Could you resist Stephen McNally as a one-eyed evil count, Lon Chaney Jr. as a mute brute, Boris Karloff as a decent but cowardly doctor, and handsome, dashing action hero Richard Greene investigating murder in a gothic castle with trap doors, a dungeon and an alligator pit? I couldn’t, so many thanks to The Black Castle (1952), for providing all of the above in one entertainingly dark and atmospheric thriller.
The story begins in a creepy, windy cemetery, with two men looking into the coffins of Greene and Rita (here credited as Paula) Corday, not realizing Greene is alive but in a state of paralysis. As Greene stares intently and mentally begs for help, a flashback shows us how the couple got here. Greene was investigating the murders of friends who served with him in Africa, where his men stopped McNally from enslaving and robbing a wealthy tribe. McNally lost his eye and gained a grudge against Greene, the commander he’d never met but vowed to find and kill. Confident that McNally can’t recognize him, Greene stays at his castle under an assumed name and finds evidence of McNally’s crimes. Greene also finds love with McNally’s wife Corday, but neither of them manage to get away before McNally discovers his identity and her intentions.
This was director Nathan Juran’s first movie (he was last seen at this blog with 20 Million Miles to Earth, 1957), and Universal’s last try at reigniting a horror cycle before they turned their attention more toward science fiction. Both director and studio do a nice job with this one, giving us the comforts of the Universal horror look, and giving these actors juicy gothic suspense material to chew on. The castle is especially attractive and shot from unusual angles to feature staircases descending into the cellars, long passages with shadows in which to hide and eavesdrop, and many large and lavishly furnished rooms. Juran even puts the camera “inside” a fireplace in one scene. It looks great and it’s an ingenious maze. To escape this luxurious death trap your faithful helper has to work his way through a ringful of keys (of course it’s never the first few) to open your cell, you must get through the “releasing of the hounds,” and you need to get past that chomping iron trapdoor, onto that ledge and across the gator pit.
McNally might not be the first name that comes to mind for gothic suspense but is great as the delightfully dastardly and sadistic Count. He regards both his friends and enemies with the same superiority and suspicion, and debates a man’s maximum pain tolerance with his doctor Karloff. He imports a black leopard for the big hunt, terrorizes it, teases Chaney with an opportunity to wrestle it, and then knowingly sends Greene into its path. He kills with his heart, he says, and therefore never misses; goodness knows he never uses his heart when it comes to “his boring peasant” Corday, the girl he acquired in a forced marriage.
Greene was so good as this type of shining romantic action hero. He charges into danger with only “a faculty for getting into things,” and no plan other than snooping around McNally’s dungeon, but you know he’ll make it through. He inspires loyalty from servant Henry Corden and gains the trust of Corday and Karloff. He’s clever in every situation: pretends to sleep while Chaney spies on him at night, boasts his way out of a leopard hunt dispute, and uses the castle’s traps against his captors. And he shows off the swashbuckling talent that made him such a fine Robin Hood in a sword fight against McNally’s allies John Hoyt and Michael Pate. By the end he and Corday are stuck in a Romeo and Juliet dilemma involving poison, fake death and those coffins, but their plans take a few scary twists.
Neither Karloff nor Chaney get that much to do here but are always a draw and less scenes for them means more for the other great actors. Hoyt shows off the physique he gained by being a real life fitness fanatic, in a scene where he pathetically screams and whimpers as Karloff treats his minor wound. Pate gets to sneer and connive, and Corday burns McNally with a classic line when he flaunts his cheap new woman. She (Nancy Valentine) shot the biggest boar in today’s hunt and isn’t that something, he taunts. Corday answers, “Oh I don’t know, I managed to land the biggest bore here without firing a shot.” Which gives you a nice summary of the feel of this movie, very few scares but much dark delightful nasty fun in elaborate costumes, and a hero trying to find his way out of a series of terrible situations.