What Terrors Await Inside… The Black Room?

Serial killers are not a recent phenomenon in horror, they’ve been around for a while. The difference is, when one appeared in a horror movie back in the day, he was called a “mad killer” or, more simply, a “killer on the loose.” But they’ve been there a long time, especially once public interest in real life killers like H.H. Holmes and Jack the Ripper took hold.  When one thinks of classic portrayals of serial killers on the silver screen, the names Peter Lorre, Anthony Perkins and Anthony Hopkins immediately come to mind, having portrayed three of the most notable serial killers in film history, in the films M, Psycho and Silence of the Lambs (and its sequels and prequels), respectively.  But one name that should come to mind, and too often doesn’t, is Boris Karloff.  He’s played more killers than most people know and perhaps the best of them all is serial killer Gregor in the 1935 horror classic, The Black Room, directed by Roy William Neill.

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On second thought, maybe it’s not a horror classic, at least not in the sense of Frankenstein or The Mummy, but it should be.  In fact, The Black Room is one of Boris Karloff’s best movies and damn near his best performance (it’s a tough call but I might give the edge to The Body Snatcher or Frankenstein, both of which contain brilliant work by Karloff).  Made in 1935 by Columbia, and released within three months of The Bride of Frankenstein, it didn’t enjoy nearly the success of Karloff’s Universal productions but not for lack of quality or talent.  Roy William Neill, who also directed Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman as well as most of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes movies, knows his way around a gothic set and provides plenty of visual delights to keep the viewer enthralled.  His camera moves gracefully, spies images from mirrors, and zooms out rapidly in one powerful shot late in the film where one character realizes the murderous deception at work in front of his eyes.  The style and set design of the film are probably enough on their own to make this movie work but it’s also blessed with a great story and a fantastic performance by Karloff, centering the whole enterprise.

The film begins in the late 1700′s as twins are born to the de Berghmann family in a fictional township somewhere in Austria.  The town is controlled by the de Berghmann family and the patriarch of the family refuses to toast the birth of his twins.  When the shocked guests ask why, he explains that the family began with one twin killing the other and, the old family prophecy states, it will end when twins again are born into the family and the younger of the two kills the older.  And it will happen in the same place, the black room, a dungeon designed for prisoners of the Baron.  A friend suggests simply bricking up the black room so that the prophecy is never fulfilled.

Years later, after the twins have grown up to become young men and their parents have both died, Anton, the younger of the two (by a few minutes at least), leaves the castle, no longer interested in being a part of the gloomy pall that hangs over the family.  Every minute he’s there, he knows the prophecy says he will kill his older brother, Gregor.  By leaving to get his education, travel Europe and start a new life, he can put any chance of the prophecy coming true behind him.

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Gregor stays behind and becomes a dictatorial ruler in his brother’s stead.  The townspeople hate him but there’s something more to their hatred of him than his selfish rule, they also suspect him of murdering several women from the town who have disappeared.  As the townspeople become more suspicious and threatening,  Gregor calls on Anton to return to settle the estate and sort out the problems with the town once and for all.  But with Anton coming back, will the prophecy be fulfilled?

All of this happens in the first ten minutes of so of the movie and from there it’s a tense and suspenseful progression of extraordinary events leading to a thrilling climax.  The immediate charm of the story is that Anton, the younger brother, is also the kind, gentle and non-violent brother and yet the prophecy says he will be the one to kill his older brother, Gregor, the nasty and violent one, not the other way around.  Gregor himself even assures Anton there’s nothing to worry about with the prophecy because how could he, Anton, ever hurt anyone (Anton even has a crippled right arm that makes him even less of a threat).  For all of this to work, and work well, you need a great actor filling the dual role of Gregor/Anton and, fortunately, the producers had Boris Karloff.

Boris Karloff excels in the role.  At first, especially given its production year of 1935, the viewers find themselves looking for the special effects involved in getting Karloff on the screen twice (Can I see the dividing line in camera?  Is that a double? And so on) but shortly after stops thinking of one actor playing both roles at all and starts viewing the story as two characters portrayed by two actors in two different roles.  Karloff does such a good job at creating distinct characters and personalities that it really does feel like two different actors playing the role.   Of course, since he was Boris Karloff and associated with horror, that didn’t translate into anything with the Oscars.   Too bad, it’s a great performance.

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And the movie itself didn’t get the kind of recognition it deserved.  Or maybe it didn’t get the marketing campaign it deserved.  Or maybe it couldn’t because it was too disturbing.   Or maybe serial killers and twins and ancient prophecies just didn’t go over well.  Or maybe it was because it came out of Columbia and not Universal.  Whatever the case, all that matters now is that The Black Room holds up against anything released in 1935, even The Bride of Frankenstein, and stands as one of Boris Karloff’s finest performances.  This Halloween, forget the tricks and treat yourself to the terrors that await you inside The Black Room.  Just remember to leave the door open.

7 Responses What Terrors Await Inside… The Black Room?
Posted By DevlinCarnate : October 30, 2013 11:56 pm

i love Karloff in his non-horror roles,in which i’d include Mord the executioner,and this one,although it does have that ironic ending that the Body Snatcher had,still…it’s hard to gauge,obviously the public wanted a horror extravaganza,and this delivers an evil despot,a kinder brother,and a Prince and the Pauper story line with a subtle twist…maybe not the most winning formula,and certainly not at the Lewton level,even in Bedlam…IMHO of course ;)

Posted By ’58 Classic : October 31, 2013 1:36 pm

Greg–Just a quick fix: you have both brothers named Anton. “Anton, the younger of the two (by a few minutes at least), leaves the castle, no longer interested in being a part of the gloomy pall that hangs over the family. Every minute he’s there, he knows the prophecy says he will kill his older brother, Anton.”

Posted By gregferrara : October 31, 2013 2:08 pm

Devlin, Karloff had a great career as an actor but he could have done so much more than Hollywood ever clued into. There’s no reason he shouldn’t have had all kinds of roles outside of horror but Hollywood was too shortsighted.

Posted By gregferrara : October 31, 2013 2:09 pm

58 – Thanks! It got a little confusing there. At first, when I edited the piece before posting, I realized I’d made Anton the cruel one and Gregor the nice one and had to fix it. Obviously I missed one half of that one section in the process.

Posted By ’58 Classic : October 31, 2013 5:06 pm

I adore The Body Snatcher and especially The Black Cat. I agree Karloff should’ve had more roles outside horror; his grasp of pathos went well beyond most of his peers in the horror realm. The Black Room is one I have missed, but will remedy that on my Netflix queue asap. Great recommendation!

Posted By Tom Webb : November 3, 2013 12:48 am

I agree that this is a great film, and somewhat overshadowed by the other great horror movies released that year. As the author states, it holds up well with the best of them. I think Roy William Neill was a much underrated director, and his work, while being confined mostly to “B” films, was always inventive and entertaining. “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” isn’t the best of the Frankenstein series, but it has some amazing set-pieces, and is always fun to watch. Think of that atmospheric opening shot of the grave robbers sneaking into Larry Talbot’s crypt– as good as anything seen in the Frankenstein films.

As has been pointed out, Neill also directed most of the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, which were consistently atmospheric and exciting. He also directed an early voodoo movie called “Black Moon, 1934, with Jack Holt and Fay Wray, that is worth watcing. And an early Two-Color Technicolor movie for MGM, “The Viking,” 1928, about Leif Ericson. Add on the 1946 Noir “The Black Angel,” 1946, with Dan Duryea and Peter Lorre, and you have just a few of the excellent films he directed.

One film historian has pointed out that “The Black Room” really contains three Karloff performances– Anton the good brother, Gregor the bad brother, and Gregor playing Anton. It’s really true, as Gregor plays Anton as outwardly a good man, but one who has an occasional unguarded evil mannerism or smile. A very clever and fascinating performance by Karloff. And the film’s moody sets and music should be mentioned, too, adding to the movie’s gothic atmosphere.

Posted By robbushblog : November 4, 2013 10:17 pm

I too will add this to my queue. Another great non-horror role for Karloff was as Byron Orlock, the aged, tired and retiring horror movie star from Targets. Love that.

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