The Black Room (1935)

Director: Roy William Neill

“I can’t believe it’s not Universal!” Yeah, you don’t usually associate Columbia with this sort of thing; I can only assume Harry Cohn looked at the returns from Universal’s horror films of recent years (remember The Black Cat was the studio’s biggest money-spinner just the year before) and decided he should try some of that action. Director Neill and his production team would appear to have taken hints (and, apparently, some of the sets) from Universal and indeed the other studios that had dabbled in the genre, although the mission here was to come up with something less lurid than that, more a period melodrama with Gothic vibes. And Boris Karloff, in what is, effectively, actually three roles: the twin brothers, one of whom kills the other and then impersonates the latter. Basically, Gregor and Anton are the scions of an old noble family with a prophecy attached, that when twins were born, the younger would murder the elder out of spite at, you know, not inheriting anything. However, it’s actually Gregor, the elder, who grows up to be a nasty shit hated by his village folk, while the younger Anton is a kinder, gentler figure who, frankly, doesn’t seem like a murderer at all. But when he returns to the village after years of absence, the plot that unfolds is a bit more complicated than the old prophecy suggests. This is a fairly small and unassuming film in many ways (I assume it was meant primarily as a B programmer) and there’s a couple of possible plot holes if you look closely, but it’s surprisingly handsomely made, perfectly formed at 68 minutes, and of course Karloff is terrific in it; he didn’t always get much chance to demonstrate his actual acting skills in the films he made, but he rightly seizes the opportunity here.

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