Friday, May 3, 2024

Black Room, The (1982)

... aka: Himon musta huone (The Black Room of Lust)
... aka: Kammer der Schrecken (Chamber of Secrets)
... aka: La chambre noire
... aka: La habitación negra

Directed by:
Elly Kenner
Norman Thaddeus Vane ([supposed] co-director)

Thirty-something Larry (Jimmy Stathis) is feeling unfulfilled with the boring everyday rituals of life. It's work as a stationary supply salesman during the day, then unruly kids and a compromised sex life at night. Rinse and repeat. Still, it's still extremely difficult to view this man as being anything other than completely selfish. His wife, Robin (Clara Perryman), puts in every effort possible to please this guy. She's pretty, pleasant, has a delightfully sarcastic sense of humor, is uncommonly open-minded and anything but frigid. She describes her sexual history and fantasies openly and even giddily, is willing to try new things and does everything she can to keep things active in the bedroom. Problem is, their kids - Mark (Bill Anglemyer) and Jenny (Allisun Kale) - are almost comically insufferable brats. Every time the couple attempt to be intimate they're met with laughing and screaming coming from the other bedroom. Apparently these little buggers never go to sleep! They also constantly whine about things like their dinner and intentionally spill their drinks ("I hate milk!") any time the couple try to show affection toward one another. I'm sure there's some fucked up Freudian thing going on here that I probably don't even want to know about.

Jason's temporary escape from his family drama, mundane job and modest suburban home in Van Nuys is to shell out 200 bucks a month to rent a room in a secluded mansion in the Hollywood Hills. But not just any room, this is a specially designed "fantasy" room with a zillion candles, black velvet drapes covering the walls, a state of the art stereo system, a glowing coffee table (which is actually pretty awesome), mirrors and lots of pillows and comfy bedding. This place is clearly designed for sex and sex only. The mansion owners; siblings Jason (Stephen Knight - THE WITCHING), a photographer, and Bridget (Cassandra Gava), a model, promise privacy and complete discretion. Larry can come and go as he pleases, and bring whoever he wants there. They'll even prepare the room for him in advance by providing wine, fresh flowers, music and such. When Larry happens upon a bored college girl hitchhiker named Lisa (Charlie Young), who wants to have a quick fling and "get wrecked" as those wild 80s kids apparently used to say, Larry is happy to oblige, and now he's got the perfect place to do it!

Interestingly, when Larry returns home from one of his little romps, he tells wife Robin all about them, and all about his "black room," to get her in the mood. Of course, she has no clue he's actually renting this room and doing all of these things in real life and believes it's all just some elaborate fantasy. All she knows is that they've recently had an improved sex life since "the black room" has entered the picture, so she plays along with it. But Robin isn't the only one being left in the dark. Larry has no clue what his new landlords are up to either... but it's anything but normal!

Jason and Bridget use a two-way mirror to spy on, and take photos of, Larry and his various conquests... and that's just the START of it. The seductive Bridget easily sinks her claws into Larry (the first day they meet) and the two are soon using the room for kinky activities that involve pretend bull riding, feathered headdresses and body paint. As for Jason, he has a very rare inherited blood disease called thalassemia (a real disorder), where he doesn't produce enough hemoglobin and red blood cells. That requires regular blood transfusions, which have recently increased to twice weekly.

As opposed to just going to the hospital, he prefers his transfusions to be as fresh as possible, though perhaps not under the most sanitary of conditions. The siblings are actually utilizing the space to procure victims (using drugs and chloroform to subdue them) and many of the ladies Larry brings there end up being the unwilling blood donors. Their bodies are hooked to up an elaborate blood pumping machine and drained completely dry before being buried in coffins up in the hills.

After discovering Larry's dirty little secret, Robin makes a copy of his room key and decides to pay a visit to the mansion. There, she encounters Jason, who doesn't hesitate to tell her exactly what her husband has been up to. In fact, he shows her through the two-way mirror when Larry invites Lisa back, this time accompanied by her boyfriend Terry (Christopher McDonald in one of his first roles), for a little drug-fueled three way action. Initially shocked and saddened, Robin decides to flip the script on her cheating spouse and use the room herself to give Larry a (deserved!) taste of his own medicine. Eventually the couple find themselves handcuffed together in the room and slated to be the next donors, with their kids and babysitter Milly (the underutilized though always welcome Linnea Quigley) also being put in jeopardy.

Though it's been awhile since I last watched this, I've actually been a defender of it for quite some time, even though I've received a little pushback when I included it on a 20 hidden gems of the 80s list. To some, this is a slow, talky, boring film that doesn't really work. To others, it's a fascinating, atmospheric and unique movie that completely stands out for its time. This was the early 80s after all, when major studio, fx-heavy offerings and paint-by-numbers slasher flicks dominated the box office and few films - especially American ones - dared to try to put spins on tired tropes. Finally having a chance to check out the restored Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome has only made me dig my heels in deeper with this one. I'm still gonna defend it. This is a good, and perhaps also somewhat misunderstood, film. It's certainly not perfect, but it's consistently interesting, stylish and provides enough subtext to resonate.

I also appreciate the fact this actually cares enough to make its characters real, flawed people with complexities and insecurities. The sleazy, voyeuristic Jason, who's in the end stage of his life (at least his human one!), has basically entered his idgaf phase and is out to do whatever he pleases. In that regard, he shares some similarities with the disillusioned Larry, who's thrown caution to the wind and put everything at risk because he's dissatisfied following a generic life script. 

Bridget, who's trapped in an unhealthy codependent relationship with her sibling (yep, there are some strong incestuous vibes going on there), ultimately fears being alone, part of the reason she's reluctant to let Larry go, especially with her brother's impending demise on the horizon. Exotic and husky-voiced Filipino-American Gava (best known for her small role as the witch Arnold Schwarzenegger briefly shacks up with in Conan the Barbarian) is highly memorable in this role. She's even given the chance to show off a lot of her professional modeling photos, including the cover of the 1976 Jefferson Starship album Spitfire.

Quite surprisingly given her competition, the most interesting person here is actually Robin, and the little-known Perryman is really great in this part. In most other films this would be a bland side character, but she's actually one of the most progressive mother / housewife characters I've ever seen in an older genre film. This woman is proactive in the extreme! She stands up for herself, she knows her worth, she speaks her mind, she's level-headed yet adventurous, she demands respect for the sacrifices she makes taking care of the house and kids and, while she loves her husband, she's not willing to be a doormat or be disrespected without taking some action herself. Casual everyday conversations, and the occasional arguments, between her and her husband have a really nice naturalistic quality to them and ring true.

According to pretty much everyone who worked on the production, Vane did not actually direct the film proper. Him being being given a "co-director" credit supposedly was part of an agreement he'd made with producer Aaron C. Butler, something that the film's real director, Israeli-born Elly Kenner, knew nothing about during production. Even though no one seems to have very nice things to say about the man (I don't either after reading more about him in Stephen Thrower's Nightmare USA and having already sat through some of his other stuff), he does at least deserve credit for this evocative script. Supposedly it's based on some of his real-life sleazy sexcapades, but I'll leave that up for you to discover on your own if you want all of the sordid details.

The crazy finale manages to somehow both disappoint and impress. In a way, it kind of undermines some of the finer plot points and muddies motivations (or at least makes us rethink them), on the other hand, it's lively and kind of creepy, ending with a flash-edited barrage of black and white shots of resurrecting corpses with color shots of blood pumping. It's definitely... unusual... much like the rest of the film.

Well-shot by future director Robert Harmon (THE HITCHER), this also boasts lots of gliding Steadicam shots courtesy of Jeff Mart, which both add to the dreamy, hazy feel and aid some of the action scenes, notably a great bit where the siblings pursue a half-drained victim (Geanne Frank) who manages to escape their home around the Hollywood hills. The often subdued electronic score is also great. Make-up and special effects from Mark Shostrom, who'd go on to work on a lot of 80s horror favorites like Videodrome, From Beyond, Evil Dead II and the first three Elm Street films, are solid.

After a very limited American theatrical release, Vestron Video issued this on home video in 1985. It was a well-distributed tape like many other Vestron titles and I'm sure audiences back then, probably expecting something more gore-drenched and formulaic, probably didn't know what to make of it. In many ways, I think this fits in better with today's “elevated horror” market than it did back in the 80s as a video rental.

The Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray (released just last year) is a long-overdue upgrade for this previously forgotten film, which had, until then, only been available as old rental tapes or VHS-sourced online copies, all of which were far too dark. This release rectifies that and also includes a ton of extras, including interviews with actors Stathis and Perryman (who now goes by her married name, Claire Corff, and is a voice teacher), Shostrom, Kenner and production assistant Lisa Cronin (also the daughter of executive producer Doug Cronin, who appears as a victim in the first scene). Thrower is also given a long segment where he basically relays information from his extensive previous interview with Vane (who passed away in 2015) for his book. The only real disappointment here is that they weren't able to track down Gava, Knight or Quigley for a chat, especially since all three of them appear to still be active.

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