Extremes without Connection
This is James Whale in his prime, for better or worse. The film was lost for generations before being reclaimed and restored, and for that reason is celebrated beyond its merits.
What we have is a collection of stereotypical scenarios and characters. A stormy night. A collection of stranded travelers. A very spooky house, containing a family of deranged people and their even stranger butler.
In turn, each character performs the most extreme behavior we can expect from their roles. It is hard to know at this distance in time how much humor Whale intended with this. Everything that could be over the line of serious presentation is. And the list of what is brought up is long: incest, drunken violence, blasphemy, denial, three distinct kinds of madness, gold digging, lust, instant infatuation, class struggle and damage. Sex in four incarnations.
An interesting decision is that there is no hierarchy, no agent more prominent or in control than any other. The wheel spins and who is central at that moment is left behind the next. Even the character of the house is not exploited as many would. The set was actually shown off to better effect, I think, in a following film: Secret of the Blue Room. There the place had agency. Here it is just an accident of place.
There is considerable art here in suppressing the notion of a master agent. This is a mystery like many of the period, but with no crime, detective or solution. Just everything else. It is a horror film, but with the terror removed. Sexy but hollow in the spots we normally would leer. All waves and no beach. Likely, this is his most personal film and it makes me wonder if we will ever welcome filmmakers like this back.
Posted in 2015
Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.