The film concerns a well-to-do suburban family man named Larry who has, what many would call, an ideal life. Great wife, great kids, a good job, and disposable income. His sex life is lacking, and the predictable, monotonous tedium of his routine existence leads him to rent a room advertised in the paper. For $200 a month, he will get access to a strange black room inside a hilltop mansion inside the Hollywood Hills.
The mansion is owned by a secretive and mysterious brother-sister duo. Jason, the brother, has a rare blood disorder that requires transfusions and enjoys taking erotic photos of his sister Bridget, who essentially lives as Jason's nurse.
Larry starts using the room as an outlet for his sexual mania, and as a sanctuary from his home life. He brings college girls and LA prostitutes back to the blackened room lit only by an illuminated table and candles. Larry calls the mansion ahead of time, and by the time he arrives Jason has poured the wine, lit the candles, and turned on the music. All Larry has to do is show up and have fun. And fun he DOES have in a series of bizarre, surreal, sex scenes with women he lures back to his mysterious room. His time in the room also spices up his sex life at home as he starts telling his wife "fictional" stories set in a black room as a way to heat up their own bed.
However, little does Larry know that not only is Jason snapping photos of his trysts, but Larry is also supplying him a steady stream of victims to be drained for his transfusions. More trouble arrives when Robin, Larry's wife, finds out the room exists outside of fantasy, and she soon turns the tables on him with the aid of Jason and Bridget, who take a sadistic glee in tearing this marriage apart. As this once-happy couple spirals deeper and deeper into involvement with the room, the malevolence of Jason starts to get more and more severe, as does his need for more frequent transfusions.
First of all, this film is dripping with an atmosphere not usually found in most low-budget American horror films of the early 80's. In this era, most flicks coming out that could be classified as horror that were being released were predictable, yet easily enjoyable slasher retreads, or low budget Romero-inspired zombie flicks, not bizarre, psychosexual shockers. The film has a European feel from start to finish, with an emphasis on stylistic camera work, striking visuals, in your face music, and a more thorough mixture of sex and violence than usually found Stateside.
For all intents and purposes, Jason is a vampiric character. Although it is a rare disease that requires transfusions, he still has a lust and need for blood and murders to get it. Much like European filmmakers such as Jean Rollin, this film takes a familiar character type like the vampire and puts its own spin on it. Vampires have traditionally been used as symbols representing carnal desire, lust, and even addiction. The Black Room is no different than many other vampire movies in this respect, but it makes the subject matter it's own.
For my money, the standouts in the cast are Stephen Knight as Jason, and Clara Perryman as Robin, the neglected wife. Knight jumps over a million tripwires by somehow making the character intimidating, frightening, sinister, yet ultimately likable. You can see why people are comfortable around him, yet you see how they can be frightened into doing his bidding. Perryman takes Robin on a believable journey from jealous, rejected wife to a confident, sexually in-touch woman who may be playing the game better than her husband. Cassandra Gaviola and Jimmy Stathis both also turn in solid, believable performances as Bridget and Larry, respectfully, but did not stand out like the others. Gaviola is a sultry, sexy performer and she fluctuates well between a dangerous, seductive woman who will do anything to ensure her brother gets the blood he needs, while at the same time wanting to be free of having to spend her life caring for him. Stathis, on the other hand, doesn't really have to much besides woo beautiful women, which he does admirably, but not much range is demonstrated, nor is it really needed for the character. 1980's genre stalwart Linnea Quigley appears briefly and convincingly as a babysitter, lending the film some serious low budget credibility, and also keep an eye open for a young, afro-ed Christopher "Shooter McGavin" McDonald as a pot smoking swinger in a very early role.
The film is an ultimate suburban nightmare, preying on the fears of every suburban couple. Afraid to stay in a dull marriage, yet afraid of how much things could unravel if you go out on the prowl. Larry's search for casual fun ends up bringing a terror upon his family he never thought possible. This is not to say it's a puritanical film, not in any way. It lays the kinky sex on thick, and they don't go out of their way make it look like it's not any fun. Instead, the film shows a man so desperate for some excitement, he isn't even cognizant of the sinister goings on around him. Partying is one thing, but if you don't keep your wits about you it can lead you down some dark, dark roads.
Overall, I found The Black Room an extremely entertaining flick. It definitely has a flavor of it's own compared to other horror films of the time, and it delivers the things you would expect from an early 80's horror film in a new, interesting way. The film is not without it's flaws, to be sure. The music runs the gamut from atmospheric, creepy, and unsettling to the obnoxious synthesizer stings so prevalent in horror scores of the time. There are also a few lapses in logic, and some confusing plot turns, but those are easily forgivable in light of the pluses. The camerawork is fantastic, all of the actors do, at the very least, competent work. The script and editing for the most part keep you on your toes, and keep you guessing. Sadly, this seems to be the only film from director Elly Kenner, and for most of the cast and crew. I really am curious as to where Kenner could have gone as a director, because this is a damn good debut.
I had to watch this via the old Vestron VHS tape, as the film is not currently on disc and I know of no plans for it to be released as such. There are plenty of places online to find the old tape, and plenty of gray market retailers have it for sale. If you, like me, love flicks from this era and are looking for something different to check out, I recommend this one highly.
- Ehren Von Sleaze, the Trash Advocate.