The Black Room (1935)
On leave from Universal, Karloff moved over to the Columbia Factory for this wonderful tale of twins, deceit and murder backed by the sure hand of long time veteran, Roy William Neill behind the camera. The plot is set at the beginning as the Baron of the lands in the late 1700’s is gifted twin sons by his wife. It’s not a time of rejoice as the family prophecy says that the younger son will murder the elder in The Black Room to inherit the family title and the lands that go with it. Hoping to stifle the prophetic tale, the Baron seals the castle room behind brick and mortar.
The years pass as the twins grow to boys, adolescents and finally men. With the use of a title card, twenty years pass by where we find a hardened Boris as Gregor the Baron of the lands. His twin and younger brother Anton has travelled for the past decade but has been called home by Gregor. Anton is the gentle Boris. Friendly, soft spoken and inflicted with a crippled arm. Gregor is the evil Boris. One that movie goers of the era were accustomed to.
Gregor has been a tyrant to the villagers and is suspected to be murdering the young women of the community. Good brother Anton can’t believe the accusations and firmly states his case when the villagers attempt to assassinate the grim looking Gregor. Into the story comes the maiden, Marian Marsh. Gregor has evil designs on her while Anton is the gentleman. Marsh’s father is a man of equal wealth and influence played by Thurston Hall. While Gregor hints at marriage, Marsh is in love with a young soldier played by Robert Allen.
Katherine DeMille also makes an appearance here as an attractive barmaid who is carrying on with Gregor until she pushes him to far. She wants to be made the Baroness but makes a tragic slip up when she confronts Gregor about the secret passage to the Black Room and the fact that she has seen our evil Karloff carrying bodies into the tunnel that leads to the inner chamber. Her fate is sealed and when the villagers storm the castle, Gregor makes a snap decision when he sees how beloved his brother is amongst the townspeople.
I’m not one for unveiling too much of a plot so I’d best slow down at this part of the 70 minute feature that ranks as one of Karloff’s best performances. It’s a wonderful contrast to see Karloff the villain that he so excelled at and the Dear Boris we all really know him to be thanks to the many books and kind words that those who knew him shared with film historians through interviews. *** Spoiler Alert *** What makes this so special in the Karloff cannon of titles is that there’s really is a third performance that Boris delivers when evil Gregor assumes the identitly of the much beloved Anton and must convince those nearest to him. This includes the fact that he must will himself to never move the paralysed right arm his brother was cursed with.
There are two scenes that stand out magnificently in this black and white chiller. One involves Karloff and Hall playing a game of chess and discussing the future of the young Marian that leads to an incriminating signature and the other is the ironic twist of fate at the film’s conclusion.
The setting for this Columbia chiller has a very Frankenstein feel to it when Neill takes his camera into the village and has the townsfolk revolt at the castle. All that’s missing are the torches and perhaps little Maria being carried into the village square by her distraught father after pulling her body from the lake.
Sharing the same birthday with Boris, I guess I was destined to become a fan and still recall the first time I saw this film when it was released by Columbia on VHS. It immediately became one of my favorites of his many films. I’m not into ranking films or performances but this dual/triple role has to be considered among his best and was surely a satisfying venture for Boris the actor. It may not be Gray the coachman or Colin Clive’s creation but surely can be discussed in the same sentence.
Thankfully this one is easy to acquire on DVD thanks to a collection of Karloff titles that any fan of classic films should be adding to their library of movies.