#505: The Black Room (1935)
A smart gothic chiller that pushed the Hays Code to its limit
Initial release: July 15, 1935
Director: Roy William Neill
When the Hays Code, a studio-enforced self-censorship regime in Hollywood to satisfy the moral guardians, was implemented in 1930, it resulted in a particularly strange period of envelope-pushing. Films up to that point had sometimes been quite daring, and had offended the sensitivities of those who saw film — and indeed, other new forms of art — as corrupting society. But censorship can’t silence art completely; Double Indemnity, famously, so captivated censors that it opened the door for films of a similar tone. But in 1935 — the year that the Hays Code began to be seriously enforced after its largely voluntary adoption five years earlier — filmmakers had to work harder to get their vision past the watchful eyes of the Production Code Administration, the chief watchdog of the studio system’s morality police. So it’s no small wonder that The Black Room, a gothic chiller starring Boris Karloff in what may be his best, but least-known role, managed to make it to screens relatively unscathed.
The Black Room starts off in true gothic fashion: sometime in the late 18th century, twins are born to a noble family somewhere in central Europe. The father sees an ill omen in this; for centuries, there has been a prophecy in his family that, as the family founder murdered his brother in a sinister room of onyx in the castle centuries ago, so too will the younger brother murder his older twin in that same room. But a friend of the baron suggests just bricking up the room’s entrance — no black room, no prophecy. And so it is done.
Time passes, and decades later, in 1834, the younger twin, Anton, has been away for a decade, but now returns at the request of his brother Gregor, who has taken over the family business of ruling the area. Anton can be told apart from Gregor not just by his kinder, gentler disposition, but also the paralyzed right arm that he has kept pinned against his chest all his life. He discovers in short order just how disliked Gregor is, not just for how Gregor treats the people of his barony, but also due to the suspicion — not unfounded — that Gregor has been murdering women and making them disappear somewhere. The torches and pitchforks are ready for Gregor, but Gregor has a plan — abdicate his seat and give it to Anton, and leaving the country to travel, free of the responsibilities of rule.
Of course, that was never his real plan. He’s long known of a second entrance into the black room, in which the family tortured and disposed of their enemies centuries prior, and his intent is to use the room to kill his brother and take his place. With Anton’s murder, the prophecy has been neutralized forever… right?
Boris Karloff had a long career, but he’s unfortunately best known for the roles that required the least acting from him — Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, even The Mummy to some extent. The Black Room gives him a chance to shine; indeed, he’s acting for two here, as he plays both Anton and Gregor, two characters who couldn’t be more different, with clever cinematic tricks and stand-ins for those scenes where the two brothers are in the same shot together.
It’s a simple story, straight out of the gothic horror playbook, complete with a family curse and prophecy, and it uses this common thematic language to present a familiar tale. It’s Karloff who really fills in the details, as the film generally moves far too fast and too lightly to present much depth otherwise. Aiding Karloff in selling each scene is some fantastic set design and lighting, with a moody, gloomy castle that recalls the German Expressionist films of the 1920s or the cavernous dark palaces of Dracula or White Zombie, as well as a large cast of extras (taking advantage of that Columbia Pictures money!) to fill out the angry mob.
Cinematographer Allen G. Siegler deserves at least equal billing for the film’s success in what it’s trying to do; his camera work is superb. In one key scene, Gregor, posing as Anton, waits until a family friend’s back is turned to quickly sign a document with his right hand — as he is not left handed like Anton necessarily had to be. But the colonel spots the subterfuge in a mirror, and Neil’s directorial chops help highlight the tension as Gregor murders the colonel, then must hide in the dark with the body as the young male soldier (initially presented as a secondary hero character but ultimately serves as little more than a bit character) comes into the study looking for the colonel.
The titular black room is delightfully sinister for what must have been some fairly cheap effects; dusty mirrors reflecting black walls serve as the onyx confines of the room, thrusting the chamber and its contents into an inky black void. Only the secret entrance that Gregor uses reveals the room as smaller than it looks.
The Black Room’s tale of serial murder, family curses, and evil twins pushes the bounds of what the PCA considered to be good taste; while there are hints of darker things like blasphemy that are never elaborated on, it’s hard not to look at the pit full of bones and wonder how this ever got past the censors. It’s a fun little yarn with a little bit of romance, a little bit of mystery, and a heroic dog for the kids to cheer on, but its best feature is undeniably Karloff himself… both of him.