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Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Black Room (1935)

Director: R William Neill
Stars: Boris Karloff, Marian Marsh and Robert Allen
In honour of the Boris Karloff blogathon which will celebrate across the blogosphere what would have been Karloff the Uncanny's 122nd birthday.
What better way to start a set of movies for the Boris Karloff Blogathon than with one that stars both Boris Karloff and Boris Karloff? That's right, he's playing twins and as you might expect one is good and the other is evil. The elder is the evil one, who grows up to become the wild, despotic and fearful Baron Gregor de Berghman, who is far from loved by his people. His younger sibling, born only a single minute later, is Anton, and he's saddled with a paralysed right arm. Their father, the elder Baron, is far from happy that he has twin boys because of an old prophecy: the family motto is 'I end as I began' and it began with murder, a younger brother murdering his older twin in the Black Room.

We leap through the years until Anton returns to the family castle after ten years away in Budapest. He had left because he was beginning to believe the prophecy through sheer familiarity with it, beginning to see the fear in his brother's face. Now he's back and he finds that not much has changed on that front but plenty has changed on another. The peasants are in turmoil, not just because of the Baron's heavy thumb but because the young ladies of the countryside have been mysteriously disappearing for some time. Guess which room, which has been bricked up since the twins were born, has a secret entrance that only the Baron knows about? Well, at least until a local gypsy woman sees him carrying in bodies, of course...

Karloff is excellent here, highlighting admirably the differences in the two brothers. As Gregor he has tousled hair and wild features, leering but calculating, and he sprawls joyously in his solid wooden chair with the utmost contempt for everyone and everything. As Anton, he's something of a dandy, who watches Thea Hassel play the harp from across the room through an eyeglass. He's charming, decent and impeccably behaved but he's also handy with a sword, even with a paralysed right arm to put him at an instant disadvantage. Even the voices are subtly different in tone and depth. It's great work from the great man at the peak of his game, conjuring attention with the unfolding of a fist or a subtle movement of the eyes.

Karloff would have dominated this cast had he only had one role but with two it's hard to even notice anyone else. Marian Marsh is decent as Thea Hassel, the delightful daughter of a local colonel, but in a 70 minute movie you won't be too surprised to find she doesn't get too much to do. She certainly deserved more as any glimpse at her work in the precode era would testify, from Svengali and The Mad Genius to Five Star Final and Beauty and the Boss. Robert Allen, who plays Thea's real love interest here, was best known as a cowboy actor so as you can imagine he's a little out of place here but he's not bad. The massively experienced Thurston Hall is fine as Col Hassel, Thea's father.

This is a wonderful film in most ways, certainly an underrated gem from the golden age of Hollywood horror, though it was made for Columbia Pictures not the expected Universal. Like so many horror films of this era, the story is set in historic eastern Europe, thus prompting plenty of stone and wood and age. I've seen some of these sets before, like the inn with its sign of the black cat, but they're always worth seeing again because they're iconic. The camerawork is excellent, not least because of the clever way in which Karloff gets to interact with himself, and the costumes and music are solid too. Of course we get odd little macabre touches here and there of ravens and graveyards and pits of horror. You know the routine.

The only real downside is that the story, while it unfolds precisely as it should, is hardly difficult to see through. We know what the villain's plans are even before they're telegraphed. We can see where they're going to be dashed before that happens. We can work out his downfall before it arrives. We can even see how his fate is going to unfold and what the instruments of it will be. None of it is remotely surprising and I don't believe that's just because I've watched so many classic horror films from this era. It was written for the screen by Henry Myers and Arthur Strawn, from Strawn's story, two versatile writers who delivered screenplays for whatever genre was needed at the time. Perhaps a more focused writer could have tightened it up and obscured some of the more obvious progressions of plot, but I'm not sure that with this story that would have been possible.

Even with the obvious story removing most hope for suspense, director Roy William Neill does everything he can to provide us with a great movie and he succeeds for the most part. He had been making movies since 1917 and would end his career in the forties as the man behind many of the Rathbone era Sherlock Holmes films. Within this genre he had made the capable voodoo yarn Black Moon a year earlier with Fay Wray and Jack Holt, and would later provide his contribution to the classic Universal canon with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, pitting Bela Lugosi against Lon Chaney Jr. He's no genius director but he was competent, consistent and reliable and you're not going to regret finding one of his films. This would be far from a bad start, even without Karloff, but the double presence of the master makes it something of a gem.

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