In 1935, Universal Studios pretty much had the horror movie market cornered. The horror films made at other studios had a distinctly different flavor, more high-brow and literary than Universal’s creature features. MGM made Mad Love with Peter Lorre, a tale of madness and obsession that was strongly influenced by the Grand Guignol theater. Columbia Studios produced The Black Room, which is based on an original screenplay, but has all the trappings of gothic fiction. Boris Karloff, who was played Frankenstein’s monster for the second time that year in The Bride of Frankenstein, surely must have relished the chance to play not one, but two human characters.
The story opens in a central European village in the early 19th century. A baron anxiously awaits news of the birth of his heir. His hopes are dashed when he learns that he has fathered twins. An old text in Latin holds that the family started with twins and will end with twins, when the younger will slay the older in the “black room,” a dungeon that is bricked off. The brother that was born first, Gregor, inherits the village and the title of baron. The younger brother, Anton, who is born with a paralyzed right arm, gets nothing. Anton travels for years, and when he returns home he is surprised to find everyone is trying to kill him. Everyone mistakes him for his brother the baron, who is despised. It seems pretty girls from the village go into the castle and never come out. When the peasants storm the castle, Gregor agrees to give his title to his brother and leave the village forever. This seems to be the perfect arrangement, until Gregor knocks off Anton and takes his place. This means he can never again use his right arm in front of anyone, but it also means he can marry the pretty daughter of a colonel who despises him. Everyone is fooled by the switch except for Anton’s dog, who just won’t give up.