The Black Castle, 1952. 8/10

Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Rita Corday get top billing in this atmospheric gothic horror/mystery. Also with Richard Greene and Steven McNally. In the 18th century, an Englishman, Sir Ronald Burton/known as Richard Beckett (Greene), travels to Austria in search of two friends, Elga and Dr. Meissen (Corday and Karloff). Where do we think he ends up? At a certain dark castle of Count Von Bruno’s (McNally). Gargon (Chaney) is Bruno’s servant; and Elga is his wife. Romley (Tudor Owen) is Ronald/Richard’s servant.

Nice dark and stormy night graveyard scene. Just inside the castle, two wide-awake looking corpses settle into their coffins. A voice, from the young guy’s body, clues us in that he and the young woman in the other pine box are about to be buried alive. Eek! Isn’t that, like, illegal or something?

The underlings are sad, but there’s nothing they can do now but wring their hands. We get a flashback: so our narrator relates his story from casket-land. It’s Burton, who’s been summoned to Vienna, to see Sir Layton. He’s given the psuedonym Beckett because in effect he’s acting as a detective. Burton already thinks that Bruno has killed Elga and Meissen.

Next thing, he’s hastening to the castle. The atmosphere is absolutely authentic. Creepily, they’re going to spend the night at an inn called The Green Man. They ought to call it the blood red inn, as Robert gets into a swordfight for no apparent reason. Well, his antagonists are friends of the count.

We finally get to the black (not so much) castle. There the count is looking on while Meissen tries some cure on one of the losing swordsmen. Richard/Ronald gets in on the conversation; what, there’s a leopard in the black forest? (Why do all the landmarks here have color names?). Gargon comes waltzing/stumbling in.

He’s “suspicious of strangers.” I think he just has a bad haircut. Sneaking about, Richard runs into Elga. In search of the count, they go into a lower chamber (ok, a dungeon); that’s where the leopard is kept, until it’s killed that is. Elga lets on to Richard that she was forced to marry the count. They go exploring in another dungeon suite.

Oh, that’s where they keep the crocodiles…the castle shows “quaint ideas of architecture” quips Richard. He gets to bed later, but Gargon peeps in–probably not just to tuck Richard in. Next day, the hunt is the order of business. Richard bags a stag in the foggy forest. He and the count find a wild boar carcass, so they know they’re near the leopard. Richard happens to fall into the same ravine that the leopard habituates.

The count is able to shoot it before it devours Richard; weirdly, our hero is upset that he wasn’t allowed his sporting chance to be killed. This is the second bit of derring-do for Richard, and it adds some excitement to what is an otherwise stagey plot. Speaking of formality, Richard takes Elga out on the balcony to look at the moonlight.

With the Count looking on, she retreats; but Robert accompanies her upstairs, and kisses her. What a cad! (Or is it a rake?). “Nothing but evil ever comes to this castle!” she notes–good point And so, it’s time for an explanation: Robert tells her that the Count murdered people in Africa. Quite a story, as her husband posed as a god to the natives. Apparently, that ruse worked for a while (his ulterior motive was to get his hands on unspecified riches), but his misdeeds sparked a rebellion. That explains the leopard and some native amulets.

A guest nearly reveals Robert’s identity to the Count; the guy passes out–Meissen pronounces him dead. The dastardly Count confronts Elga about her liason with Richard; she confesses that she loves the Englishman. That was quick! The next day, Richard announces that he’s going back to London. Hmm, and Elga has been handed over to Gargon for safe-keeping (yuck-yuck).

Richard isn’t done thinking about “that poor girl.” Meissen catches up with him at the inn; the doc thinks Elga’s in grave danger–from the Count. Like, what happened to his first wife (always seems to be a skeleton in the bad guy’s closet). Meissen admits he poisoned the other guest–a know-it-all–so that Richard wouldn’t be compromised. Now that’s a threat more long-lasting than blackmail.

Richard finally decides to return to the castle. The Count offers to take Richard to see Elga–she’s taken up quarters in the dungeon. Wasn’t her idea to go slumming. Shazam! Stupidly, Richard gets locked up there too. At any rate, we discover the Count knows Richard’s identity, and why he’s come to the castle.

Romley manages to find his way down to the dungeon and rescues them. Another action scene–Elga and Richard try and evade the Count and his henchmen. The desperate couple get stuck tiptoing around the rim of the alligator pit. That works, but the bad guys cut them off; there’s another fight. Gargon gets to swim with the amphibians, the good guys are merely recaptured.

Meissen has a cunning plan–an injection to simulate death for Richard and Elga. At first the story is that they took poison to get it over with. But the Count doesn’t buy it, and threatens Meissen; the old guy confesses that they’re not really dead. Meaning that premature burial is in the offing. What a twist! Gambling on the possibility that faking death would save them proves too much of a longshot.

That loops us back to the opening scene. At this point, how can they avoid tragedy? All the good guy accomplices are dead. “Seal the coffins!” Orders the count. Well, the two underlings hear noises from Richard’s coffin. It’s plausible, all right; drugged people can make themselves heard. Just as the Count enters to wonder why both coffins haven’t yet been sealed, Richard stirs enough to blast away with his faithful dueling pistol.

What a denouement! That’s something that was unexpected, but, like the sedation itself, it’s an intelligent ploy (Meissen wasn’t so chicken after all by furnishing Richard’s coffin!). Anyway, scratch one Count. Richard makes off with Elga. The end.

A great ending for a very good movie. The horror is all implicit; strictly speaking there’s no supernatural stuff going on. But the setting, tone, and atmosphere are so well integrated that the whole feeling is of a haunted place.

Thanks to the well-placed action scenes the pacing doesn’t bog down much. The main and supporting characters bring the right mix of earnestness, mystery, gullibility, and vulnerability to make the plot work. One exception, though, is the instant romance between Richard and Elga.

They seem to come together like a couple of teenagers; arguing bitterly, and then falling for each other. Obviously, they’re a better match than the Count and Elga, but the new-found romance needs some scaffolding. The Count might show some decency now and then; the forced marriage conceit certainly carries weight for the time, but even Dracula himself was not without some charm.

No real complaints otherwise. The beginning and ending are particularly strong. No time is wasted getting into the story; in fact, since the bulk of the plot is shown as a flashback, all of the incidents serve to fill out the puzzle that we’re first presented with. That is, how did these two people wind up in coffins and get mistaken for dead (everything that’s going to be shown)? And, what’s going to happen to them (the ending)?

Thoroughly enjoyable horror. 8/10

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