).
Every studio attempted an Old Dark House film through the 20's, 30's, and 40's. The Bat (1926) by United Artists was based on a 1920 Broadway hit, and was remade as The Bat Whispers in 1930, The Phantom (1931) by Poverty Row studio Supreme Pictures, Tangled Destinies (1932) by Mayfair Pictures, The 9th Guest (1934) by Columbia, One Frightened Night (1935) by Mascot Pictures, One Body Too Many (1944) by Paramount and starring Bela Lugosi, and on the list goes. But the best by far were produced by Universal Studios, who essentially had the horror genre on lockdown.
The Cat and the Canary starred Laura La Plante in the lead role as Annabelle West and was directed by the legendary Paul Leni. Born in Stuttgart in 1885, Leni worked his way through German cinema as an art director before assuming the the full director's chair for a number of films, culminating in the German Expressionist masterpiece Waxworks (1924). In 1927 he accepted an offer from Universal Studios, for whom The Cat and the Canary was his first feature. His unique gift was to be able to fuse the traditions of German Expressionism with the conventions of American film and to seamlessly blend both frights and humour. Leni's next film was The Chinese Parrot, a 1927 entry into the Charlie Chan series. Then came his ostensibly greatest masterpiece, The Man Who Laughs (1928), the Victor Hugo historical epic starring Conrad Veidt and often itself considered among the Universal Monsters films. The Cat and the Canary itself was remade several times, including a sound version by Universal only 3 years later, titled The Cat Creeps, and a 1939 version starring Bob Hope, produced by Paramount.
Leni's final film was a conceptual follow-up to The Cat and the Canary titled The Last Warning, released in 1929. This film also starred Laura La Plante, though the action was moved from a dark and foreboding mansion to a stage on New York's glittering Broadway. Five years prior, lead actor and theatre owner John Woodford died mysteriously in the middle of a performance. The assumption was murder, but the body was never recovered. Today, the company is reassembling to stage the same play, in the hopes that doing so will out the culprit. Cue the mysterious goings on, strange sightings, and near death experiences. The story is most inconsequential to the historicity of the film, including Paul Leni's fabulous Expressionist filmmaking and the reuse of the celebrated theatre set from Phantom of the Opera.
Sadly, Leni passed away from sepsis due to a tooth infection in 1929, at the age of 44. He did, however, leave behind a greater legacy than two of the greatest silent films and a pair of Old Dark House thrillers. The German Expressionist vocabulary he introduced to Universal would give shape to the studio's horror output during the era of sound. European directors Robert Florey, Karl Freund, and Edgar Ulmer found their way to directing such films as Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mummy (1932), and The Black Cat paved by Leni. Though Tod Browning would bolt the camera to the floor for his filmed rendition of Dracula in 1931, his counterpart James Whale, working on 1931's Frankenstein, would employ many of those Expressionist conventions.
Though Frankenstein, The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) are rightly heralded as tours de force, Whale brought his considerable powers to bear on The Old Dark House, a 1932 film that was so archetypic that, like any great work, its title subsumed the whole genre.
The Old Dark House has all the makings of a classic Gothic tale of sublime ruin and ancient family curses. Poe and Bronte echo through the halls of the Femm manor. However, the film is more of an off-Gothic black comedy. It lacks the slapstick of its silent predecessors and opts for a big, serious action finale, but each line and gesture is infused with James Whale's wry English wit. Thesiger, for instance, is as creepy as always though never levelling to pure comedy or threat. Eva Moore's Rebecca is one in a long line of Whale's chattering women whose feverish fundamentalist rant on vanity is threatening, but immediately played out by her quick glance in the mirror at its end. Many consider The Old Dark House to be Whale's dry run for The Bride of Frankenstein, not the least of reasons being Karloff and Thesiger.
This British sensibility and off-Gothic style probably went far to explain why The Old Dark House was not a hit when it debuted. Universal Studios was still in the experimental stage of figuring out what horror movies even were in 1932, leading to such films as Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Mummy. Also like The Cat and the Canary, it was underappreciated because of a misunderstanding of an Old Dark House movie's structure. One reviewer called it "somewhat inane", which could be forgiven considering that there is no evident plot. The Old Dark House even lacks The Cat and the Canary's MacGuffin. These characters merely end up in the house and events simply unfold until it's over with very little in the way of an overarching narrative. Within the genre, the goings on of the house is the narrative. The reveal of the gibbering thing in the attic doesn't even become a force in the story until the last third. A three-week booking at New York's rialto theatre was cut short to 10 days.
Whale was always an underappreciated genius in his time. He didn't even care for his work in horror, a genre that, in many ways, he helped to create. His non-horror work like The Impatient Maiden (1932), The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), and One More River (1934), which struggled even to pass the new Hays Code, did little to impress anyone else. After Bride of Frankenstein, Whale balked at being asked to helm Dracula's Daughter (1936) and, instead, snapped out the murder mystery Remember Last Night? (1935), which he considered a personal favourite but which received little commercial or critical attention. Then Whale turned his attention to a lavish, full-sound adaptation of the musical Show Boat (1936) which ended up bankrupting Universal and forcing out owners Carl Laemmle Sr. and Jr. Under the new regime, Whale's career declined to cheap b-movies until he finally retired from filmmaking in 1941 at only 52 years of age.
For The Old Dark House, that meant the film fell into abuse and after Universal lost the rights to the story in the 1957, it had been considered lost. Thankfully, Whale's friend and fellow director Curtis Herrington found prints of the film and commissioned George Eastman House to restore it. The Old Dark House is now widely available and considered one of Whale's best films and one of the best of Universal's non-monster horrors.
The mansion set from The Old Dark House was reused in a kind of conceptual sequel, The Secret of the Blue Room, released in 1933. It is significantly less dark on this not-very dark and stormy night... The house is quite well-lit and inviting, though there is still murder afoot.
The Secret of the Blue Room is serviceable but director Kurt Neumann is no James Whale. Many do not even consider it to be part of the Universal Monsters canon, in that there are so few trappings of Gothic horror in it. For the most part, the film is a straightforward murder mystery with a well-telegraphed ending for the even slightly thoughtful viewer.
After The Secret of the Blue Room, Universal largely abandoned the tired Old Dark House genre. Universal almost abandoned filmmaking altogether: the financial crisis presented by Show Boat nearly brought the studio to heel, and the new management was less than enthusiastic over the genre. It was only leveraging the classic monsters, and creating a handful of new ones, as relatively inexpensive b-movies that saved the series from 1939 onward.