Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.
Horror movies have always been sort of the red-headed stepchild of movies. While some are certainly as good as you’ll get, as a genre, it’s looked down on in general. That’s even the case when you have an actor like Boris Karloff who is far classier than the genre would have you believe. The Black Room is a film that was billed as a horror movie, although there’s not a lot here that would qualify it as horror today. It’s much more of a thriller than anything else. It’s also a dandy little film that could really stand another 15 minutes of screen time. That said, it really does a fine job of tying everything up in its short little package.
We start with a twin birth near the start of the 18th century. The twins, Gregor and Anton, have been born to the local baron. But the fact that they are twins is bad news for the family. The family history started with twins, and the younger killing the older in the black room of the family castle. The room is sealed off, but not before a prophecy is laid. The family will end as it began, with twins and the younger one killing the older one.
We fast-forward into the future, with the old baron dead and the older of the twins, Gregor (Boris Karloff) now running the barony. Gregor, we learn, is a tyrant and a sadist as well as a murderer. His brother Anton (also Karloff) is returning. Anton has a right arm that doesn’t work, and is otherwise the complete opposite of his brother. Where Gregor is cruel, Anton is kind. He is soon beloved by the locals.
The secondary plot here concerns Thea (Marian Marsh), the daughter of the local military leader (Thurston Hall). Thea is in love with Lieutenant Albert Lussan (Robert Allen), but Gregor is also in love with her, or as close to in love as someone of his proclivities can be. And so Gregor hatches a plan. He’s discovered a way into the black room—it contains a dry well that he uses to dispose of the bodies of the people he kills. His plan is to tell everyone that he will abdicate his title in lieu of his younger brother. He’ll then lure Anton into the room, kill him and shove him into the well, thereby circumventing the prophecy of the younger brother killing the older. Then he’ll demand Thea’s hand in marriage.
I don’t want to spoil how this turns out. Suffice to say that there’s a prophecy, and in movies, prophecies have a way of becoming true, even when it seems like it’s impossible for it to happen.
All of that said, The Black Room is not scary. It does a good job of being malicious, though. At one point, Gregor is plotting on ways to make Thea his baroness. Meanwhile, he is being serenaded by his current paramour, a local girl named Maska (Katherine DeMille). Maska knows about what Gregor does in the black room and wants a great deal more attention (and money) from Gregor to buy her silence. And he just…stabs her and tosses her body down the well in the black room. It’s cold, and it’s a perfect look at who Gregor really is.
So, while The Black Room isn’t scary for a minute, it’s a fine little thriller. It also gives Karloff a chance to really show what he can do in front of the camera. Seeing Karloff playing a role like the wicked and twisted Gregor is nothing new. Seeing him play as Anton does feel a bit different, since that was not a normal Karloff role. But it’s when he’s playing Gregor imitating Anton that he really shines. You can see the malevolence through the façade of his kind and jovial twin. It’s a good reminder of just how good Karloff could be when he was given some range to play.
The plot of The Black Room is a bit of a convoluted mess. That’s okay, though. It’s melodramatic and gothic, and that’s more or less what we’ve all signed up for with a movie like this one. It feels in no small part like a little-known Edgar Allen Poe story brought to the screen, and I mean that in only the most positive way I can.
As always, the biggest complaint here is the one I seem to always have for horror movies of this vintage: it’s too short. The Black Room tips in at a mere 68 minutes, and it packs a hell of a lot into that short running time. There’s a lot of plot being thrown at the walls here. It could probably benefit from a little slowing down in places and stretching things out for another 10 or 15 minutes, but even in this compressed form, it’s so much more enjoyable than I was expecting.
Is it convoluted? Yes. Does it tip its hand at the end? Absolutely. Is it too short? Definitely. Is it still worth seeing? Yes and again yes. It’s a great exemplar for its era for what passed as a thriller, and while the actual thrills may be lacking in terms of scares, it’s still pretty tense.
Why to watch The Black Room: It’s a dandy little thriller.
Why not to watch: Like most horror films of this era, it’s not really that scary.