Elly Kenner and Norman Thaddeus Vane, 1984
Runtime: 88 min.
Format: Budget DVD Release

Starring Stephen Knight, Cassandra Gaviola, Jimmy Stathis, Clara Perryman, Linnea Quigley, and Christopher MacDonald.

Larry (Jimmy Stathis), a thirty-something husband and father is looking for a place to cheat. He finds an ad in the newspaper for a room for rent in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. The home is owned by a mysterious brother and sister Jason (Stephen Knight), a photographer, and ethereal Bridget (Cassandra Gaviola). The room for rent is the titular black room with mirrored walls, dark furnishings, black walls with the only light sources being candles and a lighted glass table. Larry starts taking girls there and having sex, not knowing that Jason and Bridget are watching and photographing them through one of the room’s two-way mirrors. While Larry goes home to his wife and kids and uses the details of his supposedly imaginary encounters to spice up his and his wife’s sex life, the girls are – unbeknownst to Larry – unwillingly providing blood transfusions to keep Jason’s blood disease under control. Thinking that Larry could be a lucrative source for fresh blood, Bridget seduces him in the black room and Jason photographs it for blackmail purposes. When Larry’s wife Robin (Clara Perryman in an excellent performance) finds the newspaper ad about the room for rent in Larry’s car, she visits the mansion and discovers the room is real, that Larry must really be cheating on her, and things take an unusual turn for what is ostensibly a horror film.

The film is more concerned with the ambiguous nature of human relationships than the subplot of skanks having sex and being killed in a remote horror house. Our protagonist is a husband and father with a cheerful home-life that becomes complicated in the bedroom-- children who won’t go to sleep, having to be quiet to not wake them when they do, and the general staleness of his marriage. He uses his encounters with other women in the black room to heat up his sex life with his wife; referring to them as “word pictures.” The encounters with various women in the black room are not excuses for T&A, the chiaroscuro lighting does not allow for that nor does the editing. The focus within the room is on Larry exploring himself psychologically-– meaning character-probing small-talk as foreplay – and on the voyeuristic brother and sister in the act of looking rather than what they are looking at. Even Bridget’s nudity during her encounter with Larry is obscured by the artful body paint she coats herself and Larry with.

Robin’s discovery of the black room does not lead to a stalk-and-kill scene. A sinister-looking Jason finds Robin sitting in the garden and they speak frankly about Larry’s activities and Jason’s and Bridget’s roles in the arrangement. He even shows Robin the two-way mirror and snaps photographs while Larry has sex with another woman and Robin cries on the sofa. Jason’s suggestion that Robin turn the tables on Larry and make use of the black room as well for her pleasure seems less motivated by the opportunity to procure fresh victims than as an erotic diversion; making the bloodthirsty sibling set seem less single-minded than they would be in a more straightforward horror film. The black room itself is an enclosed setting that allows for interior exploration, experimentation, and improvisation (signified by the camerawork which glides back and forth between the onscreen light sources and complete blackness only to come across more candles or indistinct bodies writhing either in passion or in terror as the syringe and chloroform-wielding brother and sister approach) where Larry and Bridget can step outside themselves even as afternoon partners try to deduct their personalities.

Extraordinarily for an American independent film, neither the staging of long sequences in the black room or the mansion and its grounds, nor the rushed and cramped nature of the exterior shooting make the film feel stage- or set bound precisely because of the film’s Pinter-like association of interior lives with interior spaces, and the threats of intrusion from without and the greater one from within. Of course it does eventually lead to the obligatory stalk-and-kill sequence with HALLOWEEN (1978) shadings involving butcher knives, closets, a coat-hanger impaling, and “he’s not dead yet!” surprises – featuring an atypically clothed and non-screaming Linnea Quigley – and a circular ending. But what we have here is a low-budget, independent art house picture masquerading as a horror film. Had this film been made in Europe in the seventies it would be a piece of prime Eurocult with added nudity. Had it been made more recently in Europe, it would be an edgy art film. Had it been made in the nineties in the states, it would have been an DTV “erotic thriller” bogged down by lingering, slow-motion, scored with somnambulant sax and keyboard with an added horror tinge not unlike Fred Olen Ray’s twists on the genre. Christopher MacDonald (HAPPY GILMORE) also has a supporting role in the film and merits an “and – as” screen credit in the opening titles.

My review copy of this film was an actual retail DVD which is likely unauthorized since it is a VHS-rip with one instance of tracking noise. Black levels are deep on an interlaced TV set but hazy on a progressive monitor. As with most VHS-sourced material the small end credits become unreadable with magnification as the interlacing becomes more apparent. The film was released on cassette originally by Lightning Video and the same tape-sourced transfer may be available on more than one DVD label and in more than one boxed set.

Eric Cotenas, 2008