Boris Karloff lived his dream through commitment and hard work. The English born William Pratt was destined for government work if his family had had their way, but his heart belonged to the stage. Moving to Canada and working in many jobs including farm labourer, he eventually joined a Stock Company and found his place in the theatre.
In films from 1919 first in bit parts and slowly working his way into larger character roles any early dreams of stardom were probably long gone by 1931 when he took on the role of the monster in James Whale’s production of Frankenstein. The combination of Jack Pierce’s make-up and Boris Karloff’s commitment to the character created a horror movie icon and assured the 44 year old actor a niche in movies and in the hearts of fans. The years ahead would feature many roles in, as he called them, “chillers” and led to Broadway successes and television popularity.
Roy William Neill (1887-1946)
Roy William Neill was romantically born on board a ship captained by his father off the coast of Ireland. Born the same year as Karloff, he entered film around the same time in 1916 as a busy and prolific actor, writer, producer and director. His directing credits include a mix of all genres including action, mystery, horror, comedy and westerns, directing Buck Jones in several silent features.
I enjoy his work in mystery mode with such movies as 1933s The Circus Queen Murder starring Adolphe Menjou, 1935s The Return of the Lone Wolf starring Melvyn Douglas, all but the first of the Universal Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and his last and maybe best feature, the exemplary film-noir classic from Cornell Woolrich’s novel, Black Angel starring June Vincent and Dan Duryea. Roy Neill died of an unexpected heart attack while visiting England after completion of the Woolrich picture.
Holmes star Nigel Bruce, in his unpublished autobiography Games, Gossip and Greasepaint, said this of Neill:
"Roy was an Englishman by birth who had become an American citizen. He was a little man, very fussy about his clothes and like myself, he always smoked a pipe. He was an extremely kind and friendly person and all his assistants and the crews who worked for him were devoted to him. Roy was an extremely able director, having a great knowledge of film technique and of the use of his camera. During the many pictures we made under his direction we found him a joy to work for. Basil and I nicknamed him 'mousey' during our first picture and the name stuck to him from then on. We both became extremely attached to Roy Neill.”
Gregor and Anton - Boris Karloff
I can’t help but think from that description that 1935s The Black Room directed by Roy William Neill and starring Boris Karloff was as felicitous a teaming between director and star as it was of star and co-star. You see, in The Black Room Karloff plays twins. It’s a movie trick that seems to fascinate both actors and audiences. Why settle for one Bette Davis when you can have two (A Stolen Life, Dead Ringer) or two of Olivia deHavilland (The Dark Mirror) or two of Hayley Mills (The Parent Trap) or two of Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers), etc.?
Let’s have a somewhat spoilerish look at The Black Room.
Baron Frederick de Berghman (Henry Kolker) refuses to celebrate the birth of his twin sons because, as he explains to his young friend Lt. Hassel (Colin Tapley), it means the end of the family. There is a curse of the family of de Berghman that they will end the way they began, with the younger of twin brothers murdering the older in the black room. The young lieutenant cannot believe in such nonsense, but sensing his friend’s sincerity suggests that the solution lies in sealing up the cursed black room, which is done immediately.
Gregor and Mashka - Boris Karloff and Katherine DeMille
Time passes and forty years later the younger brother Anton has been gone from home for many years, driven away by the curse, although being born with a withered right arm may preclude his bringing any harm to his brother. Anton has been a student, a traveler and has grown into a thoughtful and kind man. The Baron Gregor de Berghman has remained in charge of the family estate with the assistance of family friend the now Colonel Hassel (Thurston Hall). Colonel Hassel has become adept at hiding his fear and loathing of Gregor. Gregor is the sort of man who engenders fear and loathing. The local peasantry are of two minds about the Baron, some say he is a tyrant, others that he is a fiend. It is known that women who have ventured to the castle have never been heard of again.
Gregor and Thea - Boris Karloff and Marian Marsh
Gregor has called his brother Anton back to the family estate asking for help with affairs which have become too difficult to handle. The obliging Anton returns to find the peasants on the brink of revolt, his brother a volatile sort, and Colonel Hassel’s niece Thea (Marian Marsh) a lovely and charming young woman. Thea is in love with Lt. Albert Lussan (Robert Allen) and frightened by the attentions of the Baron. Gypsy girl Mashka (Katherine DeMille) isn’t frightened by the Baron, but she should be.
Anton’s return is part of Gregor’s scheme to quell the rebellion and gain lovely Thea as his wife. It is a cunning plan involving murder, deception and the black room. Gregor will murder Anton and take his place subduing the angered peasants. He will worm his way into Thea’s good graces through her uncle. Gregor will have everything he wants. Gregor is not afraid of the curse of the de Berghmans.
The Black Room is a “little” movie with an epic feel. Boris Karloff is a joy to watch as both the adorable Anton and the grim Gregor. The atmosphere of dread and gloom is palpable and the pace is brisk. Recurring visuals that highlight the story are the use of mirrors that can't help but reveal truths, and graveyards and iconic religious statues that reinforce the spiritual nature of the curse and the belief./In Karloff's Baron Gregor de Berghman we have a villain of the highest order and his comeuppance is as delicious as a splash of Irish in a cup of coffee to dispel a dark, dank October evening. Happy Hallowe’en!