DVD Review: The Black Castle (1952)

The Black Castle DVD CoverDistributor: Odeon Entertainment

BBFC Classification: PG

Director: Nathan Juran

Starring: Richard Greene, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Stephen McNally, Paula Corday

The Black Castle is a film that originally came out at the wrong time; too late to fit in with Universal Studio’s initial run of horror classics and too early for their brief revival with The Creature From the Black Lagoon and the return of the gothic horror tradition updated by Hammer, it feels a little meandering in terms of vibe but is never less than entertaining. This is down to two things – a simple script and some wonderful performances from the lead performers, not least horror icon Boris Karloff (Frankenstein/Bride of Frankenstein) whose image looms large on the DVD cover but is really only playing a secondary role. Richard Greene (The Adventures of Robin Hood) plays the lead, a charming character named Sir Ronald Burton, going under the alias of Richard Beckett as he travels to the castle of Count Karl von Bruno (Stephen McNally – Winchester ’73), a brutal tyrant who may hold the key to the disappearance of two of Burton’s friends. After meeting the usual bunch of unfriendly locals he arrives at the castle and meets the Count and his minions, including his beautiful wife Elga (Paula Corday – The Body Snatcher) whom he falls for immediately. The Count twigs and sets about subtly letting ‘Beckett’ know who the alpha male is and making sure Elga doesn’t stray any more, but once ‘Beckett’ leaves the castle the truth of who he is is revealed to the Count. Luckily he doesn’t have to wait long for ‘Beckett’ to return as the Count’s personal doctor Dr. Meissen (Karloff) has concocted a plan…

Looking at The Black Castle now it is very easy to call it clichéd – the restless locals, the creepy castle in the forest, the deformed henchman (a sorely underused Lon Chaney Jr.), etc. – and even when you put it in the context of when it originally came out it still feels a little stuffy and clunky, the 1950s ushering in sci-fi as the backdrop to its horror films and making anything remotely gothic looking very old. However, there is some swashbuckling action and a touch of romance thanks to Richard Greene and his dashing persona which steers the creepy atmosphere out of the cemetery of the opening scenes and into slight Errol Flynn territory, albeit on a smaller scale. But the Universal feel is never too far away as Karloff and Chaney make their presence felt despite their roles not being very forgiving in terms of screen time, especially Chaney who redoes his lumbering monster act from The Ghost of Frankenstein but with a maniacal glee as he follows his master’s diabolical orders. Stephen McNally handles the role of the Count very well, appearing untrustworthy from the moment we first see him and sliding deeper into barbarism as the film goes on. It isn’t hard to imagine that if this film had been made a decade earlier it would have had Claude Rains in that role, McNally’s dominance reminiscent of Rains in Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera from 1943, but McNally does what is necessary for the character and makes him an ideal pantomime villain for us to boo.

As far as post-1940’s Universal horror films go The Black Castle isn’t the best in terms of dialogue or production values – the superimposed shot of a pond full of crocodiles will make you snigger, despite the knowledge that this is the 1950s – but it is a lot of fun. The presence of both Chaney and Karloff gives the film a bit of gravitas that it sorely needed – had they not been there it would have definitely lacked that certain something – and it doesn’t bother with waffle and gets straight to the point, which is something a few modern filmmakers could do with learning, before getting to its slightly drawn-out and ridiculous (in a good way) ending that the makers of the early Bond films may have picked up on. Also, the inn where ‘Beckett’ stops on his journey to the Black Forest is called The Green Man, where his probing questions perk up the ears of the disgruntled locals. Sound familiar? The Green Man is also the name of the inn in The Wicker Man, where Sergeant Howie’s questions did the same thing two decades later. So although it may not be top drawer Universal Studios, The Black Castle does have a little more to offer than some of their better known titles.

The Black Castle

Special Features: None

UK Release Date: 28th July 2014

Classic Films Direct – Web Store

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