A Study of Flame

“I’ve made a study of flames. I know things about flames that nobody else in the world knows,” Saul Flemm says near the end of 1932’s The Old Dark House. I watch old dark horror movies for lines like that. Typically they’ve got characters delivering their entire backstories to people they’ve just met in dialogue in attempts to become three-dimensional and special effects and stunt work that doesn’t land for modern audiences, but then there are the lines like this. It would be creepy in any era.

Out of context, it raises eerie questions with the viewer. How does one study flames? And what could he know about them that the rest of the people in the world don’t? Everyone has seen flames. The question of what else there could be to know beyond the heat and the color strikes me in the way glimpses of the abyss strike Lovecraft’s narrators—the kind of knowledge that would drive a person insane. It makes me wonder if Saul actually knows “things about flames that nobody else in the world knows.” Maybe that knowledge is what’s driven him crazy.

In context the line is even better. Saul’s been the hidden sibling, locked away and alluded to by his less-but-still-creepy brother and sister. We’ve heard his sinister laugh and watched the visitors try to figure out where it’s coming from. His father tells them that Saul is insane and tried to burn the house down before. The odd atmosphere of the house and the mystery surrounding Saul have made him dangerous before he’s ever appeared onscreen. And then, there’s the knife Saul’s pointing at Penderel, the protagonist of the movie when he delivers the line. Saul could stab Penderel at any moment. Penderel is wiggling out of danger, and the viewer with him if the movie has invested the viewer in Penderel’s fate, when Saul says, “I’ve made a study of flames. I know things about flames that nobody else in the world knows.”

The living room walls floated away from me. The sun was overcasted and the rain came down in torrents. I was in the old dark house then, sitting with Penderton and Saul, listening to him speak and I was terrified. That line brought me into that world.