The Gothic Note: Graham Greene on The Black Room (1935)

Graham Greene—yes, one of the greatest and most enjoyable writers of the 20th century—spent a good bit of the 1930s writing about movies. 

And he was the kind of critic who makes me feel unworthy to be a self-appointed critic. His keen powers of observation and unflaggingly sharp ability to zero in on flaws, foibles, and mannerisms could reduce even the most egotistical of entertainment personalities into shuddering piles of fearfulness and remorse. Greene possessed an innate Geiger counter for pretense and commercial tripe. Nothing hindered him from laying into his cinematic victims with a withering British politeness and eloquence.

Which is all the more reason why, when Greene reviews a film favorably, we all ought to pull it off the shelves and give it a fresh look. And, wonder of wonders, when reflecting on the 1935 Karloff vehicle, The Black Room, our emerging novelist remarked in The Spectator:

“I liked this wildly artificial film, in which Karloff acts both a wicked central European count and his virtuous, cultured twin of the Byronic period.”

Phew! We can all heave a sigh of relief. Foremost among Greene’s reasons for liking the film, he points out that The Black Room affords Karloff a role not as an inarticulate monster, but as both a monstrous, yet pithy human being and a good guy. We get a richer sense of his range.

“Mr Boris Karloff has been allowed to act at last… [A]ny actor could have produced the short barks and guttural rumbles, the stiff, stuffed, sawdust gestures, which was all his parts required of him. A Karloff scenario must have made curious reading. Were those grunts phonetically expressed?”

As much as that last rhetorical question provokes the 1930s equivalent of an LOL, I’m going to have to take issue with you, Graham Greene. (Please don’t haunt me! Wait… actually, please do.) Karloff can communicate an extraordinary amount through grunts and jerky motions.

Karloff: double trouble…

Nevertheless, I agree that ‘tis a treat indeed to watch Karloff swing into full-on Richard III mode with his wily, sardonic delivery of Baron Gregor’s lines. I also appreciate the louche physicality which Karloff explores in the part of a libertine, always lounging in a chair kicked back against a wall, his leg swung over the arm of the chair.

Karloff’s Gregor: inventor of “chillin’ like a villain”

As for William Roy Neill’s handling of the script, Greene accorded the interpretation rather high praise… at the expense of another great horror director:

“The direction is good: it has caught, as Mr James Whale never did with Frankenstein, the genuine Gothic note. Mrs. Radcliffe would not have been ashamed of this absurd and exciting film, of the bones in the oubliette…

“…the scene at the altar when the dog leaps and the paralysed arm comes to life in self-defense,

“…of the Count’s wild drive back to the castle, the lashing whip, the rearing horses, the rocketing coach, the strange volley of rocks with its leading cross and neglected Christ, the graveyard with owls and ivy. There is much more historical sense in this film than in any of… the ‘scholarly’ works of Mr Korda. A whole literary period comes to life…”

I am now going to critique this critique. Those of you with faint hearts may leave.

Dead men don’t blog back, so I want to clarify that I am in no way deriding Graham Greene. Let’s face it, though, his review does place a major limitation on horror, a limitation which runs the risk of oversimplifying the genre. He’s implying that horror should necessarily be Gothic in tone. At least, it seems that he’s taking a shot at Whale for abandoning the Gothic aesthetic. By contrast, Greene praises Neill and his “good” direction for remaining faithful to the literary tradition of Radcliffe and Lewis. His whole standard of evaluation hinges on a film’s relationship to a specific heritage of terror. I don’t think it should be that simple.

Indeed, I advise you not to read Greene’s review of Bride of Frankenstein if you happen to be squeamish or if you, like me, simply love that movie—the write-up is about as dismissive as Greene gets. He didn’t appreciate any of the camp elements, Whale’s “devil’s advocate” brand of empathy, or the piquant, looming bizarreness which Whale infused into talkie horror. Instead, the budding novelist kept hammering on the fact that the Bride just wasn’t scary in the Gothic sense, when, frankly, I doubt that it was meant to be.

I differ from Greene, because I can’t believe the aesthetics of horror are that clear-cut. Gothic—good. Departure from Gothic—bad. Now, I would argue that good horror may borrow elements from the Gothic, but it doesn’t need to.

And, yet. Always this “and yet…” haunts me, like the specter of a murdered brother!

I have to admit that Greene does make a strong case for the validity of the Gothic mentality as the core of pleasurable horror flicks. Just to be clear, for me, Gothic atmosphere and style revolves around contrivances, like curses, unspeakable secrets, and twin brothers. The esthetic also requires a certain benighted, costume-y feel which Greene beautifully conjures in the quoted description above. Finally, I would argue that this type of horror is joined to a psychological primitivism, a lack of obvious self-consciousness.

If a man starts hitting on you in a graveyard, you may be in a Gothic novel.

Gothic horror relies upon the ghastly for its thrills: churchyards, stabbings, murderous brigands, hidden deformities, and gruesome ironies. One of my favorite such moments in The Black Room (spoiler alert!) has Baron Gregor assume the bearing and manners of the brother he’s just killed while examining himself in the reflective onyx walls of the titular secret chamber.

There’s also something about the Gothic that reminds me of Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Much of the fun of this genre literature (and Jacobean revenge tragedies, for that matter) derives from some kind of prediction, equation, or vow that ends up getting fulfilled, rather creepily and often with a slight plot twist, in the end. As it does in The Black Room, the conclusion of which I won’t disclose, but which you’ll understand if you’ve seen it.

“I begin as I end.” The family coat-of-arms and curse.

Another strength of Gothic horror as a genre resides in what I would describe as a lack of psychologizing. In place of tiresomely nuanced self-doubt, we relish heavy generalizations like Lust, Sin, and Innocence that dwell in the realm of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Like Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of UdolphoThe Black Room eschews the cumbersome self-analysis that we do get in more “modern” horror flicks, including some good ones, like the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Cat People.

That’s not to say that The Black Room lacks elements that lend themselves to psychological analysis, or to interpretation in general. Take the film’s use of mirrors as a means of suggesting moral doubling and division. Then there’s the fact that Anton and Gregor came from the same womb and are destined to end up in the same oubliette. But still, you could plausibly watch this movie and get no sense of anything deeper than a fine little chiller.

It’s entertainment in a rather pure, uncomplicated form, which is something that Greene and I both like and applaud. As someone who’s spent a lot of time studying film, I am refreshed by a film that doesn’t really want you to study or over-intellectualize it. I suspect that Greene disliked Whale’s movies because he found them too up-front and pretentious in their attempts at exploring the ambitious themes of life, death, and man-as-God.

No doubt, The Black Room deserves a place in the pantheon of classic horror, with its smooth, sinister tracking shots and pitch-perfect screen adaptation of Gothic tropes. The film does revive a whole literary era of wedding feasts cut short and specters of guilt and evil returning—without the self-conscious fear of Freud poking at them with his cigar.

But, and here’s where I diverge, The Black Room, despite its stylish qualities, does not herald a new era for horror as a genre, like the 1931 Frankenstein did with its jump cuts, its jarring use of sound, and its masterfully askew cinematography—askew to the point of abstraction at times. It surprises me that Greene, as a man who devoted so much of his time to pondering the fate of man’s soul in the face of modernity, did not appreciate the cruel, nervous, decidedly un-Gothic edge that Whale’s work adds to horror as a genre.

The “genuine Gothic note”: a menaced maiden.

Brave new word: man menaced… by his own creation.

The Black Room is a brilliant relic, though. I cherish it as such, and I strongly recommend that you watch it. So, apparently, did Graham Greene.

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