Following Dave Wain’s lowdown on Nightbeast in part one [which you can read HERE], Matty Budrewicz sinks his teeth into steamy fellow Section 3 title THE BLACK ROOM…
Even some thirty-odd years on, the Director of Public Prosecutions’ Video Nasty list remains a potent selection of must-see movies: the ultimate chopping – sorry – shopping list for grue lovers and the quintessential rite of passage for all of us British horror nuts. A seventy-two title strong gonzo fear flick extravaganza, it’s a vital part of our genre make up and education; and now, thanks to its discovery by filmmakers Jake West and Marc Morris whilst prepping their stupendous Video Nasties documentaries [read the UKHS lowdown of part 2, Draconian Days, HERE], a whopping eighty-two more movies caught up in the furore can be added to our own personal scare school curriculum.
According to West and Morris, these Section 3 titles were “liable for seizure and forfeiture by the police and removed from sale or hire, though they were ultimately not prosecuted”. As Dave noted in his assessment of director Don Dohler’s cheapie Nightbeast (1982), looking at this newly unearthed DPP dossier certainly reveals why the likes of Dawn of the Mummy (1981) and Zombie Holocaust (1980) – stuff lumped amongst the Nasteis for years – were also stigmatised. It’s a wild list for sure; one that was, as Morris said in our UKHS interview with him [read it HERE], “just a case of the people in power not being in any way film literate”.
There’s a buck-load of big guns on there: heavy hitting, recognised classics like Night of the Living Dead (1968), Phantasm (1978) and Scanners (1980). There’s a slew of beloved cult favourites present too, from Shogun Assassin (1972) and Mausoleum (1980), to Dead Kids (1981) and Happy Birthday to Me (1980). Hell, even Jack Hill’s landmark blaxploitation pic Foxy Brown (1974) is on there! However, it’s the other stuff that gives cause for celebration: the long forgotten bumf that peppers the rest of the list that now, hopefully, will be sought out and reappraised, people inspired to do so because of the enduring popularity of Nastydom. And, with a bit of luck, it’ll lead a few more people to seeing the wonderful 1982 creeper The Black Room (1982); a marvellous, neglected slice of independent horror.
An evocative and beguiling chiller, The Black Room is a playfully kinky and consummate modern reinterpretation of the vampire myth. Just as George A Romero used vampirism as a metaphor for teenage despondence in his 1976 gem Martin, here co-director’s Elly Kenner and Norman Thaddeus Vane – who also scripted – use it as a way to explore matrimonial problems and pre-AIDS attitudes to decadent sexuality. Something of a legendary swordsman, Vane (whose other main genre credit is the endearingly naff Theatre of Blood (1973)-aping slasher Frightmare (1983), starring a pre-Re-Animator (1985) Jeffrey Combs) was a regular on the party scene throughout swinging sixties and seventies London, New York and Los Angeles.
His playboy lifestyle as, at various times, a nightclub owner and editor of Penthouse Magazine served as his inspiration when piecing The Black Room together: as noted by author Stephen Thrower in is mighty Nightmare USA tome, and by blogger Sam Weisberg of hidden-films.com, it was during Vane’s stint at Bob Gucione’s notorious men’s rag that he repeatedly cheated on his then-wife, sixteen year old model Sarah Caldwell, with numerous centrefolds at a similarly voyeuristic venue to the eponymous room of the title.
Upping the already sizzling sexual undercurrent inherent in the blood-sucker sub genre and making it far more explicit – yet never exploitatively – The Black Room also switches fangs for a blood transfusion machine and swaps the usual Transylvanian castle for a swanky Hollywood Hills mansion; a locale used to similar eerie effect in David Lynch’s later Hollywood horror story Mulholland Drive (2001). Our Dracula is Jason (Stephen Knight), a handsome and charismatic photographer – think Lugosi, Lee and Langella all rolled into one – stricken with a rare blood disease, manageable only through fatally draining others of their plasma. “Jason’s been sick his whole life, ever since he was a child… He had to constantly replenish his blood; every sixty days. Then once a month. Now, it’s twice weekly,” explains his sister Bridget, the film’s singular answer to the old Count’s buxom brides. Played by the stunning Cassandra Gava (the Fillipino-American actress perhaps best known as the sexy witch in Conan the Barbarian (1982), and credited here under her real name Cassandra Gaviola), Bridget is Jason’s carer, muse and, it is hinted at, his incestuous lover. She’s also his accomplice, helping Jason lure in, kill and dispose of his potential blood donors.
Like Paul and Mary Bland, who murdered and robbed an assortment of “perverts” to bankroll their dream of owning a restaurant in Paul Bartel’s released-the-same-year black comedy Eating Raoul, Jason and Bridget too have found the sexually promiscuous to be a particularly rich vein (boom-boom) for victims. Renting out the titular space in their home, they’ve been taking their pick from the randy denizens who come, quite literally, to occupy it: “Restrictions? None. This isn’t the YMCA,” says Jason. “What the former tenants usually did was phone first – I’m always working in my studio. If you like, I can just pop in, light the candles, pour the wine; the rest is up to you.”
Thrust into this scenario is Larry (Jimmy Stathis) and Robin (Clara Perryman); a couple whose marriage is growing a little stale. Though still in love with each other emotionally, their physical relationship has taken something of a beating, thanks to a mixture of boredom and the frequent interruptions of their attempted bedroom gymnastics by their two hyperactive children. Sexually frustrated, Larry soon finds himself Jason and Bridget’s latest tenant, using the room as his basecamp for a bit of afternoon slap and tickle.
Whilst it would be easy to condemn Larry as simply a sleazeball letch, Vane instead throws in a curveball: suddenly Larry’s illicit dalliances are being used to stoke the fires of wedded passion once more. Relaying his black room visits back to Robin, she – at Larry’s insistence – treats them as nothing but fantasy; they’re dirty talk, they’re foreplay.
Seemingly as sexually unsatisfied with Larry as he is frustrated with her, Robin’s inner fox is repeatedly quelled by her husband’s strange sense of coital morals: it’s OK for him to indulge his appetite for exotic sex with strangers in the confines of his baroque hired hump den, but anything other than missionary on the marital mattress is strictly off limits with the Mrs. “Why aren’t you ever [kinky] with me?” she asks. “Because,” says Larry, “I love you”.
Though the probing of Larry’s attitudes to sex and fidelity is the meat of the narrative, it’s his handling (or not) of his marital repressions that results in Robin having the most interesting arc of the film. “Why don’t you do to me what you said you did to that girl that you took to that black room?” she questions, upon her quiet discovery that her man’s frisky fairytale shag pad is actually quite real. “I couldn’t do that to you, it wouldn’t be right. You’re my wife,” an oblivious Larry responds, dragging on a cigarette in bed. Barely masking her hurt and – more importantly – her disappointment, she pushes further, “I don’t want to be your wife when we make love. I want to be your whore.” Larry, of course, makes his excuses once again, “I don’t see you in that room. You don’t belong there, Robin.” However, before long she’s checking the place out for herself, with both her vulnerability and her own desires brought into question by a calculating Jason; one vampire who seems to really enjoy playing with his food…
In a contemporary context, The Black Room is akin to the offbeat oeuvre of House of the Devil (2009) director Ti West. It’s character focused and slow-burn, reliant more on sustained mood and powerful suggestion than graphic splatter; more arthouse than grindhouse. Of course, when the blood does flow – in an early sangre-squirting gig for eighties gloop and latex specialist Mark Shostrom (From Beyond (1986), Evil Dead II (1987) – it’s thrilling stuff. The Black Room certainly doesn’t skimp on the horror side of things, with the five minute blood draining sequence being the undoubted, palm sweat-inducing highlight.
The first and only time we actually see Jason’s full ritualistic process, it’s a perfect and grotesquely poetic terror moment. It’s a heavily eroticised set-piece, fizzing with sexual energy and every bit as perversely titillating and as sensual as the entwined naked bodies on display throughout the rest of The Black Room. Constructed along the same edgy lines as the pre-sex shivers present during Larry’s earlier initial encounter in his then newly acquired room – that simmer of nervous excitement, the feeling you get just before you rip someone’s clothes off, is palpable in both instances – a heartbeat starts to pulse on the soundtrack, accompanied by composers James Ackley and Art Podell’s throbbing, low synth score. Bridget and Jason smile at one another, their eyes meeting as his and drugged prostitute Sandy’s (Geanne Frank) flesh is penetrated with prongs and syringes, hooking them up to the transfusion machine.
Editor David Kern’s cutting is rhythmic, emphasising fetishistic glides over the machine and Sandy’s surprising moans of ecstasy as her life-juice is sucked from her; the lines between pleasure and pain, and sex and death blurred. Jason, meanwhile, is also in the throes of orgasmic posturing; sweat cascading over his brow, him squeezing Bridget’s hand as, for all intents and purposes, he climaxes with Sandy’s claret filling him. It’s the most beautifully deranged menage-a-trois ever committed to celluloid.
Introduced in a striking double murder sequence during the film’s opening credits, the actual black room itself is also impressively realised, with cinematographer Robert Harmon’s simple but effective use of a strange glowing coffee table, candlelight and inky black shadow conjuring up a rich air of genuine eroticism and danger. It’s an intoxicating experience each time we’re inside it; seductive and scary, flesh and fear dripping from its walls. A former on-set stills photographer, Harmon would later put his keen eye and unique sense of alluring unease to good use in his subsequent career as a director, with the gorgeously shot pair of brooding road-horror movies The Hitcher (1986) and Highwaymen (2004) but two of his credits.
Adding further ethereal elegance is the superb Steadicam work of the late Andrew “Jeff” Mart; as immersive and hypnotic here as Larry McConkey’s use of it is in Donald Cammell’s White of the Eye (1987). Mart was the first person in the world to own such a rig privately and, according to IMDb, famously had a one handle barred bicycle that he would use for daredevil Steadicam shots. Throughout his career he’d work on several other great genre projects, like the fright fan favourite Pumpkinhead (1988), Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991) and the cops-and-werewolves TV movie Full Eclipse (1994), before his death at the age of sixty-six in 2009.
For connoisseurs of the more trashier end of the eighties horror spectrum, The Black Room is notable as one of the early features of delectable Scream Queen Linnea Quigley; popping up in a thankless and very minor role as somewhat doomed babysitter Milly. Though still a while off hitting schlock paydirt thanks to her iconic turns in The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Night of the Demons (1988), it’s an interesting echo of her earlier-still gig as Bondi’s Mother in another sideways vampire flick, Don’t Go Near the Park (1979). A woeful dud of a picture, Don’t Go Near the Park is nowhere near the thoughtful, charismatic excellence of The Black Room but nonetheless would be a solid selection for an intriguing thematically similar double feature. The fact Don’t Go Near the Park was actually one of the DPP’s ‘proper’ Nasties too just sweetens the deal.
Passed uncut for theatrical release with an X rating by the BBFC in November 1982, The Black Room found itself on the Intervision roster. The video tape subsidiary of its distributor Alpha Films, the Intervision label also included in its line up such seminal shock as Tourist Trap (1979), Carrie (1976) and the early David Cronenberg triptych of Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979). Whilst they have all found their audience over the years thanks to multiple disc reissues and positive, sustained critical recognition, The Black Room has had neither – something that looks unlikely to change any time soon.
Supposedly available in one of those Stateside bargain-bin multipack DVD bundles (though actually finding one with the film in it on the import market seems to be rarer than rocking horse poop), its fifth generation public domain transfer aside there’ll be no Arrow blu-ray special edition or even a no-frills 88-type disc: The Black Room’s original negative is long rumoured to be lost, and the rights to it anyway are tangled up in a mother load of unspecified legal hell. It’s a damn shame and – if true – the most depressing end for a remarkable little picture that should get a hell of a lot more love. Find the long out of print tape or pirate the thing – just make sure you see it before it’s gone for good.
To go back to part one click HERE
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