The Black Room (1981) ***
The copyright notice at the end of The Black Room’s credits reads 1981. Most print and online sources, however, give its date of release as anything between 1982 and 1985, and while there is nothing like consensus among those sources, it seems fairly obvious that selling The Black Room to distributors was a long and frustrating process. Sometimes I have a hard time understanding what the problem was when a movie winds up sitting on the shelf for years before its producers secure a distribution deal, especially when the film in question is a fairly accomplished piece of work. I have no such difficulty with The Black Room, however. It’s quite a good movie— indeed, I’d call it a brilliant movie if it didn’t fall flat on its face in a pile of shit during the last five minutes— but it hinges upon some of the darkest, most twisted sexuality to be seen in early-80’s horror. Mainstream American audiences simply were not ready for a movie this kinky in 1981, and the alternative distribution networks that had sustained the great sleaze outpouring of the 60’s and 70’s were rapidly withering away. The Black Room must have looked like box-office poison, and if its current status— forgotten by practically everybody, with its mid-80’s home video edition long out of print, and the present asking price for its video rights so low that the DVD edition is available from a company that normally deals in public domain properties— is any indication, box-office poison is just what it was. Some of us, however, like our entertainment highly toxic.
In a room with black walls and carpeting, where the only light comes from dozens of candles and a strange, frosted-glass coffee table that glows from within with electric incandescence, a man and a woman make love upon a low-slung bed. There are mirrors hanging on at least two of the walls, and somebody is watching the couple from behind one of them. A moment later, the door opens gently and silently, and another man and woman seize the rutting couple, knock them out with chloroform, and drain all of their blood with what looks like hospital-grade transfusion equipment. The stolen blood goes into the male killer’s veins, and the dead bodies go into a crate buried in the garden out back.
Elsewhere, another couple is interrupted in mid-screw, but in a rather less horrid way. Larry (Jimmy Stathis, of Dogs and Vultures) and Robin (Clara Perryman) are merely experiencing the chronic sexual frustration that is the lot of all parents— their two children have awakened in the middle of the night, and are now demanding immediate attention from Mom. One gets the impression that something like this happens virtually every time Larry and Robin attempt to have sex, and it seems to be putting a serious strain on their marriage. It’s certainly putting a strain on Larry, and it isn’t hard to fathom what he’s thinking when he circles a classified ad in the next morning’s paper, reading “Hollywood Hills— live your fantasy! Hilltop mansion has unique & exotic room for rent. Panoramic view. $200 per month.” Larry pays a visit to the mansion soon thereafter, and discusses terms with Jason (Necromancy’s Stephen Knight), the owner. Anytime Larry wants to use the room described in the advertisement, all he has to do is give Jason a call; the latter man keeps it set up all the time, and all he needs is sufficient notice to get the candles lit, the stereo turned on, and a bottle of wine uncorked. Then Jason leads Larry deep into the house to see the place. Unsurprisingly, it’s the very same room where the prologue couple were having sex before they were chloroformed and killed. Jason doesn’t bother to mention that, however, and Larry hands over $200 for the next month’s rent.
That night, Larry and Robin have a very curious bedtime conversation. Evidently he has told her about renting the black room— but what exactly has he said? It quickly becomes apparent that Larry has presented his rental of the room at Jason’s house as a literal fantasy scenario, as something he just made up. Obviously, whatever fantasies he plans on realizing there will play out with no direct involvement from his wife. But at the same time, it’s plain enough that Larry intends to tell Robin all about everything he does in the black room, under the fiction that these stories are something he has invented to spice up the couple’s flagging sex life.
The next day, Larry gets his first use out of the black room. Cruising in the vicinity of the UCLA campus, he picks up a student named Lisa (Charlie Young), and brings her over to Jason’s mansion. Once again, Jason is watching from behind the mirror as the two of them go at it, only this time he’s taking pictures. We may assume this sort of thing happens fairly regularly from then on, for before we know it, a month has gone by, and Larry is forking over another $200. Jason doesn’t seem to be around when Larry comes to renew their arrangement, however, and thus it is that he is introduced to Bridget (Cassandra Gaviola, from Conan the Barbarian and The Amityville Curse), the woman with whom Jason shares the house. Though Bridget identifies herself as Jason’s sister while she chats with Larry, what little we’ve seen of their relationship so far makes them look rather more like lovers. Most likely their true relationship is a little of both. It also comes out that Jason has suffered since childhood from a rare form of anemia, and that he owes his survival to a combination of expensive, exotic drugs and regular blood transfusions. Larry winds up bedding Bridget in the black room before he goes home, and despite the woman’s claims that her brother is out at the time, Jason is there taking pictures from behind the mirror once more. He also shoots several rolls of only slightly less erotic solo photos of Bridget after Larry goes home.
It should be obvious at this point that inherent in this situation is an entire universe of things that could go disastrously wrong for Larry, even leaving aside the looming threat of Jason and Bridget busting in on him to steal all of his blood one afternoon. For example, what if Robin were to discover some evidence that the black room really exists, something like— oh, I don’t know— that newspaper page with the circled advertisement that Larry stuffed carelessly into the glove compartment of his car? Then there’s Lisa, who becomes Larry’s most frequent companion over at Jason’s place. She doesn’t seem like the type to go in for blackmail, but when she starts bringing Terry (Christopher McDonald, from The Hearse and The Faculty), her psychology-major boyfriend, along on her trysts with Larry, that means there’s one more person who knows at least part of the secret. Then there are plenty of complicating factors I haven’t even hinted at yet. Jason and Bridget like to keep a stock of blood on hand at all times, so instead of making a clean kill, they sometimes waylay one of Larry’s dates after he has finished with her, keeping her locked up and sedated in the transfusion room in the cellar. What if one of those girls should come out from under the drugs and make a break for freedom? And what unpleasantnes might stem from the affection that Bridget soon develops for Larry? Finally, consider this. Jason believes that the younger the donor, the longer-lasting the effects of a transfusion. Larry’s frequent use of the black room makes it easy enough for Jason to figure out when he’s away from home. If Jason or Bridget should learn that Larry and Robin have kids, do you really think that Milly the babysitter (a shockingly young and acne-plagued Linnea Quigley, scarcely recognizable as the head-turner we know from Night of the Demons and Return of the Living Dead) would have a chance in hell of protecting them?
Such a shame about that ending… Seriously, before the supernatural pointlessly and inexplicably rears its head in the stupidest possible way during the last five minutes or so, The Black Room is a superb film. Rarely has any American horror movie traded so openly on sexual unease without giving the impression that its creators would really rather have chucked the whole horror thing, and just made a porno instead. A sexual subtext can be mined from practically any horror story if you’re willing to try hard enough, but in The Black Room, it’s all right there on the surface— role-playing, partner-swapping, bondage, sadism, a hint of incest. Hell, directors Elly Kenner and Norman Thaddeus Vane even manage to turn a forced blood transfusion into a kind of horrible, three-way sex act. At the same time, this rampant kinkiness rests comfortably alongside a powerful current of psychological horror. Vane, in his capacity as screenwriter, displays a masterful understanding of the frustrations and dissatisfactions that lead Larry and Robin into their predicament, and the increasingly likely implosion of their marriage comes to seem like almost as big a menace as Jason’s Transfuse-o-Matic waiting in the basement. The overall result is a near-perfect counterpoint of intense eroticism and discomfiting sleaze, and nowhere does that stand out more starkly than in a scene that comes shortly after Robin finds the black room ad and goes to investigate. By the end of the afternoon, she and Jason are watching Larry and Lisa from behind the black room mirror as they fuck in front of Terry in a staggeringly intricate daisy-chain of infidelity and voyeurism, overlain with a thick veneer of impending doom; watching this scene invariably leaves me simultaneously aroused and feeling in urgent need of a long, scalding shower.
The most interesting thing about The Black Room is not the dexterity with which it juggles sex and death, however, but rather the unusual perspective it seems to adopt on the subject of kinks and perversion. At no point does it seem that we are invited to take all the bad things that eventually befall Larry and Robin as the just desserts of his (and later, their) quest for a more exciting sex life. Instead, the root problem is revealed early on to be Larry’s Madonna-whore complex, which prevents him from making his wife the focus of all his pent-up sexual energy. At the very least, using the black room as a place where he and Robin could find temporary release from the pressures of family life would have spared all of the prostitutes and pick-up girls whom Larry unwittingly lures to their deaths. Meanwhile, the greatest threat to the central characters’ marriage proves to be not Larry’s infidelity, but his inability to deal with the reversal when Robin decides that her husband might have the right idea after all. It takes a creative mind indeed to find in The Black Room more than the faintest trace of the judgmental attitude toward sex which so many critics have found implicit in most 1980’s horror, and it would be little exaggeration to say that The Black Room seems to be predicated upon a swinger’s understanding of healthy sexuality. It’s probably the only horror movie I’ve seen of which that can be defensibly claimed.