While growing up in the 1960s, I used to love whenever one of the local TV channels would show one of British director James Whale’s Big 3 horror movies, all from Universal Studios: Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and, perhaps best of all, the eternal glory that is Bride of Frankenstein (1935). What I was unaware of back then was the fact that there was a fourth Universal horror film directed by Whale, and that bit of youthful ignorance was not entirely my fault. Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) was, for many years, considered a lost film, and it was not until 1968 that Curtis Harrington (himself the director of such horror gems as Queen of Blood, What’s the Matter With Helen? and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?) discovered a neglected print in the Universal vaults. Today, of course, The Old Dark House is a breeze to see, although this viewer had only experienced it once until quite recently. Making this even more problematic for horror fans over the years was the fact that the film’s source novel itself had long been out of print, an oversight that was rectified by the Richmond, Virginia-based publisher Valancourt Books, whose 2013 edition marked the novel’s first appearance in almost 75 years!
That novel, by the way, first saw the light of day as a 1927 hardcover from the British publisher William Heinemann, under the equally appropriate title Benighted; when released in the U.S. a year later, it bore its more familiar name. This was only the second novel written by Yorkshire-born author J.B. Priestley (1894 – 1984), who would go on to become one of England’s most respected novelists/critics/playwrights. His first book, Adam In Moonshine, had been released earlier that year, and he would ultimately go on to create some 30 novels before his death, one month shy of his 90th birthday. Benighted would be reprinted a few times before its 1945 Armed Services edition, after which it was completely unavailable for 73 years, until Valancourt chose to resurrect it for a new generation. Often referred to as the quintessential “old dark house” story (a popular genre in the early decades of the 20th century, on the printed page, the stage and big screen, and which usually involved a group of strangers coming together in a creepy, isolated abode for one reason or another), Priestley’s book is a beautifully written affair, oftentimes thrilling and touching, that this reader found perfect company during a few recent stormy days in late October. Though wholly lacking in supernatural elements, the novel will surely manage to chill the modern-day reader.
In the book, we encounter Philip and Margaret Waverton, a middle-aged couple that is currently undergoing some (never clearly defined) problems in their marriage. While driving through the Welsh countryside one remarkably stormy night, accompanied by their friend Roger Penderel, a younger, disillusioned, WW1 veteran, their journey becomes impossible when the roads both in front of them and behind are submerged by both flood and landslides. The trio stops at the only house in the area, and they go knocking on the decrepit pile’s front door, seeking shelter. And what a household it is that they are admitted to! As it turns out, they have entered the residence of the Femm family, three very strange brothers and one very odd sister. Rebecca Femm is a mostly deaf, religious zealot who screeches incessantly. Horace is a nervous and tentative old coot. Meanwhile, the oldest of the bunch, Sir Roderick, is said to be confined to his bed upstairs. And then there is Saul, who we only learn of later … a raving, pyromaniac lunatic whose bedroom door must always be kept bolted from the outside. Oh … we also have the butler, Morgan, a massive, bearded mute who is said to be quite savage when he drinks … which he apparently does quite often. Before long, two other stranded travelers come knocking on the Femms’ door, seeking shelter: Sir William Porterhouse, a wealthy captain of industry, and his youngish companion, a chorus girl named Gladys Du Cane. (Her real name, it is later revealed, is Gladys Hoskiss.) During the course of Priestley’s book, this quintet of benighted travelers undergoes some truly horrifying experiences in the Femm household, as the storm outside worsens, Morgan becomes quite besotted, and Saul is set free to wreak murderous havoc…
Benighted, as it turns out, is a marvelously written book, and the reader will continually be stunned to realize that it was only Priestley’s sophomore effort. The author evinces a great knack for creating mood and atmosphere with simply written yet elegant prose, and his dialogue often sparkles with wit and wisdom. The Femm fatales, as shown here, are reminiscent of the later Addams family of TV fame, although without the latter’s charm, cuteness and humor, and Priestley makes all his oddball Femm characters convincingly realistic and quite within the bounds of credibility. Who needs ghosts when you’ve got a bunch of living fossils like the Femms? Into his book, Priestley injects any number of memorable scenes, some of the finest being the game of Truth that most of the characters play early on, during which we learn much about what makes them tick; the scene in which the drunken Morgan tries to rape Margaret, and then battles her husband at the top of a stairway; Roger and Gladys’ conversation as they sip whiskey in the house’s garage, and realize their love for one another; Margaret and Philip’s entering the bedroom of the incredibly ancient Sir Roderick and conversing with him; and the climactic dukeout between Roger and the madman, Saul. Throughout, the characters alternately perceive their predicament as being a nightmare, a film and a staged play, a testament to the unreal nature of the proceedings, with Roger realizing early on that “these Femms, perched remotely on their hill, seemed to have gone queer, all maggot-brained…” And indeed, the author does mention, of the Femms, that “these people might have been living in another world…”
As for the film, which I just watched for the second time, immediately after finishing Benighted, it is a remarkably faithful adaptation, with many scenes depicted precisely as I’d imagined them, and with passages of dialogue plucked verbatim from Priestley’s book. The film, however, does make some minor changes to the author’s original conception, some of them quite inexplicable. Gladys’ last name, for example, is changed from Hoskiss to Perkins. Why? The scene in which the characters reveal much about themselves in that game of Truth has been excised, replaced by a not-nearly-as-enlightening general conversation. Sir Roderick, strangely enough, is said to be the other Femms’ father, not eldest brother, and his age (never mentioned in the novel) is said to be 102. The entire sequence with Saul in the film — his maniacal conversation with Roger — has been invented whole cloth, and the character of Morgan has been softened a bit. Most glaringly, the film gives the viewer no sense of the troubled patch that the Wavertons are going through in their marriage, is devoid of the weighty and philosophical discussions present in the book, and changes the novel’s tragic conclusion in favor of a “Hollywood happy ending.” As regards that last, Orrin Grey, in his fine introduction to the Valancourt edition, tells us “…The movie originally ended just as the book does, but it was re-shot after preview screenings determined that audiences wouldn’t respond as well to the book’s more tragic climax…” A pity, says me.
As for the rest of it, the film version was, unsurprisingly, marvelously directed by Whale (Whale’s in Wales?), and featured that mostly faithful script by Benn W. Levy, as well as beautifully creepy cinematography from Arthur Edeson, who also worked on Frankenstein and The Invisible Man.
And my goodness, what a terrific international cast was assembled for this production! American actor Melvyn Douglas (in his sixth film) plays Roger Penderel; Canadian actor Raymond Massey (in his fifth film) and American actress Gloria Stuart (in her third film; Gloria would later star in The Invisible Man and, many decades later, in Titanic) portray the Wavertons; English actor Charles Laughton (here in his first American film) plays Sir William; and English actress Lilian Bond plays Gladys. As for the Femm clan, they are all portrayed by English performers: The great Boris Karloff, top billed here, plays Morgan, a huge scar across his nose added for the sake of shudders (Boris would appear in The Mask of Fu Manchu and The Mummy later that same year); Eva Moore digs her teeth into the role of Rebecca; Brember Wills plays the maniacal Saul; and, perhaps most appropriately cast, the marvelously eccentric Ernest Thesiger perfectly inhabits the role of Horace (Ernest and Boris, of course, would be reunited three years later in Bride of Frankenstein). As for Sir Roderick, he is played by a woman, namely Elspeth Dudgeon; apparently, the filmmakers could not find any male who looked as convincingly ancient in Otto Lederer and Jack Pierce’s wonderful makeup job as this actress!
All the players do very fine work in this film adaptation, a concise and compact affair that moves along briskly … perhaps too briskly. As I say, a most faithful filmization (William Castle’s 1963 film The Old Dark House, by the way, is supposed to be not at all faithful to the book), but one that sadly lacks the novel’s internal thoughts of its myriad characters.
But isn’t that the way these things usually go? Isn’t the book usually fuller, richer, deeper? Oh … one more thing. How could the filmmakers have possibly misspelled Priestley’s name in the opening credits, rendering it instead as “J. B. Priestly”? Gadzooks!
And speaking of typos, I might add how impressed I was at Valancourt’s presentation of this long-overdue reprint. It is a book with not a single typo to be found in its entire length, which in a reasonable world would not be occasion for comment, but after my two recent experiences with typo-riddled modern books, this came to me as a pleasant surprise. I would make another purchase from this fine publisher anytime. And a good thing, too! I see that Valancourt has a number of other Priestley books available, and based on how much fun Benighted was, am curious to read more. His 1938 novel The Doomsday Men is supposed to contain some fantastic content, and that is where this reader would be headed next. Stay tuned…
I like your comparison of print to film. Before streaming and episodic entertainment, where a studio can expend ten hours instead of an hour and a half, I think we always lost some of the depth and richness of the book. On the other hand, I’ve seen more than one movie where the plot changes and the visuals made the story more accessible or even better. So, yeah, each medium has its strength.
You’re so right, Marion…both media have their advantages. And it’s always fun to compare one against the other, as I tried to do here….