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The Black Room (1935).

December 19, 2008

The Scoop:
Gather your torches and pitchforks! It’s time to storm the castle!

This Columbia production does a good job of capturing vaguely old Eastern European milieu of the classic Universal horrors of the same period in this story aristocratic twin brothers battling an ancient family curse.

“The Black Room” stars an old Universal hand, Boris Karloff, who is at his best playing the twins — diabolical Gregor and saintly, crippled Anton. We start with a brief prologue, in which the family castle’s ancient torture chamber is walled off to prevent the fulfillment of a prophecy of the family’s ruin — namely that the younger twin will kill the older. Flash forward a few decades and Gregor, who has inherited the family’s baronage, invites Anton, who has been living abroad for year, back home. Anton discovers that the villagers all hate Gregor since he’s essentially a serial killer who has been abducting the young women of the village, raping them, then killing them in “the black room,” for which he has discovered a secret entrance. From there, we get the obligatory double-crosses, twin role switching and eventual triumph of good over evil that we expect. And of course, the prophecy comes true in the most ironic way possible.

The plot is pretty predictable and formulaic. This was obviously an attempt by Columbia to steal some of Universal’s thunder, and the trite screenplay by Arthur Strawn and Henry Myers, shows this. But “The Black Room” is worth watching, though, not just for Karloff’s typically fine acting, but also for the direction of Roy William Neill and the cinematography of Allen G. Siegler. Together, they create a rich Gothic atmosphere, with plenty of oddball touches.

Especially fascinating is how heavily Catholicized this film is. Huge crucifixes and statues of the Virgin Mary abound, given prominence in many establishing shots. Even the many chases between the village and the castle (through landscape that, anachronistically, is straight out of an early Western) pass several Catholic icons.

It’s an odd mix, but it works. Thanks to the efforts of Neill, Siegler and Karloff, the film rises above the banality of the genre programmers it was meant to join.

Best Bit:
The dog objects!

Side Note:
Two different dogs were used to play Anton’s loyal hound — one male and one female. The difference is obvious on screen, sometimes even from shot to shot.

Companion Viewing:
“The Black Cat” (1934).


Take a Listen:
No clips right now (curse you, Internet!) but be sure to enjoy this little tidbit of dialogue.

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