Thursday, July 16, 2009

Paint It Black

Continuing my sporadic series reviewing old laserdiscs found in my garage ...

The Black Room, staring Boris Karloff and Boris Karloff, is a marvelous film adaptation of one of the best Edgar Allen Poe tales that Poe never wrote.

It was an original screenplay by Henry Myers and Arthur Strawn, but (to me, at least,) it feels very much like an adaptation of a short story by Poe. It starts with twins being born to the de Berghmann family—heirs to the baronetcy of a nameless central European principality (Bavaria by way of Chatsworth) set in the early 1800’s. The younger (by a few minutes) is Anton, who, in addition to having lost the title of Baron, is also saddled with a paralyzed arm. Despite this, he’s not bitter, but rather as kind-hearted as his brother, Gregor, is coldly evil. Anton is called back from his travels abroad by Gregor, who wants his aid in restoring his popularity with the townsfolk (it seems that they don’t take kindly to his rapacious and homicidal nature). There is, of course, a complicating factor that drove Anton away initially: A family curse which says that the younger brother will kill the older in the Black Room, which is evidently some sort of hidden safe room lined with obsidian walls and containing a dry cistern.

Gregor steps down, abdicating in favor of Anton—then kills his brother and dumps his body down the well in the Black Room. He usurps Anton’s identity, but Lt. Hassel (Thurston Hall) has suspicions, which lead to Gregor’s eventual unmasking and a twist ending that fulfills the curse.

Although it isn’t horror per se, Karloff’s tour-de-force as the reptilian Gregor and his brotherly antithesis Anton elevates the story, making it much more than just a period melodrama. Backed up by Roy William Neil’s understated direction, which uses split-screen, rear-projection and various in-camera tricks to show the twins interacting, Karloff delivers three excellent performances. As Gregor, he’s utterly psychopathic, eating a pear and musing about its taste while his Gypsy mistress pleads for her life (“And when you’re through, you throw it away.”) As Anton, he’s gentle and trusting, though not blind to Gregor’s faults. And after Gregor kills his brother, Karloff creates a third persona: Gregor masquerading as Anton. He lets us see the cruelty behind the mask, but not so overtly as to arouse the other players’ suspicions.

The story isn’t perfect; it disintegrates into a free-wheeling chase at the end, featuring a dog that can keep pace with a carriage at full gallop. But the biggest contrivance is Anton’s arm; paralyzed since birth, it would be a withered and dessicated stick instead of being indistinguishable from his other appendage. Nevertheless, the film is well worth watching for Karloff’s performance.

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