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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

THE BLACK ROOM (1935)

“Have you ever seen a man torn to pieces by a mob, your Lordship?”

Hot on the heels of The Raven’s release (just one week later) came a superior Boris Karloff film, The Black Room, (titled The Black Room Mystery in the UK) making a busy year for him in his horror work. For Karloff fans, it’s an altogether more satisfying film as he gets to share top billing in a sense with himself in the dual central role of twin brothers, one good and one evil, allowing us to see his subtlety of light and shade.

The Black Room is a nineteenth-century period piece which references Czechoslovakia but whose setting and costumes fit snugly into that Ruritanian netherworld of 1930s horror movies (e.g. Universal’s Frankenstein series) whereby the mob of supporting villagers gamely speak in Eastern European accents while the principals use received English and modern American. It was a Columbia studio production from a screenplay by Arthur Strawn and Henry Myers, and directed by Roy William Neill who later helmed many of the Sherlock Holmes sequels as well as Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man for Universal. Neill makes a solid job of crafting the film, encouraging sincere performances of gravitas from the cast along the way without any padding to the plot.

Immediately we are taken into the home of Baron de Berghman (Henry Kolker), who greets the news of the birth of twin boys with grave fear instead of fatherly pride. His family is overshadowed by a curse that saw the last pair of brothers embroiled in murder, the younger killing the older within the castle’s Black Room. Attempts by his advisor Colonel Hassel (Thurston Hall) to assure him it cannot be repeated with twins fall on deaf ears - he is convinced that the single minute separating their births still sets the circumstances for the prophecy to be fulfilled. Such is the Baron’s noble concern for the future that he orders the room bricked up to try and prevent the curse.

Moving ahead by forty years, the reputation of the inheriting elder son Gregor precedes him unseen as we overhear the locals take turns despising his tyranny. “He’s worse than that. He’s a fiend” declares one.  Meanwhile the younger brother arrives after a long time away. As Anton, Karloff is a sunny, pleasant eternal student, a character type hardly ever allowed the actor within the confines of horror after he was established. It’s a pleasure to see his natural, unforced charm and positivity, bearing the character’s crippled-at-birth right arm with equanimity and bonhomie for all. His sensitivity has depth though; we discover that his long self-imposed exile was from a selfless wish to relieve Gregor of the constant reminder of fearing the prophecy’s fulfillment at his hands. Gregor has summoned him back home for an undisclosed reason, which is soon revealed as is the elder brother himself. Reinforcing Anton’s inherent goodness (and Karloff’s talent) is Gregor’s contrasting personality, a dour and poisonous demeanour riddled with paranoia. The actor soaks him in a 
brooding soup of menace, his dark eyes beaming with sadistic possibilities.

The legacy of Gregor’s arrogant cruelty reflects back on him in the resulting vengeance he is afraid awaits him at the hands of his servants and villagers. He at least appears decent enough to want the two to be reunited in brotherly closeness without the curse hanging over them any more. Considering he demonstrates no remorse for his ways, it remains to be seen how he intends Anton to help him…
Our suspicions about Gregor’s potential evil is confirmed when Mashka, a young villager, threatens to expose knowing that he has a secret entrance to the Black Room in which he carries large unspecified objects. He murders her, thus rendering her a large specified object taken into the room. Mashka was played by the entrancing, deep-voiced Katherine De Mille, adopted daughter of famed director Cecil B. De Mille and later wife of Anthony Quinn.  Mashka’s discarded shawl is seized upon by the locals, lighting the touch-paper of their burning hostility into a vigilante uprising aimed at his castle. Gregor deftly avoids their revenge by voluntarily renouncing his title in favour of his much more popular brother. This political dexterity turns out to be impressive not only in expediency but for being part of a long game of Gregor’s. When he shows apprehensive Anton the interior of the Black Room Gregor dumps him down a pit concealed in the room, the same place he ditched Mashka, killing him in order to take his identity. Anton can only utter a fateful promise that the curse will be fulfilled “even from the Dead”.

This is where the furtive fun of The Black Room’s premise is to be enjoyed. Can wickedness personified sustain a mask of goodness personified? Karloff double-plays as both with consummate skill and undercurrent glints almost, but not quite, for our eyes only. Gregor’s long-gestated plan to seduce Thea, daughter of Colonel Hassel (a soothing and sincere Marian Marsh) is throw into overdrive when the Colonel offers him full ownership of her assets as a dowry. Gregor’s overconfidence in the catbird seat causes him to drop the faked arm routine, spotted by the Colonel, who is also perceptive enough over the chess board to detect his killer instinct compared to his meeker brother. Sadly, there’ll be no wedding cake for him as Gregor dispatches the old kitty down the dry well.

There’s also a brief gleam of the unsheathed sword of private sadism by Karloff when he dissembles for the grieving and unwitting Thea before their wedding. Watch his vulpine snarl when her face is turned away from him - “There there, my dear. Don’t cry” – a lovely little moment of macabre relish. 

As one might expect, the dam that hides Gregor’s true nature must burst eventually and it does so courtesy of Anton’s faithful hound Tor, who attacks this corrupt copy of his master in the church just as the vicar is about to seal the deal, causing Gregor to reveal his intact arm in defence. Cover blown, this time there is no escape from the rampaging bloodthirsty mob who pursue him to his inevitable reunion with Anton in the Black Room. Side by side in death, they are a grisly testament to the horror movie rule that you can run but you can’t hide from destiny.

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