By the middle of the thirties, Boris Karloff had already played the monster in Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein as well as the title role in The Mummy, all for Universal. Taking a vacation from monster roles, Karloff turned to Columbia Pictures for a chance to show off his acting chops, and the film that they gave him was a tour-de-force for the thespian: The Black Room.
The Black Room begins with the birth of twin sons to the Baron Frederick de Berghman (Henry Kolker from The Ghost Walks). The Baron is panicked by the news, as an old family prophecy claims that the younger brother will kill the older in the black room, a chamber with onyx walls deep in the castle. Years later, older brother Gregor (Karloff) becomes Baron while the younger Anton (also Karloff) is sent away to roam the countryside. Gregor has become a tyrannical leader and gains a reputation as a murderer of women amongst his people. Anton returns to his homeland just as the people are revolting against Gregor. To save his life, Gregor agrees to turn his throne over to his more popular brother, Anton. Believing that Anton will take the lovely Thea (Svengali’s Marian Marsh) as his bride, Gregor kills his brother by tossing him into a pit in the black room with the rest of his victims. Gregor assumes Anton’s identity so that he can marry Thea and keep ruling the land, but how long can he keep up his vicious charade?
Directed by Roy William Neill (Black Moon) and written by Arthur Strawn (Flight to Mars) with Henry Myers (Destry Rides Again), The Black Room is the first of five horror pictures that Boris Karloff would do for Columbia, and the only one to not be considered part of his “Mad Doctor Series.” Its low budget kept Karloff out of monster makeup, and the dual role let him really flex his theatrical muscles. Although it couldn’t compete with the big Universal horror films that built Karloff’s reputation either at the box office or with the critics, The Black Room stands on its own as a masterpiece of classic terror.
Released in England as The Black Room Mystery, The Black Room mixes elements of mystery and suspense with the horror, and the cleverly crafted story includes more than a few neat twists that keep it interesting and fun. Robert Allen (Raiders of the Living Dead) and Thurston Hall (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) turn in a couple of standout performances as a pair of Gregor’s soldiers who begin to suspect his treachery and their investigations and revelations help keep the audience aware of the advancing story. The ending is fairly predictable, but that’s to be expected from a film with a premonition in the opening scene. Nevertheless, with The Black Room, the journey is more important than the destination, and the story arc is a great ride.
The biggest reason for the overall effectiveness of The Black Room is Boris Karloff; the actor has an absolute field day with the film. Not only does he play the parts of both twins, Anton and Gregor, but he plays the part of Gregor playing Anton. Effectively, he’s playing three roles in the film, and he plays all of them to perfection. He captures all of the subtleties and nuances of each character as only a skillful actor can: the kind altruism of Anton, the wicked evil of Gregor, and the slippery slope of Gregor’s failing impression of Anton. Karloff’s performances are nothing less than astounding, and he has complete control of all of his roles in The Black Room.
Photographically, The Black Room looks like the Universal films that it tries to imitate. Along with cinematographer Allen G. Siegler (who made a name for himself shooting Three Stooges shorts), Roy William Neill uses limited yet lush set pieces to create an atmosphere of utter terror, not only in the titular Black Room but in the entire compound. The clever visual effects shots of Karloff acting opposite himself are virtually seamless, a wonder of cinematic gimmickry for their time. Part gothic horror and part period piece, The Black Room features the creepy look and ominous feel that all horror movies should strive to attain.
There is no doubt of Boris Karloff’s legacy in the horror world; Because of his size and stature, he is usually pigeonholed as a monster with barely a grunt of dialogue. His acting skill is often overlooked, but one only needs to take a look at The Black Room to be reminded that he was a master of his craft.
Watch more clips from The Black Room in the TCM Media Room.