Need and desire are twin forces that often intertwine around each other, sometimes coiling so tight that it’s hard to see where one begins and the other ends. This is often how addictions can be nurtured, but it is also how life itself can begin too. Such human condition elements are positively rich with all manners of potential in the horror genre, especially where vampires are concerned. While themes of both addiction and desire (naturlich!) have appeared in vampire cinema, there’s one film that explores the anima-animus of physical needs bleeding into both physical and emotional horror with style and true razor wire line.
Elly Kenner’s made in 1982 and released in 1984 film, The Black Room, is a work whose plumage is all of the feathers people claim to want from horror. It’s original and authentically edgy, without ever dipping into the muddled sea of gratuitousness or faking-the-funk-adult-terror. Especially now, in a sea of jump scares and cyclical remakes, visiting and subsequently revisiting this dark and thoughtful gem is a reward with a best by date that never ends.
“Dying is a wild night and a new road.”
– Emily Dickinson
The sex and death show looms large constantly, whether it is up front or slinking and waiting in the shadows. The opening frames show the titular black room, with its onyx colored walls and floor, offset only by a multitude of lit candles and a bright-white-light-rectangular coffee table that glows unholy in the other wise gothically romantic room. Glasses of red wine flank the writhing bodies of a man and woman, who make love while being watched by outside figures via a two-way mirror.
The mostly electronic soundtrack is mossy with dread, courtesy of both James Ackley and Art Podell, with the camera focusing more on the atmosphere of the room and what is going around the lovers, then the two interlocked figures themselves, which makes the whole proceeding feel so seedy and impure. Two figures soon emerge within the darkness, with one holding a giant syringe and the other chloroform. Creative quick cuts show a messy blood transfusion, a burial, and the dark outlines of the man and woman who have just killed embracing in the waning light of the sky.
Weird moans overlay the scene, quickly revealing the source to be married middle-class couple, Robin (Clara Perryman) and Larry (Jimmy Stathis.) The two are trying to work their way up to making love only to be interrupted by a duo even more heinous and terrifying than the sinister-beauty of a man and woman attacking and draining you of your very life essence. That’s right, I’m talking about their two horrible, awful little children. It’s kiddus interruptus time, with Robin having to get up to attend to what Stephen King would have described as the little “shitters.” By the time she gets back, Larry’s interest and manhood are as soft as his ability to be a decent father or partner.
His frustration leads him to find an ad in the paper, offering rental for an “exotic” room in a secluded mansion in the hills for only $200. Larry bites and goes to the location, which is alternately gorgeous and unsettling, largely thanks to the stellar soundscape, merging natural sounds of birds, strains of classical music, and ill-willed synthesizers. At the house, he meets Jason (Stephen Knight), a darkly handsome photographer who lives at the estate with his sister, Bridget (Cassandra Gava). Jason mentions to Larry that they have no kitchen, which doesn’t concern the prospective tenant at all, who has a more salacious intent in mind. Especially after seeing the room, which he describes as being “…something out of a dream.”
Larry and Robin soon try to make love again, which reveals some of her husband’s issues as well as him describing the room to her in the guise of a spoken word fantasy. She clearly angles to try to get him to experiment in the bedroom, even though his madonna/whore complex rears its head. In a display of amorous vulnerability, she tells him about her early sexual explorations based on the scent of leather. However, kiddus interruptus happens yet again. Their kids are seriously terrible.
The next day, he picks up a hitchhiking young UCLA student named Lisa (Charlie Young). He ends up taking her back to the black room. While the two start to make love, Jason takes several pictures through the two-way mirror while Bridget hovers nearby acting agitated and possibly aroused. Larry soon keeps making return visits to the room, including showing up one day with his date of the hour bailing. Here is where he meets Bridget one-on-one. Much like her brother, she is beautiful and carries herself like she knows more secrets than anyone else could have the answers to. Especially a plain-oatmeal schmuck like Larry.
Bridget describes her brother’s medical condition to Larry as a “rare blood disease” that requires him to receive fresh blood twice a week. This leads to one of the most surreal scenes of the film, with Bridget sporting colorful feathers in her hair and wild body paint, hooting and howling with laughter while having sex with the most unworthy Larry. At one point, she calls him “the bull” while describing herself as “the matador,” but one that kills “with love.” Hearing Bridget pine about the riches of dying from so much love is eerie and one of many highlights within this masterwork.
Afterwards, Jason photographs his sister, teasing her about her recent encounter with Larry (ugh), while we get quick shots of their past work, much of which looks provocative. Laughter ensues with fake smoke and more than a little incestuous rapport. Later on, Larry brings a wiseacre working girl by the name of Sandy (Geanne Frank) to the room. When he tries to pay her half up front and half after the deed, she beautifully responds with a line tantamount to, “What do I look like? Sears?!” Much like most of the women in this film, she is too good for Larry. Any doubts are cleared when after blindfolding and tying her wrists, he then ends up leaving for an appointment, shrugging off that he’s just left a complete stranger who works in a profession that often gets targeted by rapists and killers, alone in a dark, spooky room because homeboy can’t schedule his business and pleasure worth a wheat penny. Larry, much like his hellspawn children who bitched at their poor mother earlier in the film about parsley, is the worst. (Creamed corn I would understand, but parsley? The Philistines!)
Inevitably, Sandy ends up as the newest unwilling donor to Jason, giving us the first clear look at the transfusion process. The combination of tight close-ups of the needle in Jason’s arm, which is littered with past track marks and his sweet, slow rush once the blood hits, paints a picture of sanguinary addiction being akin to the purest of brown and white opiates.
Robin soon discovers that the room her husband has been describing is more than a fantasy, on top of his bizarro and rotted attitudes towards women and sexuality, even telling her directly that it wouldn’t look right for her to be in the room. The woman destroyed her body to birth his two brattos, the least he can do is help her get her freak on!
Brilliantly interloping traditional Gothic horror trappings of the house on the hill, a full moon, and even wolves in the distance howling, we soon see Robin make her way to the estate and the black room itself. Jason more than welcomes her, intrigued by the “irony” of it all. He invites her to “Make the game yours” and then easily seduces her. Go, Robin! Jason has more mystery and brain cells in his anemic vampire pinky than her suburban gigolo spouse.
Afterwards, Jason invites her to stay while Larry is on his way with Lisa and her dorky boyfriend, Terry (noted and typically badass character actor, Christopher McDonald). Toasting to “the new Robin,” there really is no turning back now, with Jason even showing her the two-way mirror, giving her the chance to witness the saddest three-way ever. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander and soon Larry gets a peek through the mirror too while Robin and Terry get to know each other.
Jealousy is often more real and muddy than any supernatural creature with Larry acting like a bruised child over having the tables turned. But when Jason notes to his sister that the younger the donor is, the better he feels, Larry and Robin soon have much more to worry about than their tinder sticks marriage.
The Black Room is so good and is a rare film that hits multiple right notes. From its fantastic editing (courtesy of David Kern, who would go on to work on mainstream efforts like Kong: Skull Island and The Fate of the Furious) to the aforementioned skillful audio and right down to Norman Thaddeus Vane’s smart-as-a-monk script and Kenner’s apt direction, everything about this film exquisitely integrates old-world horror elements, especially the vampire construct, along with modern day issues and tones.
With all of this is the cast, who are all glove-tight with their roles. Stathis is all too real as a suburban mid-life crisis man club-footing his way through sexual repression and gender issues, making him a perfect match for Perryman’s earthy and sensuous Robin. But the real stars, like any vampire movie worth its salt, are our beautiful monsters themselves. The genius stroke of casting Stephen Knight and Cassandra Gava as siblings is right next to Hammer’s Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971) featuring Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick when it comes to both dark beauty and physical resemblance. Oh, and presence too, because both Knight and Gava dominate every frame they appear in. Many can be pretty and handsome, even striking, but few can command and these two do. In a just world, they would be championed far more than they have been, but then again, in a just world, this film would be put next to titles like Fright Night (1984) and Ms. 45 (1981), instead of languishing in mostly obscurity for so many years. In fact, until recently, the only positive review I ever read of this film was courtesy of the late and great Bill Landis. More should have championed this film, but pearls are often mishandled by swine.
Speaking of the cast, some fascinating trivia is tied to this film. Gava has also appeared in Conan the Barbarian (1982) and on the cover for Jefferson Starship’s 1976 album, Spitfire. (In fact, the original artwork for that album appears in Jason’s studio.) Also, uber-cult-scream-queen extraordinaire, Linnea Quigley, appears as Larry and Robin’s sweet-faced babysitter, Milly. Then we have our main director, Elly Kenner, a filmmaker hailing from Israel. While his only credit on IMDB is The Black Room, he actually sports some fascinating credits elsewhere. In 1976, he directed an independent feature titled Falling, which garnered some critical acclaim in the US. Much later on, he would go on to both make a six-part film series, Esoterica Jerusalem (1992) and the 1995 film, Mi Ha’Abba (Who is the Father?) His co-director, Norman Thaddeus Vane, was an experienced writer, playwright, and filmmaker in his own right, including helming films such as 1983’s Frightmare and Midnight (1989.)
Like all great films, The Black Room gives you a lot of food for thought. Are Robin and Larry being punished, in a way, for exploring their sexuality outside the respected confines of monogamy? Yes but also no, since Sandy refers to being able to spot a married man with multiple kids a mile away. Surely not of all of those guys have ended up on the slab in the transfusion room. Instead, the film manages to give us a peek into a charismatic brother and sister who feed off the living but yet, like the mortals they feed off of, can be prone to medical ailments too. They have a strange psycho-sexual dynamic of their own, which while only really hinted at, does paint some captivatingly lurid shadows. The film also shows us the hollowness of a status quo family dealing with the reality that real humans complete with their own too-vivid baggage and who try vainly though semi-valiantly, to live up to what is expected of them.
Life’s far from easy, folks, and it takes a true-in-the-heart and special horror film to not only acknowledge this fact but also easily immerse it within the world of the supernatural. The Black Room is a beauty of a film. It’s art. It’s horror and it is long overdue to merit your love and mainstream preservation.