29 October 2010

The Black Castle and The Terror

The Black Castle A Nice Little Old Film. The Terror…Not So Much
By Kristin Battestella

I’m sure there are plenty of other famous titles that come to mind when one thinks of Boris Karloff.  Though not as popular as the likes The Mummy or his Frankenstein persona, 1952’s The Black Castle and 1963’s The Terror are fun, spooky entertainment for Karloff fans at Halloween or throughout the year. Unfortunately, one is, of course, considerably better than the other is.

To solve the murder of his friends, Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene) disguises himself under the name Richard Beckett and accepts the hunting invitation of the ruthless Count Karl von Bruno (Stephen McNally).  Although Beckett and his servant Romley (Tudor Owen) befriend Von Bruno’s driver Fender (Henry Corden) and the young and charming Countess Elga (Rita Corday), mysterious Doctor Meissen (Karloff) keeps to himself.  Von Bruno and his silent strongman Gargon (Lon Chaney Jr.) subject the guests to hidden castle trap doors revealing hungry crocodiles and deadly hunting challenges with caged leopards. Will Bolton survive long enough to avenge his friends and rescue the Countess?  

No, The Black Castle is not a horror or fantasy film in the style one might expect from Karloff or director Nathan H. Juran (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad). Though there are some spooky and scary elements thanks to the ominous trappings of the Black Castle itself, writer Jerry Sackheim (The Strange Door) sticks to the mystery at hand.  The period styles, creepy suspense, and a few seriously disturbed characters up the drama ante better than the overdone bad effects of run of the mill horror can.  Of course, the old school pacing is a little slow in some spots when dealing with the onscreen protocols and pleasantries, but the pieces of the puzzle at hand are well paced. 

Our hero Richard Greene bravely goes on a potentially deadly mission seeking to save the girl and solve the murder of his friends- and all this without a hair out of place.  He is Robin Hood after all, and Greene keeps Bolton likeable and true against his swarthy enemies.  Boris Karloff, of course, is having fun as the ambiguous Doctor Meissen.  We expect him to be involved in all the bads despite onscreen evidence to the contrary.  Meissen enjoys testing the pain threshold of his patients for goodness sake!  Surely, we can’t take his doctoring at face value. Likewise, Stephen McNally’s (Winchester ‘73) Count is juicy, violent, and abusive underneath that slick layer of twisted nobility.  Somehow, he’s no less charming and fun to watch than Greene is. Today, I imagine a film would take his side as the disturbing lead.   There’s not as much of the silent Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man, Son of Dracula) as I would have liked, but his obedience and quiet violence are dang creepy.    Rita Corday (The French Line) doesn’t have much to do either as Elga, the Countess, but she’s a damsel with great style!

The Black Castle is a bit deceiving in that it looks more like a horror movie than it should- especially if it is just a good mystery.  The castle set has lots of stairs, doors, twists, and turns.  There are a few scares to go along with some of the spooky music and scary sounds- we have plenty of thunder, kitty roars, wolf howls and everything in between to match the nice, atmospheric black and white photography.  The 18th century costumes are great as well, complete with plenty of lace, frocks, riding habits, wigs, and all.  The sword fights and hunting action is a lot of fun, and overall, The Black Castle is quite stylized for being a little old film.

The TerrorNow, at least The Black Castle is a good dramatic movie. The Terror, however, is a little too bad to be good.  My viewing edition was part of Elvira’s Movie Macabre after all.   With weak effects and opening titles that seem too cartoonish, multiple directing hands seem to be the least of this film’s problems.  Though there are a few scenes that a Roger Corman (The Haunted Palace, House of Usher) aficionado can discern, some of The Terror looks like shaky handheld camerawork!  It takes quite a while to get to the ‘goods’; but with a title like The Terror, we expect something to happen that never does.  When a beautiful young woman along the sea, Helene (Sandra Knight), entrances lost French soldier Andre (Jack Nicholson), he nearly drowns to pursue her. Andre then wakes in the care of an old woman Katrina (Dorothy Neumann).  She warns him not to go to the castle of Baron Victor Von Lepp (Karloff) to find Helene, but Andre confronts the demented Baron and unravels a twenty-year-old double murder- or so he thinks.


Karloff of course, looks classy, but his air of deception suggests something wonderfully sinister that we don’t get elsewhere in the film.  His delivery of the silliest line is believable, because, well, he’s Boris Karloff!  Bless him; I don’t know how he stayed awake for this one. And wow, Oscar winner Jack Nicholson (As Good as It Gets, The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) looks so young!  But um, what Yankee accent is that? He’s supposed to be a French Chasseur for goodness sake!  Nicholson also doesn’t have much to do except wonder around scary sets and chase ghosts. It’s not nearly as convincing as Sandra Knight’s (Tower of London, or that filmed called Nepotism, being she was Nicholson’s wife back then) kinky and creepy Helene. She’s deceptive and haunting in her woodenness, but nothing here carries the build up needed for the suspense and intrigue to sustain the audience.  As much as the pace and performance drag, everything comes on to easy-and we’re expected to believe young Ilsa was married to the Baron at 20?  I love Boris Karloff but that’s a bit gross.

Although the traditional spooky castle sets are indeed scary and fun and the Halloween-esque music adds charm, the early 19th century period style is as mishmashed as the poly-direction. Designs from previous Corman pictures are obviously reused, too. Thankfully on this version, Elvira’s kitschy introduction and pop up appearances keep the viewing campy, kinky, and all in good fun.  I imagine kids can watch her hijinks and not notice any of the adult innuendo, but I don’t expect families to tune in for something like this.  Nevertheless, it’s nice to see Cassandra Peterson carry Elvira on into a new Macabre syndicated series.   She’s sporting a laptop and making The Departed jokes here and everything!

The Boris Karloff Collection (Tower of London / The Black Castle / The Climax / The Strange Door / Night Key)Fans of old time mysteries and period horror can take the good from both The Black Castle and The Terror.  Although these appeal to slightly different audiences, there are indeed niche fans of old school good- and campy bad- who can watch these tricks and treats again and again.  Boris Karloff completists will enjoy the hunt for these two slightly elusive films.  As of now, The Black Castle can only be found in the Boris Karloff Collection set.  Surprisingly, the disc has subtitles- but if I may make one small complaint, its dang tough to see the white lettering on the silver screen!  The Terror, however, doesn’t seem to have a proper DVD release, only the standard low budget cheapies.  It looks a little grainy and sounds poorly, too- even Elvira’s commentary scenes look odd spliced into the film.  Thankfully, for those who like this type of bad, you can find The Terror online. 

Not every film billed as a good horror movie is actually good- as in the case of The Terror- or even a horror flick- as in The Black CastleSo what? 

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