• Classic Horrors Club

Movie of the Week: The Black Room (1935)



Although produced by Columbia Pictures, the graveyard sets in The Black Room (1935) are as gorgeous as any number of Universal Pictures genre films of the same era. They're obviously built on a soundstage; nevertheless, they are works of art. From the painted backdrops to the simulated ground covering and tombstones, the art direction by Stephen Goosson and cinematography by Allen G. Siegler are superb.

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Much of the movie itself is superb, as well. William Neill (Black Moon, 1934, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, 1943) directs a tight, well-paced story from the screenplay by Arthur Strawn & Henry Myers… until the end (more later.) More a historical drama with horrific undertones, The Black Room features Boris Karloff as a human monster, Baron Gregor de Berghman, that rules the village as "a tyrant and fiend."

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In the late 1700's, Gregor and his twin brother, Anton (also Karloff), were born under the cloud of an old family prophecy: the younger twin (Anton) is destined to kill the older (Gregor) within "the black room." Their father (Henry Kolker) frets, "Our family began with twins and it will end with twins; it began with murder and it will end the same way." But there may be a way to outsmart the prophecy: build a brick wall in front of the door to the black room.

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As a grown man, Anton must not have trusted this plan; he moved away, anyway. It turns out he knew what he was doing, because Gregor discovered a back door and moved various devices of torture into the black room, which also contained a pit… the better to dispose of the bodies of people you've killed. He lures Anton into the room and pushes him into the pit in hopes of assuming his identity so he can fool the villagers and make a move on the lovely Thea.

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Thea Hassel (Marian Marsh) is the daughter of Colonel Paul Hassel (Thurston Hall), and the object of Gregor's affection. When her father believes Gregor is actually Anton, he's more than happy to give him her hand in marriage without even asking her first. Of course, she's in love with someone else: Lieutenant Albert Lussan (Robert Allen), so Gregor/Anton frames him for murder to get him out of the picture.

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So far, The Black Room is a fancy and delicious soap opera with some scary parts. The climax itself during the wedding of Gregor/Anton and Thea isn't bad. It's the rushed action right before then that's problematic. The way Gregor is exposed is simplistic, the cinematic equivalent of circumstantial evidence. The villagers jump to conclusions without any evidence. And, vengeance is enacted by a dog showing no animosity toward Gregor until the story requires it.

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This "chunk" of the movie doesn't make it bad; it just makes it imperfect. There's so much else to love about it, not the least of which is Karloff's performance in the dual role. Perhaps playing two people isn't hard, but playing someone who's playing someone else might be challenging. My favorite scene that really showcases his acting is when Mashka (Katherine DeMille) comes back to his chambers and he's more interested in eating a pear than he is in fooling around with her.

Screenplay by Arthur Strawn & Henry Myers

Directed by Roy William Neill

Starring Boris Karloff, Marian Marsh, Robert Allen, Thurston Hall, Katherine DeMille Released July 15, 1935 RT 68 min.

Home Video Mill Creek Entertainment (Boris Karloff Collection DVD)

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