Thursday, October 5, 2017

Review: The Black Room

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

The Black Room
Written and directed by Rolfe Kanefsky
Cleopatra Entertainment / The Goods / Casual Productions / MVD Visual
91 minutes, 2017

There are actually a number of films called The Black Room, dating back to one with Boris Karloff in 1935, but each has its own flavor, and this one delves into more of an erotic and satanic Hammer-esque realm. A few decades ago, the male lead would probably have been played by Ralph Bates.

It’s been a long time since I saw one as spicy as this one. It’s sort of a cross between the semi-classics The Entity and The Incubus (both 1982) and the gateway-to-hell-is-in-the-basement subgenre, and then something you might have seen on Cinemax in its day. That being said, it’s not exactly in the softcore realm, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the inevitable prologue, we meet an older woman (Lin Shaye) and her nightie-clad granddaughter, who have retired to separate bedrooms; but there is evil afoot as one is sensually stimulated and the other one gets angry (I’ll let you guess which). A nice choice is that the scene actually goes beyond where you would think it might, giving a fuller ride than just a set-up; although yes, it is exposition in its way, or at least a whetting of the audience’s – err – appetite for what’s to – err – come.

Lukas Hassel and Natasha Henstridge
In most cases, the next scene where the new couple moves in usually takes place decades later, but here it is a mere two years, which is a lot more realistic (that is realistic in a genre sense). In a brief cameo, the ever-cool and grossly underrated ex-Tromette Tiffany Shepis plays the real estate agent who sells the demon house to married couple Paul (Lukas Hassel) and Jennifer (Natasha Henstridge).

It’s not long before they’re unintentionally playing footsie, as it were, with Incubi and Succubae. Lights flash, cameras do a tilt-and-twirl, and, well, you know. Gotta say Henstridge is still quite the looker, and so is Hassel. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of both women and men who are going to be paying attention to his often shirtless physique.

As there usually is in this kind of film, since the two main characters need to go on for a while in the story, numerous peripheral characters fall prey one by one to the increasing number of demon denizens, including trades people, friends and relations. By the end, there is quite the – err – satisfying body count number. The story isn’t deep, but please, did you expect or even want it to be. It’s quite enjoyable and most of the fine points are – err – touched upon, such as gore, SFX and sex.

Now, I’m been kidding the film with all the innuendos, but truthfully it’s a fun film to watch. It never really gets a chance to sag in the story thanks to some sharp editing, decent lighting, and a fetching cast. And the story does hold up throughout, without wearing out its welcome. It’s just sensual enough to keep the eyes on the screen, and yet not enough to bludgeon anyone to the point of numbness and being overdone. The pace builds, especially in the second half as it should, and nowhere in the continuum did I ever to the point wanting to say, “C’mon already, lets pick up the pace!” For example, as I’ve stated before, I get really annoyed when someone is searching through a house or factory with a light, and it goes on and on to the point where even when the jump scare happens, I’m too bored to care. This never treads the water long enough to do that. I’m grateful.

One question I do have, which is kind of a mundane one but for some reason it stuck out because this happens occasionally in the haunted house milieu: Henstridge and Hassel move into the already furnished house. They are not exactly, well, a young couple. While I’m not sure how long their characters have been together, but surely they must own something either together or from previously by this age (both leads are in their 40s). In the real world, of course, I realize that this way the film crew can use the leased house without disturbing anything of the real owners, but for some reason it stuck with me.

There is, naturally, a high and exaggerated (and enjoyable) level of both sexuality and sensuality, but oddly, cautious nudity. With one exception, an occasional breast makes an appearance here and there, though we often get to see Hassel with his shirt off or open. It’s almost like the director was obsessed with his six-pack. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Arthur Brown is the "God of Hellfire!"
I will say the acting is top notch. No one in the main cast gives a bad performance, and there are some interesting cameos, such as the aforementioned Shepis, genre stalwart Shaye (who has been in a ton of films like A Nightmare on Elm Street right through the Insidious franchise),and two pivotal musicians who play a part in the background story: Al Jourgensen of the band Ministry, and I’m happy to say Arthur Brown (as in The Crazy World of Arthur Brown… we even get to hear a bit of a re-recorded “Fire,” a song I’ve loved since the first time I heard it); I recognized the make-up he wore here as being the same as he used in the ‘60s during his height of fame. There are also the likes of model/actor Dominique Swain, and bubbling under actors such as Nick Principe, Elissa Dowling, and Michael Reed, most of whom you’ve probably seen a few times but never really knew it (yet).
Speaking of Ministry, there’s Jennifer’s diminutive sister, Karen (Augie Duke, who is a full foot shorter than her co-star, Hassel). When we meet her, she is supposedly punked out, with a buttons and a patch on her bag by British band GBH. However, her make-up is completely goth (or emo, depending on how you look at it). Of course, she’s snarky. Later on, she wears a tee of the Industrial Metal group Ministry as a nighty. She’s musically all over the map; again, I realize this has nuthin’ to do with nuthin’, but still…

The gore is decent looking and smartly not overdone. The sets, especially near the end, was decent, though looked a bit late ‘60s or ‘70s-ish, like a Star Trek planet. Still, it was fun and lots to look at, which is impressive on a small budget. I also enjoyed that many of the demons are seen merely through their red hands, another brilliant (seriously) budget saver.

As for the extras, as this is a Blu-ray, there are lots to choose from, such as numerous extended and deleted scenes. This is why I commented about good editing. While these were enjoyable to sit through independently, some were a bit wordy, and were right to go, but I easily sat through all of them without a problem. There is also a short Behind the Scenes piece that focuses on a particular scene near the end. The Blooper Reel is not very long, but enough to be entertaining. It certainly looked like they all got along. Add on both a Storyboards and Slide Show featurette, for some more behind the process moments. Of course, all this stuff should be watched after viewing the film. For example, part of what makes the storyboards so interesting is to see the differences between it and the story, such as the icon used to trap the demon. I’m also happy to say that the slide show is by a photographer between scenes and of SFX tests, rather than just freeze-frames of the film, as is often used.

The weakest point of the entire package, however, is the commentary track. Featuring the director, Henstridge, Duke and producer Esther Goodstein, there are some nuggets in there, but as with too many people with egos talking, they consistently make comments over each other so it’s hard to make out what’s being said. But even worse, someone will actually interrupt an anecdote to make their own unrelated remarks way too often. You won’t miss much by skipping this.

However, the film proper is worth the view. It’s fun, well written and acted, and keeps a good pace. Yes, it’s also sensual (for both genders, which is a nice touch), but not to the level of the old EI Entertainment stuff (with the likes of Tina Krause and Erin Brown, known then as Misty Mundae). Definitely worth checking out.

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