This Halloween, Treat Yourself to the Tricks in 1932’s The Old Dark House

If the words “Have a potato” send a chill down your spine, then you’ve likely seen the classic 1932 haunted castle treat The Old Dark House, directed by James Whale. He was on a bit of a wonderful tear of great works at the time that included Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein. The set up of The Old Dark House is as old has horror films themselves, with a group of stranded travelers caught in a vicious rainstorm somewhere in muddy Wales. For all of its attempts to conjure up a scary atmosphere, the film also drums up a great deal of pitch-black humor and even a love story or two. Because what else do male and female strangers do in a potentially haunted house but pair up?

Image courtesy of Gene Siskel Film Center

Whale was always the best of the old-school masters of horror at creating sinister moods and compositions using light and shadow. And it’s not going out on a limb to see connections between the demented family that lives in the titular mansion and the inbred human monsters that populate movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. With the great Boris Karloff as the grunting and groaning butler and Eva Moore as the fire-and-brimstone sister of the eccentric host, Ernest Thesiger, The Old Dark House sets the perfect stage for the unsuspecting tourists to spend the night while having their nerves frayed in every corner of this creepy place.

Matinee heavyweights Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Stuart are among the unsuspecting visitors, and they somehow manage to be glamorous and quick-witted even as they’re being assaulted by this weird family and surreal style that Whale adapts. It seems clear that the filmmaker is both honoring the haunted-house tradition while also poking fun at its conventions and colorful cast of weirdos.

Presented in a stunning 4K digital restoration taken from the original nitrate negative, you’d be insane to miss the opportunity to see this work on the big screen (the 72-minute running time makes it all the more easy to sit through). If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary to watch in a darkened theater, you’d be hard pressed to find anything stranger than The Old Dark House this Halloween season.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.