Monday, October 7, 2013

The Black Room (1935) review


Boris Karloff (Anton/Gregor), Marian Marsh (Thea), Robert Allen (Lt. Lussan), Thurston Hall (Colonel Hassel), Katherine DeMille (Mashka)

Directed by R. William Neill

"...The pit... our ancestors used to throw their enemies in there and left them till they rotted and died. That's where Brand killed Wolfram... and the legend began." -- Gregor details to his brother how the dreaded Berghman prophecy began.

The Short Version: It's twice the terror with horror hero Boris Karloff doing double duty as twin brothers -- one good and one very evil. This grim fairy tale is simplistic, yet highly effective in its canvas of bold B/W brushstrokes. It never fully commits to its horror trappings, but with two Boris's for the price of one, every horror fan wins. The title space is where a sinister forecast threatens to become a reality; and if Karloff has a say in it, much murderous mirth will ensue -- and it does!

An ancient prophecy in the house of Berghman predicts a catastrophe that will befall twin boys of the family name. As had happened years earlier, the younger brother is destined to slay the older in the cursed Black Room. In an effort to prevent the foretelling declaration from coming true, the room is sealed up and the younger brother Anton moves away. Twenty years later Anton reluctantly returns to his bastion birthplace at the behest of his brother. Upon his arrival, he discovers many angry villagers in the town below, a growing list of missing girls, and that his brother is quite depraved.

Boris Karloff plays dual roles here as two diametrically opposite brothers -- one passive and one aggressive. The plot concerns a recurring, prophesied tragedy surrounding an aristocratic family. The actor excels as the gluttonous, deceptively evil Gregor, and also as the amiable, timid, and younger Anton. Of course, the structure of the prophecy would seem a bit twisted -- the younger being meek while the older is the sinister of the two -- but things find a way of working themselves out for the worse; and with this being a Karloff vehicle, something diabolical is most definitely afoot. 

This enjoyable feature from Columbia unfolds like a dark fairy tale, and manages to squeeze in a myriad number of familiar horror movie cliches within its brief 68 minute running time. Without giving it all away, some of the headier elements aren't given enough time to blossom (such as a romance angle involving a young soldier framed for murder), but by the end, the viewer will be hoping certain characters get their just desserts. 

As stated above, Karloff is the prime ingredient here, and he brings much diversity to his two roles. While the vile Gregor is the more engrossing of the two (his line delivery regarding the merits of pears is deliciously macabre), the younger Anton isn't without some traits of notice. His right arm is paralyzed, and this paralysis plays an important part later in the movie. Anton has a very loyal companion in the form of Tor, his dog -- which also figures into the finale in an important way. Aside from the actor, the split-screen photography showcasing both Karloff's in the same frame work wonderfully. 

THE BLACK ROOM (1935) often feels like a horror movie even though it's more of an atmospheric suspense thriller. At times, it hints at going full speed ahead into terror's realm, but it mostly stays along the border -- never officially crossing. For example, during a crucially important sequence, a line of dialog leaves the impression it will become a supernatural story, but it leaves this conceit ambiguous. It arises during the finale, but yet again never fully embraces its ghostly connotations. Still, there's just enough here to satiate those fans who love vintage fear flicks such as this one. 

The sets are limited, but effective in imbuing the proceedings with that lovely chiaroscuro ambiance these B/W spookers were so good at capturing. It's not quite the scale of the Universal horrors, but the director doesn't seem to be aspiring for their imitation. The darkened halls, thunderstorms, secret passageways, trapdoors and forbidding lighting effects keep them firmly in mind, though. The director did wrangle two horror heavyweights in 1942s FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN. Without Karloff, it's likely BLACK ROOM (1935) wouldn't be as evocative as it is. Recommended highly for fans of the famous actor.

This review is representative of the Sony ICONS OF HORROR COLLECTION: BORIS KARLOFF 2 disc set.

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