Directed by: Roy William Neill (The Scarlet Claw)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Marian Marsh, Robert Allan, Thurston Hall, Katherine DeMille
Columbia was one of the slowest—and most tentative—of all studios to hop on the horror-movie bandwagon in the wake of Universal’s success with Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). They dabbled a bit with Behind the Mask (1932) and imported Bela Lugosi for an old dark-house thriller (and high-mortality “body count” prototype) Night of Terror (1933), but something always kept them from pursuing the genre the way the other studios did. So, it’s a bit of a surprise to find Columbia’s The Black Room (1935) in the running as one of the best horror pictures of the ‘30s. It’s actually something of an aberration on a couple levels. Even though it was cheaper to make a period picture in the studio era—standing sets and costumes were easily at hand—it still added to the cost, but perhaps the logic was that the studio had imported Boris Karloff from Universal, and so the extra expense of setting The Black Room in the 1800s was justifiable.
It’s also a little odd that the studio cast Karloff in a dual role as twin brothers—one good, one evil, naturally—and didn’t want him to play a monster of some sort, nor even something supernatural. Karloff is no monster here (though his Gregor is certainly monstrous), and the film only touches on the supernatural as concerns fulfilling an old family prophecy. But make no mistake, The Black Room—as directed by the underrated and very stylish Roy William Neill—is every inch a horror film, even if it’s horror in the barnstorming melodrama vein. It’s also a classy film with one (or should I say two?) of Karloff’s best performances, which is backed up by an unusually strong supporting cast. As a classic of 1930s horror, The Black Room ought to be better known than it is. Here’s a chance to catch up with it.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Black Room at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 18, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot on the left.)