Tuesday, 10 January 2017
CHAMBER OF HORRORS aka THE DOOR WITH SEVEN LOCKS (1940)
A year after his busted 1939 Bela Lugosi vehicle The Dark Eyes of London (aka The Human Monster), British producer John Argyle adapted another Edgar Wallace crime novel The Door with Seven Locks for the cinema with better results. It kept its title for British audiences and was released in America by Monogram as Chamber of Horrors, benefitting from being a more straight-forward murder-mystery (with slightly grisly undertones) than its predecessor and featuring an improved screenplay and lead performances.
The film plot concerns the instructions given by the dying English Lord Selford (Aubrey Mallalieu) that he be entombed within the family vault along with his jewels behind a door with seven locks. The battle for possession of the keys to these locks will become the focus of a cat-and-mouse game between good guys and bad.
Where Chamber of Horrors scores is in the dialogue and characterisation of its heroes assisted by Argyle and Gilbert Gunn’s lively script. The estate’s Canadian heiress June Lansdowne is nicely played by German-born actress Lili Palmer, who went on to become Rex Harrison’s second wife and win Golden Globes for But Not for Me (1959) and Peter the Great (1986). Though June was packed off to Quebec as a child, she likes a spot of adventure and dives into the unfolding mystery, as does her streetwise spunky Ontario friend Glenda (former musical star Gina Malo). They are embroiled in a web of deception when June is given one of the vital keys in a nursing home deathbed confession by Luis Silva (J.H. Roberts), but he is shot by a covert assassin before he can reveal the other keys’ locations. The plot thickens when she runs for help from the Matron who insists the home currently has no patients.
Together the energetic and capable ladies are more than a match for the men of London’s C.I.D who investigate the ensuing case. The senior man is Richard Bird’s Inspector Seed, a cynic who spouts pricelessly sexist maxims: “Women are like tiger-cats. They ought to be caged at sixteen and shot at twenty”. We meet him engaged in mocking office trash-talk with his underling Dick Martin who’s just resigned from the force (actor Romilly Lunge whose fitting action adverb name also sounds like a Goon Show creation). Ironically, the film was to be Lunge’s last in real life despite living to the ripe old age of ninety. Lunge plays Dick with a breezy, winning confidence like a two-fisted Kenneth More; a pipe-man who’s also handy with his fists. Among director Norman Lee’s previous credits was 1937’s Bulldog Drummond at Bay and there’s a pleasing echo of the gentleman adventurer in this film’s hero.
When June and Glenda go to the cops, there are immediate sparks between her and Dick, an incentive prompting him to offer himself as a simple advisor for the intriguing sleuthy fun of it. “Everybody seems to be helping me” June delights, fully aware of her effect on him. It won’t be a picnic though. In total, Dick gets into four fist-fights over the next two acts, the first of which is an attack by two of the deceased Lord’s conniving staff in the girl’s hotel.
The tight foursome go to the Selford estate where the family’s solicitor and trustee Havelock (David Horne) explains to them his shock that the seven keys could be at large when they were zealously guarded. Hovering over the proceedings is family physician Dr Manetta (Leslie Banks, in his only return to horror after his villainy in The Most Dangerous Game (1932) - see my review dated 30/3/2016). Banks oozes suavity and concealed depths behind his goatee beard; this coupled with being a Spaniard no doubt earned war-time audience’s knee-jerk distrust as a Johnny Foreigner. He doesn’t exactly assuage xenophobic prejudice with his choice of hobby either since he has a fetish for historical torture devices, in particular Torquemada’s Spanish Inquisition. After trying out his spiky Iron Maiden, Dick is not impressed: “I think I’ll stick to cigarette cards”.
Our intrepid quartet along with Havelock open the tomb and are shot at for their snooping. The evil staff have so far all but one key needed to unlock the vault and its half a million in treasure. By accident, June uncovers the remaining key when Manetta’s chimp Beppo knocks over a vase containing it. She is then kidnapped and held captive by stern housekeeper Mrs Cody (Cathleen Nesbitt) – “You’ve been unfortunate. Again” - her husband, and Robert Montgomery’s mute butler. They are all in the thrall of master criminal Dr Manatee who flaunts his power until Dick gives him a spin under the Iron Maiden’s looming spikes himself. The doctor’s smug composure cracks, he screams like a girl and owns up to the big plan involving a substitute posing as the Lord’s real heir to gradually siphon off the inheritance without June knowing. When June berates Dick for unlawful cruelty, he shows a satisfying hard edge under the clean-cut heroics, averring that he’s a private citizen not a responsible policeman held to a professional code. She isn’t the only one with powers of persuasion and soon he is away with her.
Chamber of Horrors is well-paced and with its sprinkling of sassy one-liners delivered by a game cast makes a decent wet Sunday afternoon’s entertainment.