The Man They Could Not Hang
Director: Nick Grinde
Writer: Karl Brown, George Wallace Syre, and Leslie T. White
Cinematographer: Benjamin H. Kline
Producer: Wallace MacDonald
The Black Room
Director: R. William Neill
Writer: Arthur Strawn and Henry Myers; story by Arthur Strawn
Cinematographer: Allen G. Siegler
Producer: Robert North
by Jon Cvack
A Boris Karloff is the type of actor that I’m beginning to enjoy the older I get, as he had been so heavily parodied while growing up that actually seeing the man perform felt uninspired by comparison. The Man They Could Not Hang/The Black Room single disc double feature are two pretty good films made in the 1930s that star the man, providing that beat up black and white aesthetic of haunted houses, castles, and graveyards, now iconic and beautiful to look at, as limited by makeup and effects, they couldn’t do more than rely on creating atmosphere.
Black Room involves Karloff playing a dual role, as twin brothers Gregor and Anton of the de Berghmann baronial family. With Gregor having been born first and with a lame arm, per primogeniture, he’s entitled to take over the estate. However, far from anxious for the responsibility, Gregor has decided to travel the world and leaves the castle to his temperamental brother Anton. Prophecy has it that one of the brothers is going to one day kill the other in the The Black Room, and with Gregor’s return, Anton begins devising a plan.
Not expecting much from the film other than some great visuals, I was impressed with the story and Karloff’s performance. He shifts from the brooding and creepy Gregor to the charming and sweet Anton with ease. While I was expecting a happier ending, when Anton murders Gregor and dumps his body into the The Black Room I was left thinking of Hitchcock, with a film that pre-dated most of the master’s more modern work by four years. The entire story shifted from the murderous tension between two brothers to that of the town discovering the secret, utilizing the pet dog as a pure Hitchcockian plot devices that would go on to save the day.
Classic Universal Horror films were made only three to four years prior, providing more eye candy than substance and that this film would follow, combining similar beautiful set design with a more engaging story, and yet The Black Room and its partner are far more engaging stories. While not completely horror, what they lose in terms of the supernatural, they more than make up for with simple plot wonderfully executed.
The Man They Could Not Hang is an equally strong film, playing as a bizarre moral thriller. The story involves Dr. Henryk Savaard (Boris Karloff) who invents a machine to reanimate the dead, displayed within a young kid’s fantasy of a chemistry set. The film opens the night that Savaard wants to try the tool, with one of his medical students offering to be killed and then revived; having that much faith in the Savaard. His nurse Betty Crawford (Ann Doran) refuses to participate, running to the police who then rush back discovering the medical student dead and Savaard and his assistant on the verge of bringing him back to life. The police order him to stop. Despite his protests about the boy, they take him away, leaving the student to die. Savaard is sentenced to death by hanging, with his assistant later retrieving the body in order to reanimate the former student with the device. Revived, Savaard then assembles all those responsible for his death and failure to save the student’s life - from the nurse to police to judge - inviting them to a dinner party where he declares he’s going to kill them all off one by one every fifteen minutes. The film is also only 64 minutes long.
While far from a perfect story, coming out in 1939, it continued the exploration of reanimating the dead while embracing a type of Agatha Christie murder mystery at the end. While feeling a bit disjointed, it’s hour and change running time makes it s work, and the final act is some of the most fun I’ve had with a film from the period. The closing sequence reminded me of Saw II (2005), and while this is the better film, I actually could have used another five or ten minutes of watching the victims get killed off one by one, as it was just so cool to see how even in an open room, they’d be forced into lethal situations, never feeling all that forced, especially given the period.
Karloff offers another great and undervalued performance as a charming and erudite doctor, corrupted by a system that prevents his knowledge from helping mankind. I was fascinated by his descent from a man passionate for saving life and then toward destroying it. Given that the device could have saved millions, was it worth destroying a half dozen or so people that were standing in the way of that progress? It’s easy to condemn the behavior, and yet think of all those who were killed prematurely and what kind of lives they could have lived if things turned out differently; if the police had gotten there minutes later and Savaard had revived the dead. For a film predating The Twilight Zone by nearly fifteen years, I was left thinking about this one for awhile after.
BELOW: Joe Dante (Gremlins ('84), The 'Burbs ('89)) on The Black Room
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