Saturday, January 16, 1971: The Black Room (1935) / The Man With Nine Lives (1940)



Synopsis: In a Tyrolean fiefdom, a baron anxiously awaits the birth of an heir. But he is greatly distressed to learn that his wife has given birth to twins. An old family prophecy holds that one day twins will be born to the family, and that the younger twin will murder the older in the onyx-lined “black room” of the castle. Fearful of the prophecy, the baron orders that the entrance to the room be bricked up.

Some forty years later, we find the older twin Gregor ruling as baron. He is a cruel and dissolute tyrant, hated by his subjects, and he is suspected in the disappearances of several young women. But the local authorities turn a blind eye to his activities.

The younger twin Anton (Boris Karloff) is a nice but somewhat ineffectual fellow, and has been away since his brother’s rule began. At Gregor’s invitation, Anton returns home.

At first Anton refuses to believe the rumors about Gregor, but it soon becomes clear to him that his older brother is every bit as cruel and despotic as the locals allege.


When Gregor is implicated in the disappearance of Mashka, a gypsy serving girl, the townspeople rise up. They storm the castle and demand Gregor be handed over to them.

To everyone’s surprise, Gregor tells the townspeople that he will relinquish his authority immediately and turn it over to his younger brother Anton. This mollifies the crowd and Anton becomes the new baron.

While acquainting Anton with his new duties, Gregor shows him an interesting trick: inside the huge fireplace in the main hall there is a secret passage that leads into the Black Room. Gregor reveals that he has been there many times, and that there is a pit beneath the room. When Anton looks down into the pit, he sees a number of bodies that have been thrown down there — including the body of the missing girl Mashka. Gregor strikes Anton and tosses him down into the pit as well.

As Anton dies, Gregor taunts him. He reminds him that, according to the prophecy, Anton was supposed to kill Gregor in that room. “The prophesy will be fulfilled!” Anton insists. “From the grave?” Gregor asks sarcastically. “Yes,” Anton says as he dies. “From the grave!”

Emerging from the Black Room, Gregor now assumes the identity of Anton, able to rule again while being absolved of all his past crimes. Yet Anton’s dying words keep coming back to him…

Comments: Horror Incorporated returns to the Saturday evening schedule with an interesting pair of films that Boris Karloff made for Columbia Pictures. The first was released in 1935, when the Englishman was still enjoying the astonishing career reboot that Frankenstein had made possible. No film actor, with the possible exception of the great Morgan Freeman, has managed such a stunning late-career turnaround*: practically overnight he went from being an obscure middle-aged character actor to over-the-title top banana, for a time credited at Universal simply as KARLOFF, his surname alone enough to sell tickets; billed in advertisements as “Karloff the Uncanny”, hailed as the second coming of the great Lon Chaney himself.

And like many who struggled in their early careers Karloff didn’t take fame for granted. He worked hard and tried to demonstrate his range as an actor. And in The Black Room his efforts pay off handsomely.

It’s really a treat to watch Karloff at work here. His portrayal of the sociopathic Gregor is utterly convincing — we grasp quickly that the man is cruel and ruthless, but as the movie goes on his behavior evinces something much darker; that he is, quite simply, a monster. He will literally do anything to get what he wants. Karloff wisely doesn’t try to underline this with a lot of theatrical mugging. His Gregor is clearly watching everything around him, sizing up everyone else and constantly searching for an advantage. This is a smart, understated film performance that works because it isn’t transparently showy.

The screenplay sometimes works too hard to point up the differences between Gregor and his twin. The soft-spoken, dandified, snuff-taking Anton is even given a paralyzed arm in order to make him appear more ineffectual. But Karloff’s body language — always the most powerful weapon in his actor’s arsenal — is even more important than vocal mannerisms or costume in telling the two apart. Even when Gregor is standing still Karloff imbues him with a lithe, lupine energy, always watching for an attack from an unseen angle; while Anton’s manner is flat-footed, trusting, utterly unsuspecting. As a showcase for Karloff’s strengths you could hardly do better.

And as a commercial vehicle it would have been a good bet too, mixing three popular genres of the 1930s — gothic horror, costume drama and royal melodrama — together in one appealing package.

Karloff is assisted by a clever screenplay that leads us inexorably to Gregor’s final comeuppance, and though the final act gets a bit muddled it remains a smart and sharply-focused thriller.

Of course, some of the credit needs to go to director Roy William Neill, something of a master craftsman behind the camera. Neill started his career working in silent pictures, and did a lot of work for Universal in the 1940s, directing most of the studio’s Sherlock Holmes pictures as well as the Shock! package mainstay Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The Black Room is a good example of his ability to make the most of limited time and money, and it’s one of the prolific director’s best efforts.

The Man With Nine Lives

Synopsis: Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) is conducting ground-breaking research in cryogenics. In a public demonstration, he lowers the body temperature of a patient until she is in a coma-like state. Five days later he brings her out of it, and after the procedure her chronic pain has diminished considerably.

After the demonstration, Dr. Mason tells his fiancee, nurse Judith Blair (Jo Ann Sayers) that his results are encouraging, but not what he had hoped. He reveals that most of his experiments are derived from the work of a mysterious Dr. Leon Kravaal (Boris Karloff), whose book on the subject of cryogenics hinted that he was in possession of a mysterious process that allowed the body to be completely frozen. Laboratory animals exposed to this process would completely recover from the freezing. Moreover, cancer cells in test animals disappeared after prolonged treatment, because the body’s immune system was still working while the cancer cells were suspended. Mason is fascinated by these revelations, and would love to get more of the details of the procedures from Kravaal; but the scientist vanished ten years earlier.

The hospital administration disapproves of all the meddlesome publicity Mason is generating and they force him to take a leave of absence. Seeing an opportunity to track Kravaal down, Mason and Blair drive up north to Kravaal’s last known address. This turns out to be a spooky old house on a small island.

The place had been abandoned since the disappearance of Kravaal, the county sheriff, county prosecutor, town doctor and two other townspeople.

Exploring the house, Dr. Mason and Judith discover a passage from the basement that leads to an abandoned laboratory, and beyond that, an icy underground cavern. In this cavern Dr. Kravaal is discovered. Using the techniques he’s developed to revive hypothermic patients (i.e., warming them with blankets and pouring hot coffee down their throats) Kravaal eventually comes around. He’s astonished to find that he has been in suspended animation for ten years. Then he reveals that in a second chamber, behind the first, there are four bodies.

In a flashback sequence, Kravaal explains that the elderly Jasper Adams had come to him in hopes that frozen therapy might cure his cancer. Adams’ nephew became suspicious, and the county prosecutor brought Kravaal in. In the prosecutor’s office the town doctor avers that he had previously examined Adams, and it was clear the man’s cancer was terminal. Kravaal scoffs at the doctor’s hidebound pronouncements, but under duress he agrees to take the men to see Jasper Adams during his treatment.

Kravaal takes them, along with the county sheriff, to the island and the underground cavern. Seeing Adams’ frozen body, the doctor declares him dead, and the sheriff places him under arrest. Kravaal uses a beaker of chemicals to render his captors unconscious, but in the process places everyone — including himself — in a state of suspended animation.**

After relating this amazing story, Mason and Judith help Kravaal revive the others, all of whom are astonished that ten years have passed and that they have all probably been declared dead.

When Jasper Adams’ loud-mouthed nephew destroys the formula used to put them in suspended animation, Kravaal kills him. He then tells the others that he must now reconstruct the formula, and he must use them all as his guinea pigs….

Comments: The Man With Nine Lives arrived in theaters only five years after The Black Room, but seeing them back to back makes the gap seem more like fifty years, or five hundred. While Karloff’s career hadn’t exactly hit the skids in the interim, there is no question that things had changed. No more single-name-on-the-marquee nonsense, no more “Karloff the Uncanny” hype, no more costume dramas. No more demonstrating his range. No more pretending that he’s a man with a thousand faces. For the most part he now had one face, one that audiences would see again and again — the face of the mad scientist.


At the end of the day he couldn’t outrun those bushy eyebrows and that brooding demeanor: sooner or later he was going to be — gulp!– typecast. If I had lived in those days, and had to bet on it, I’d wager that Karloff was destined to be typecast as a brains heavy, sending his muscle-bound minions out to kidnap the girl, or rub out the hero, or steal the nuclear secrets.

I would have lost that bet, of course ( I’d be a terrific gambler if I wasn’t wrong so much of the time). Nope, Karloff’s fate was to be cast again and again as the demented guy with the Erlenmeyer flask in his hand.

To be typecast is not the worst thing in the world, as Peter Falk often said. But it’s important to be typecast in the right sort of role, and Karloff made a good living playing what turned out to be a good fit for him.

Nevertheless, tonight’s vehicle suffers from a number of fatal flaws, which I previously enumerated here. Seeing it again hasn’t improved my opinion of it.

The truth is, Dr. Mason and his bony girlfriend have to carry the movie for a long time until Dr. Kravaal shows up, and it just doesn’t work. At first I suspected the screenwriters were hoping that the conspicuously absent Karloff would haunt the first third of the picture the way Gene Tierney did in Laura, or Orson Welles did in The Third Man, but neither of those films had been made yet. So scratch that idea.

Scott Ashlin at 1000 Misspent Hours insists that The Man With Nine Lives is actually a significant improvement over its predecessor, The Man They Could Not Hang. Go ahead and give it a read; Ashlin’s a talented writer and I can’t find any flaw in his argument. Except, of course, that it’s wrong.

_______________________
*Morgan Freeman’s stardom came relatively late in his career, but he still wasn’t catapulted to fame the way Karloff was. For many years Freeman was a bread-and-butter character actor best known as Easy Reader on the PBS series The Electric Company. After a five year run, he found it hard to be taken seriously as an actor due to his association with the show. It wasn’t until he was in his 50s, when he appeared in 1987’s Street Smart that he received the first real acclaim of his career. Suddenly the scripts he was being offered improved dramatically, and within two years he was an honest-to-peaches movie star.

**Oops!

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3 comments

  1. THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES does not improve upon THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, especially with the smarmy Roger Pryor making an unconvincing leap from gung ho district attorney to dedicated physician, but the reliable Karloff delivers once he enters the picture 20 minutes in. THE BLACK ROOM is a treat from start to finish, and so is this marvelous summary. Gregor sounds just like The Grinch, and my favorite moment is when Thurston Hall's Colonel spies Gregor's signature through the mirror, with its sharp camera movement emphasizing the deception. The remainder seems anticlimactic, but it's still one of Karloff's finest.

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  2. I feel bad beating up on poor Roger Pryor, but really. Was there no one else on the Columbia lot who could play the part of Tim Mason? IMDB notes that during his career he was called “the poor man's Clark Gable” so I suppose we now know what Clark Gable would have been like if he'd been a couple of inches shorter and devoid of personality.

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