Though not nearly as famous as James Whale's other comic horrors, this is arguably the wittiest, most chilling and all around best. The set-up - young travellers are forced by a storm to seek lodging in an isolated Gothic mansion populated by weirdos - may not yet have been a cliché in 1932, but Whale certainly treats it like one and peppers it with giddy, bizarre British humour.
Visually, it's his most sophisticated film - his compositions are more stylish and inventive than in either of his other classics - and it's also the one most tightly crammed with oddballs: there's top-billed Boris Karloff as a horrifically scarred, drunken, unstable butler, who communicates in unintelligible grunts and wails; the piercing, fundamentalist Eva Moore, who out-Una-O'Connors Una O'Connor; the ever-screwy Ernest Thesiger as the effete, shifty host; an odd, tiny, twitchy and bizarrely terrifying man named Brember Wills as the pyromaniac locked in the attic; and, most unforgettably, a woman named Elspeth Dudgeon (credited as John Dudgeon) as Sir Roderick Femm, the senile, bedridden, squeaky-voiced 102-year-old baronet, who makes funny noises all through the night. There's also the old lady from Titanic in the shape of a young, delicate starlet and the soon to be much more famous Melvyn Douglas and Charles Laughton among the civilised guests.
It's beguiling to watch Whale send up the still-quite-young horror conventions while at the same time exploiting them to ratchet up the tension. It's hard to say how it works, but it does terrifically. The climactic showdown is as absurd and outrageous as it is intense and unnerving.
Labels: *****, 1932, Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, classic horror, criminally neglected, Gloria Stuart, James Whale, Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, the canon