Nov 15, 2014
While I used to feel differently as a child, I would have to say that, overall, the 1980s were a fairly shitty decade for American horror flicks, especially in regard to the exploitation world. Indeed, although the decade produced such classics as Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) and The Evil Dead II (1987), Dan O'Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), and Joel Schumacher’s sole worthwhile effort The Lost Boys (1987), the 1980s lacked the grittiness, sleaziness, seriousness, and true horror of brutal 1970s works like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Jonas Middleton’s hardcore art-horror-porn flick Through the Looking Glass (1976), Roger Watkins’ The Last House on Dead End Street (1977), Phantasm (1979), the singularly sick oeuvre and misanthropic oeuvre of gutter auteur Andy Milligan, and countless other truly crude and vicious grindhouse/exploitation works, which was partly the result of the rise of Reaganism and Hollywood co-opting conventions of the genre as a result of the monetary success of certain low-budget works turning them from rich and milky blood into stale water. Needless to say, I am fully willing to sample and embrace any 1980s horror flick that has teeth and bites and relies on schlocky vaudevillian one-liners, dimwitted dames with double silicone sacks, the first ever token negro and Asian characters, goofy 80s clothing like spandex and legwarmers, and shitty hair metal with masturbatory guitar solos. About two years ago I discovered such a work that does not have any of those cliché things (aside from an Asian, though she seems to be of the ‘exotic’ half-caste sort), but for whatever reason, I did not get around to seeing it until recently. Indeed, The Black Room (1983) aka Invasion of Terror: The Black Room written and co-directed by Norman Thaddeus Vane (Frightmare, Club Life) and Elly Kenner (who, despite his rather gay name, is not a woman) is a film you might call a ‘lost gem’ if you think Jörg Buttgereit’s necrophile classic NEKRomantik (1987) is an art film and you have a nasty obsession with Guido artsploitation auteur Alberto Cavallone. In other words, The Black Room is a celluloid oddity that falls somewhere in between cinematic art and morally retarded sleaze, thus making for a work that will only be appreciated by a few.
A truly ‘modernist’ vampire flick with nil supernatural elements that was co-directed by an American Jew and an Israeli with no directing experience and shot at the Hollywood Hills home of the Mafia’s ‘literary representative’ on a meager budget of $40,000 (including post-production costs) in 1981 over the course of “roughly ten fifteen-hour days” (indeed, it took two years before the film was released), the film should be a totally worthless piece of contrived and formulaic horror dribble that was meant to capitalize off of the stupidity of Americans, yet it is a fairly striking, singular, and stylish piece of elegant exploitation cinema that is like a west coast ‘goth chic’ take on George A. Romero’s Martin (1976). More or less sharing directing duties in a similar fashion to how Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg worked together on Performance (1970), with Vane, who is the real ‘auteur’ of the film, being in charge of the actors and Kenner, who was just trying to make a quick buck (according to Vane, Kenner’s then wife stated of his collaborator, “As soon as Norman signs the contracts I’m going to fuck him”), directed the camera, The Black Room—a literally and figuratively titled work that borrows it's name from a darkened room like a bathhouse where people, especially gay men, go for sex—also benefits from the fact that it was shot by Robert Harmon, who would go on to be the director of the classic road-horror-thriller hybrid The Hitcher (1986) starring Rutger Hauer. The slightly sleazy but almost always stylish, oftentimes erotic, sometimes darkly humorous, and vaguely allegorical story of a suburban family man who is cruelly cock-blocked by his prepubescent children, so he runs a lavish ‘black room’ in a mansion owned by a quasi-incestuous brother and sister who kill the young girls their tenant brings because the brother suffers from a rare blood disease and needs constant blood transplants, the film is so unconventionally entertaining that it makes you wonder how auteur Vane is the same man who worked as a second unit director for porn-horror spoof Dracula Sucks (1979) starring Jamie Gillis.
At the beginning of The Black Room, a couple is having sex in the ‘black room’—a dark and vaguely baroque room illuminated by an unforgettable glowing luminescent table and gothic candles and adorned with antique pillows, rugs, furniture, and various knickknacks—when the owners of the house, Guido-like ‘blood junky’ Jason (Stephen Knight, who was featured in the horrendous horror flick Necromancy (1972) starring Orson Welles as the leader of a witches coven) and his S&M-obsessed Asian sister(?!) Bridget (semi-Europid-like Filipino-American Cassandra Gava of John Milius'1982 hit Conan the Barbarian), slowly walk in and pull a creepy and craven form of coitus interruptus where they knock their two victims out with a needle. Of course, the victims never wake up, as Jason takes them to his makeshift blood opium den where he uses a device similar to an embalming machine to rob his prey of their vital fluid so he can shoot the liquid up his arm, which he does in such a fierce fashion that the tube explodes and squirts blood everywhere. After sucking the corpses dry (one of which is played by the film’s executive producer Doug Cronin, an ex-professional football player), Jason puts them outside. Meanwhile in suburbia, Hebraic preppie Larry (Jimmy Stathis of the c-grade 1982 slasher Hospital Massacre) is trying to bone his wife Robin (TV actress Clara Perryman in her sole film role), but one of his kids soon puts a stop to that after waking up from a nightmare and calling for mommy and daddy. Larry reacts to this rather extremely by deciding to rent out a room where he can bring young and impressionable coeds, as well as more upscale hookers. Indeed, when Larry sees an ad in a newspaper reading “Hollywood Hills—Live Your Fantasy” for a room in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills for a mere $200, he cannot turn it down, but of course the price proves to be too good to be true, as the landlords plan to use their tenant as the unwitting procurer of their victims.
With his new secret pleasure-dome in the Hollywood Hills and overflow of sex with anonymous women, Larry becomes much happier with life and his sex life with his wife reaches an all-time high as well. In fact, Larry even goes so far as telling his wife Robin about the ‘black room,’ though he claims it is nothing more than a fantasy. When Larry stops by his hideout to drop off the month’s rent and cannot find Jason, he ends up finally talking to Bridget, who develops an instant infatuation with the not-so-tall, dark, and less than handsome tenant. Needless to say, Larry is quite excited to learn that Bridget is Jason’s sister and not his wife as he had once suspected. Disappointed that his latest sexual conquest has not arrived (the siblings most likely killed her), Larry takes up Bridget’s offer to join her in picking flowers where she reveals that her brother has bad blood, stating, “It’s a very rare blood disease […] the medical term is Thalassemia. It affects mostly Mediterranean types. Your red blood cells are different, so he has to constantly replenish his blood every 60 days. Then once a month. Now, twice weekly.” After picking flowers like a bunch of blueblood pansies, Bridget—a sadomasochist and exhibitionist who has various nude and fetishistic pictures of herself, which were taken by her own brother (!) adorning the walls of her home—covers her unclad body in psychedelic paint and engages in some unintentionally humorous sexual roleplaying where one plays a bull and the matador while big bro Jason snaps photos. Upon taking a break from pretending to be an amorous bull, Bridget states, “This is our moment of truth, Larry. Only, this time, you’re the bull and I’m the matador. See, the most beautiful thing in the world is to be killed by someone that you love.” Needless to say, Larry does not understand that Bridget is serious. When not killing and stealing the blood of his tenant's concubines, Jason takes tons of Robert Mapplethorpe-esque S&M photos because, as he fiendishly states, “for every person, photography is my way of holding on to a little bit of their soul.”
Of course, all hell breaks loose when Robin finds the old newspaper advertisement and keys for her husband Larry’s black room, though she opts not to confront her spouse initially and instead decides to do some investigating. After arriving at the Hollywood Hills mansion, Robin discovers that all the people from Larry’s ‘black room’ stories are real, as she talks to Jason who coerces her into doing the same exact thing her husband is doing. When Robin asks Jason why he wants to help, he sinisterly remarks that it is “because the irony of it all appeals to me. The idea of you bringing in an unlimited supply of new people…fresh blood.” When Larry arrives at the dark room with a college student named Lisa (Charlie Young of Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams) and her boyfriend Terry (mainstream Hollywood actor Christopher Young of Thelma & Louise (1991) and Happy Gilmore (1996) in a pre-fame role) who is there to watch his girlfriend being boned because he just wants to “watch” and “take notes” for his psychology class, Robin watches her husband screwing the young girl via a two-way mirror that Jason has installed. When Robin breaks down and cries after catching her unwitting hubby in the act, Jason pretentiously states, “After we know the truth, comes sadness. All truth is terrifying, especially about ourselves and the people we love. Jealousy is your sickness…mine is need.” Deciding to get her revenge and have fun doing it, Robin opts not only to sleep with someone in the black room, but also to sleep with college kid Terry, whose girlfriend Lisa Larry slept with.
Needless to say, Larry is in for quite a surprise when he sees his wife screwing tall dork Terry. When Larry later confronts Robin about her extramarital excursion, she states, “I had to feel what you had with all the others” and confesses that Terry was a better lay than him. Lisa also proudly proclaims, “I feel like a different woman” and “I realized I lost all my jealousy” and refuses to go to the black room after Larry makes her an ultimatum: “me or the room.” After getting in a heated argument with Larry, Robin storms out of their home and heads to the Hollywood Hills, not realizing that Jason and Bridget have killed Lisa and Terry and plan to kill her next. After leaving his kids with a teenage babysitter (scream queen Linnea Quigley of The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Night of the Demons (1988)), Larry heads to the black room to get his wife, but not soon after he gets there he finds himself being knocked out and bound and tied. Meanwhile, Bridget attempts to coerce Jason into not killing Larry, stating, “Look Jason, you’re not my lover, you’re my brother…you’re my partner, you’re not my father. Oh, God…I just want someone to be close to…to sleep with,” but her brother simply replies, “No one can come between us and live.” To make matters worse, Bridget calls babysitter Millie and asks her to bring the kids to the Hollywood Hills. Luckily, Larry manages to free himself and Robin after seemingly choking Jason to death with his handcuffs shortly after Millie and the kids arrive. Eventually, Robin manages to stab Bridget in the throat with a wire while the tragically deranged semi-Asiatic she-bitch prowls the house. Somewhat inexplicably, as Larry and his family manage to escape after suffering temporary car trouble, Jason and Bridget somehow manage to rise from the dead. While driving away, Robin asks Larry, “Do you think that people like that ever really die? Somehow, I have a feeling that they go on living forever.”
As revealed in Stephen Thrower’s mandatory exploitation cinema text NIGHTMARE USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (2007), auteur Norman Thaddeus Vane had tons of trouble on the shoot, especially in regard to his novice Israeli co-director Elly Kenner (who he stated of, “We didn’t get along very well, obviously“), as well as the film’s producer Aaron C. Butler (who has no other film credits), who he unlovingly described as follows: “Aaron Butler, the producer, was a big red-headed Irishman of Jewish descent. He wore a Star of David around his neck, drank like a fish, cursed everybody and was totally obnoxious.” Despite the trouble he had on the production with his fellow Israelites, Vane is somewhat proud of the film as demonstrated by his fitting remark, “It was the only vampire film ever made where the people were real and really did have a blood disorder and their need for blood was real and not based on some mythical vampire legend.” While Vane went on to direct one or two more entertaining films, including the sleazy yet cheesy night club flick Club Life (1986) starring Tony Curtis, Kenner not surprisingly disappeared from the exploitation world and began directing and producing wholly Hebraic Israeli works like the 6-part film series Esoterica Jerusalem (1992), Visions of the Holy Land (1996), and the kosher family-comedy Mi Ha’ Abba? (1997). Like The Image (1975) of quasi-slasher exploitation, albeit with more testicular fortitude than Radley Metzger’s work due to its artistic pretenses and pseudo-aristocratic setting, The Black Room is ultimately a masterful work of failed cinematic art. Like Metzger, Vane certainly had the Hebraic talent for parroting European art house cinema.
With its subversive approach to vampire film genre conventions, modernist neo-Gothic aestheticism and foreboding essence, darkly debauched blueblood decadence, erotically-charged semi-surrealism, relative abstractness, and emphasis on style, tone, and atmosphere over substance, Vane’s flick is the work that Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) wishes it was, which is rather unfortunate considering The Black Room has never ‘officially’ been released on DVD (a bootleg DVD of the original VHS exists) and is dying to be restored (the VHS print is ultra-dark, so you sometimes cannot even see what is going on in the dark room). Featuring a seemingly Asperger-plagued pseudo-philosopher dandy Guido that sports Saturday Night Fever-esque popped collar button-up shirts with a murderous addiction to blood, a sadomasochistic nymphomaniac who seems just as obsessed with sex as having her picture taken, and a married couple that nearly succumbs to something much worse than a divorce after becoming enthralled with regular extramarital excursions, The Black Room is also an audacious, if somewhat amateurish, allegory regarding the metaphysical affliction known as addiction. Indeed, I surely found the film more effective, erotic, and even elegant than Darren Aronofsky’s junky-exploitaiton film on steroids, Requiem for a Dream (2000). Although inaccurately writing that the film is “Unique in the male-dominated blood horror universe in that it was directed by a woman, Elly Kenner” (what is up with Jewish men with female-sounding names?!), Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford were certainly right when they wrote in their work Sleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square (2002): “THE BLACK ROOM also reversed the rules of the Italian giallos, where people allow sexual psychopaths into their homes. Here, the ugly Americans go out naively and fall into destruction's hands.” Indeed, the film certainly has a vague anti-American feel about it which is all the more highlighted by its almost European essence, as a work that would make for the perfect double-feature with Alberto Cavallone’s all the more demented and bizarre effort Blue Movie (1978), especially considering both works have a relatively singular claustrophobic yet otherworldly feel to them. Indeed, it might be because I am a little bit biased, but The Black Room is easily the most artful and original Hebraic-directed horror/exploitation flick that I have ever seem, which makes it all the more fitting that the villain is a swarthy yet opulent bloodthirsty fellow with various aberrant sexual fetishes and pathologies.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 5:38 AM
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