Given a chance to let his acting shine through rather than relying on a purely physical performance, as he had in his most famous role as The Monster in Frankenstein, the legendary Boris Karloff stars as not one but two characters in The Black Room a black and white Gothic horror made by Columbia Pictures in 1935.
Set in the late 18th century the film opens with the Baron de Berghmann’s wife giving birth to twin sons, Gregor and Anton, an event that should be cause for celebration but in fact leave the whole town plunged into fear. It appears that an ancient prophecy states that if twins are born the younger brother will end up murdering the elder in the Black Room contained in the castle.
Determined to deny the worrisome words the Baron has the doomed room bricked up leaving only a secret entrance to the cursed place. Much time passes and we learn the brothers have become very different people indeed. Anton (played by Karloff of course), who was born unable to use his right arm, is a kind and considerate fellow who has spent his youth journeying Europe and broadening his mind and spirit.
In contrast Gregor (also Karloff) has taken over from his father and become a depraved and cruel ruler over the poor and piteous people of his land. As Baron he demands more and more from the villagers but more worrying is the frequent disappearances of the women folk who are forced to visit him in the castle yet never return home.
When Anton arrives back home from his travels Gregor sees how much his subjects truly despise him and how they adore his twin. Caught up in his own jealousy and rage when a castle servant meets the same sinister fate as so many of the other men’s wives and lovers the masses revolt marching on the Baron’s domain and demanding Gregor admits to his crimes.
Agreeing to abdicate and allow his far more popular and pleasant brother to take over it seems the evil twin has learned his lesson however Gregor has a dark and disturbing plan that will allow him to continue his reign of torture and terror in plain sight. Little does he know that he has sealed his own fate as well as his brothers by setting in motion the age old prophecy his father feared.
Directed by Roy William Neill the film contains some striking cinematography by Allen G. Siegler which somewhat makes up for the sanitised scenes of horror that are frustrating in what is fundamentally the tale of a serial killer but completely standard for the period.
Playing with ideas of fate and free will The Black Room is far more engaging than many may expect from a film of the period. This is helped by the solid story and the excellent acting of Karloff who obviously relishes the chance to inhabit polar opposite characters in the same movie. Effects wise the double act works well and the use of stand in’s and cinematic tricks is decent considering the film was made in the 1930’s.
Best of all The Black Room comes as part of a special set titled unsurprisingly Karloff at Columbia and released by Eureka Entertainment containing not only five of the actors other feature films from the studio but a ton of excellent extras.
Part of a Mad Doctor cycle The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man With Nine Lives, Before I Hang, and The Devil Commands see the icon as a series of doctors whose separate obsessions all lead them to murder. As a juxtaposition The Boogie Man Will Get You is a parody of the medical horror movies he made also starring Peter Lorre, another huge celebrity from the period.
With all six films making their worldwide debut on Blu-ray the release also includes new audio commentaries with Kevin Lyons, Jonathan Rigby, author Stephen Jones and author and critic Kim Newman as well as a collector’s booklet featuring writing on all six films by Karloff expert Stephen Jacobs (author of Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster) film critic and author Jon Towlson and film scholar Craig Ian Mann.
A brilliant buy for fans of classic horror and Karloff complitists, Karloff at Columbia is a great set that will hopefully bring both The Black Room and the actor himself the praise and admiration they deeply deserve from a modern audience who may have forgotten them.