70 min., 1935
Written by Arthur Strawn/Henry Myers
Directed by R. William Neill
My rating: ★★★★★
What’s better than Boris Karloff? TWO BORIS KARLOFFS.
* * *
The film is never specific about when and where this story takes place, but it’s sometime in the 18th Century, probably, and it’s a European village. A baron’s wife has just given birth to twins. However, this makes the baron uneasy because of a prophecy. Their family started with twins, and the younger killed the older in the Black Room. It has been said that the family will end the under the exact same circumstances, and Gregor and Anton are the first twins to come along in all that time.
The baron’s solution? He seals the Black Room, and years later, after his death, Anton, the younger brother, harassed by the prophecy, decides to leave the village and travel the world. Fast forward 20 years, and Gregor is now the baron, and he’s an utter bastard. Everyone hates him, and they’ve tried taking his life on several occasions. After all, more than one village lass has disappeared after visiting his castle.
However, Gregor summons Anton, and the villagers mistake the younger brother for his older counterpart. After a while, though, since Anton is actually a nice guy, the villagers take a liking to him, especially the Colonel’s daughter, Thea. But the question remains, why did Gregor reach out to Anton?
At first, it seems pretty innocuous. The villagers’ accusations have reached a head, and he announces that he’s going to leave the village, and Anton is going to replace him as the baron. Yet later on, he lures poor Anton to the Black Room through a secret passage, and in defiance of the prophecy, the older brother kills the younger brother, and Gregor pretends to be Anton to the rest of the world, which is easy to do. The only difference between them is that Anton was born with a gimp arm, which Gregor is able to affect well. Now he has the adoration of the villagers, and lovely Thea has turned her attention to him for the first time. The only problem is Anton’s dog knows very well the difference between them . . .
Boris Karloff, who plays both twins, does a remarkable job. This is one of his finest performances. One easily expects kind, gentle Anton from him, but Gregor? Sure, Karloff has played some coarse villains before, like in TOWER OF LONDON and THE OLD DARK HOUSE, but for the most part, he has a long history of playing mad geniuses who are very courteous when they’re trying to kill you. Even when he played resurrectionist John Gray in THE BODY SNATCHER, while he was certainly a nasty character, it was only business for him. Gregor exudes villainy. He has a swagger to him that Karloff has never portrayed in any other role. As he sits in his chair, tipped back with a foot stretched out on a stool, the other slung over the chair’s arm, talking about the virtues of pears, eating one with a knife, you can see a Karloff you’ve never witnessed before. Gregor’s overwhelming desire to control everyone around him is startling. He’s an absolute animal, and he loves the puss-ay. In one scene, after seducing a serving girl into his room to play music for him, he brutally kills her and ditches her in the pit in the Black Room. As far as bad guys go, Gregor is a bastard, through and through. There is nothing redeeming about him.
Director R. William Neill certainly gets a top three performance out of Karloff in this film. Some of the best scenes are with both brothers conversing with each other, and the effects are marvelous for the time. Hell, they’d be awesome today. Of course, it’s green screen tech when they don’t have to touch each other, but when they do, they picked the perfect match for Karloff. You can’t even tell the difference, even though you never see the double’s face.
The writing is superb. One of the best scenes in cinematic history is when Gregor is getting ready to sign papers that would allow him to control Thea’s assets. The problem is, Gregor can’t sign while the Colonel is watching him, since he writes with the hand that’s supposed to be paralyzed. He suggests having a drink to seal the deal, and when the Colonel turns his back to pour, Gregor quickly signs the documents. He doesn’t count on the mirror, though, and the Colonel sees him anyway. In the next moment, the Colonel pretends not to have noticed, but it’s very clear that his heart has been utterly destroyed as he wonders what happened to Anton.
The sets and the music are vintage Hollywood, common for the day, but absolutely magical now, making it seem like you’re watching a fairy tale instead of a movie. Neill really gave it his all to create one of the finest movies in horror history. Of course, it’s hard to fuck up when you have Karloff on your team, but still, compared to how ordinary such a story could have been, this is a fantastic film.
Oh, and what about that pesky prophecy? Well, check out the ending to see how masterfully that tiny problem is resolved.Have You Read...?