book review

Benighted/The Old Dark House

“Ordinary life’s bad enough, but it’s a prince to the stuff we spin out of our rotten unconsciousnesses every night.”

J.B. Priestley’s Benighted does many things well. The house and its insane inhabitants are brilliantly drawn, the storm is a tactile character rather than a plot device, and the tension is always present–anything could happen. I’m tempted to forgive the unnecessary exposition…tempted but not convinced.

A trio of characters (husband and wife Philip and Margaret, and their friend Roger) are driving along an empty road out in the English countryside. A torrential downpour forces them to seek shelter at an…(wait for it)…old dark house. There they meet their hosts–Rebecca and Horace, who are brother and sister. Rebecca is a hearing-impaired religious zealot, which results in her screaming horrible things at nervous people. “Then stay there. Sluts!” Horace (who may or may not be running from the law) is terrified of everything, especially Saul. Who’s Saul? You don’t want to know. Just be thankful he’s locked up. The servant, Morgan, is dumb and prone to violent actions when drunk. He makes grunting sounds which Priestley describes as existing within his thick, black beard. The eldest brother Roderick lies incapacitated upstairs.

Priestley is good at the bump-in-the-night stuff and he paints an appropriately macabre picture:

“. . . It’s our flesh . . . the jellied stuff that rots so easily, which quivers and creeps, goes goose with fright; but our bones stand up and don’t give a damn . . . “

It’s the other stuff that’s the problem.

As the darkness creeps forward, the characters come face to face with their own insecurities. There’s a game of “Truth”, in which each person is asked a question and must answer truthfully. Priestley takes his time with some of these answers and the psychological mumbo-jumbo is replete with heavy-handed metaphors (the house is death and Roderick is God and Saul is the Devil).

Worst of all are the long-winded monologues that tell and tell and tell some more. Two more characters show up and one of them (Porterhouse) quite frankly doesn’t deserve his monologue. He’s great as a side character–I like him; I like his dialogue and I like it when he…you know…does stuff. When he sits in front of the fire and talks for six paragraphs about his history, I lose interest. The budding romance between Roger and Gladys is nice, but Priestley could have gotten rid of the other backstory monologues and had a banging novel.

It was written in 1927 is what I’m basically saying.

Funnily enough, James Whale gets rid of Philip and Margaret’s backstory in his 1932 horror film The Old Dark House. As played by Raymond Massay and Gloria Stuart, the characters have their shining moments (especially Stuart’s puppet shadow scene). Whale still gives Porterhouse a long monologue, but seeing as how it’s Charles Laughton delivering it, I cannot blame him. What’s the result of these changes? The Old Dark House as light and spry as Benighted should have been.

There had been other old-dark-house movies before TODH (just as there had been odh novels before benighted), but nothing in the subgenre is nearly as iconic as Whale’s film. If you haven’t seen it, you can check it out HERE.

Whale’s film begins with a superb set piece. The rain soaked approach to the house strikes the right balance between funny and eerie, with snappy dialogue and good-looking miniature work. It would be wrong of me not to admit this was an inspiration for the drive through the rain in Irene.

The first face they see through a darkened crack in the door is Boris Karloff’s. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that his butler was the inspiration for Belby in Vampire. Do you see? This is film with images so powerful that you remember them years later.

Just like in Priestley, the film’s strongest elements are the family and the house. Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore are absolutely inspired as the strange brother and sister, equally sinister and hilarious. (“Have a potato.”)

By eliminating the scene of the characters playing “Truth” and doling out the character information more judiciously, Whale is able to give his film pace and purpose. It’s fiendishly entertaining and probably the second best of the Universal pre-code horror pictures–after Edgar G Ulmer’s insane The Black Cat.

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