Pre-Code Queerness in James Whale’s ‘The Old Dark House’
James Whale is rightly seen as one of the masters of horror cinema; his two explorations of Mary Shelley’s infamous Creature – in Frankenstein (1931), and the matrimonial sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – have gone down in history as some of the genre’s best. But the film that Whale made in-between these two masterpieces, The Old Dark House (1932), is a weird and wonderful outing which helped to cement Whale not only as a great creator of horror films, but as a director who explored camp and queerness in pre-Code Hollywood. It proved him to be someone capable of shifting from the comical to the poignant at the drop of a hat.
The Old Dark House is a different kind of horror to the ones that Whale is most known for. Instead of literary classics, this film is rooted in a different horror tradition: seeking refuge from a storm, a group of travelers stumble upon an odd and terrifying family and must do their best to survive the night. Whale’s film is full of things that might be seen as cliche, from the fact it takes place on a dark and stormy night, to the deep-buried family secrets, and screaming waifs. But the joy of The Old Dark House comes from the fact that it has so much fun with the band of travelers – all of them seemingly stock characters, from its damsels in distress to its well-to-do married couple and ominous butler – embracing and poking fun at those very cliches, and revealing hidden depths to them along the way; truly, no one here is quite what they appear to be.
Whale’s films often draw on ideas of queerness by presenting a perspective that gives sympathy to outsiders, people who are perceived as being unnatural. While this is at its most explicit in his Frankenstein films – the Creature and his Bride are literally created in a way that goes against the natural world – the same perspective is used with the “godless” residents of The Old Dark House. This sympathy is employed in tandem with ideas of camp to create a portrait of queerness that could thrive under the unregulated conditions of pre-Code Hollywood, not needing to worry about censorship or moral decency. Some of this is done in admittedly broad strokes. Ernest Thesiger embodies Horace Femm through gestures and mannerisms that might read as stereotypical now, and the actor possesses a nervous energy that might seem at odds with the more sombre notes of gothic horror that pervade much of the film. But it’s the way these elements play off of each other, a serious approach to the gothic tradition, and a knowing nudge-nudge-wink-wink to the audience, that illuminate the ideas of camp and queerness in the film.
As much as Thesiger’s performances might veer towards the overly broad, The Old Dark House wears its subversion of gender and sexuality on its sleeves. The head of this dysfunctional family is portrayed by a woman (Elspeth Dudgeon), and it’s never treated as a drag role or played for comedy. This allows The Old Dark House to offer a level of serious commentary on the performance of gender that remains a rarity to this day.
These ideas are explored in greater depths in the performances of Thesiger and Eva Moore, who plays his domineering sister. While he lisps and minces, Moore’s performance has a rough, masculine edge to it. That masculinity also manifests itself in repressed sexuality; her admonishment of Margaret (Gloria Stuart) as she changes out of her wet clothes walks a fine line between frustration for Margaret’s perceived sinfulness, but also Rebecca’s inability to act on her own desires. She describes Margaret’s clothes as “fine,” but her body as “finer,” full of anger with the fact that both things will rot. The declaration of a woman who, like so many others in the house, might be seen as godless.
It’s the house itself that seems to offer up a kind of queer space, somewhere between a sanctuary and death-trap. The characters who take shelter in the house are all seemingly aggressively heterosexual, and they’re placed at odds with the queer figures of the Femm family, from the queer-coded siblings Rebecca and Horace, to the strange, silent Morgan (Boris Karloff). As the film reaches its fiery climax, Morgan’s silence takes on a uniquely queer dimension. The pyromaniac third Femm sibling escapes and tries to raze the house to the ground. Even though he fails in this endeavour – and perishes in the process – the moment where Morgan embraces and then picks up the corpse of this deceased deviant is embedded with a kind of romance; the two men in a pose that reads like a kind of tragic tableau. Morgan’s silence becomes a variation on Rebecca’s anger, something that comes from a place of repression, the only way that Morgan knows to try and express his longing, through silent solidarity, and a kind of intimacy that he can only offer to someone who’s already dead.
The idea of intimacy and death are entwined in Whale’s films, most explicitly in Frankenstein and Bride. At the climax of the first Frankenstein it’s no wonder that the creature says “we belong dead.” He’s built from the dead, and he seems to think that’s where he should return. The striking thing about this is that Whale plays it for tragedy, presenting Karloff’s Creature as someone who exists outside of the norms of society, but who should be pitied for it, rather than vilified. In these films, the idea of the dead is used as a way of queering the creation of life.
The Old Dark House also presents pathos and pity for its queer characters (as seen in Morgan’s silent intimacy), offering a focus on queerness that was rarely seen at the time. It also offers comic subversions and refusals to heterosexual norms. When Rebecca begrudgingly offers her quote-unquote guests shelter from the storm, she informs them that there will be “no beds,” the stark opposite of the kind of straight lust that would pervade horror films through the late 20th century as the genre moved towards slashers. Here, it’s the straight characters who are presented as outsiders; it’s clear where Whale’s sympathies lie in The Old Dark House; as is so often the way with his films, he finds himself offering sympathy to the characters played by Karloff.
The self-awareness that Whale uses to define The Old Dark House exists not only through the kind of characters that he presents, from the butch/femme dynamic of the Femm siblings, to queering of their father, but also in the ways that he toys with the ideas of genre and the conventions of the haunted architecture. The Old Dark House is full of striking images that offer legitimate chills; distorted mirrors making faces freakish, the intimidating movements of Morgan – before the truth about him is revealed – but the film also shows an understanding of how to poke fun at these conventions, letting Whale indulge in the camp excesses of the horror genre.
The film is driven by one of the oldest clichés in the history of horror: the dark and stormy night. The Old Dark House leans into these ideas, and the camp comes from the excess of cliché tropes in comparison to its more low-key spine-chilling moments. A window blows open and knocks a woman over in a delightfully over the top moment, putting the “stormy” into that classic cliché. In contrast to this, there’s a moment where an arm – attached to someone unseen – creeps over the top of someone in order to shut a door and trap them. Whale’s queerness is sly, drawing on the conventions that define it – femininity, camp humor, and the bending of gender roles. By hiding some of this within the conventions of a horror film, the camp becomes queer when it is considered alongside the other elements that Whale brings to the fore.
In the end, what’s most striking about Whale’s queer characters is the humanity that he imbues them with; so often, especially in horror and suspense films, queerness is shorthand for a kind of murderous rage. And even when those ideas are explored well – in Hitchcock films like Rope and Strangers on a Train – it can become a little draining to be confronted with it at every turn. The wonder of The Old Dark House is that it gives these characters weird and wonderful inner lives, an irrepressible queerness, and moments of heartbreaking pathos.
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