Wednesday, November 23, 2011

They Don't Make Them Like This Anymore: "Chamber of Horrors" (1940)



This very British film is based on the novel "The Door With Seven Locks" by Edgar Wallace, and despite its title, it is more mystery than horror.

An eccentric lord dies and leaves everything to his young son. The family fortune is locked in the tomb with him, behind a door with seven locks. The keys are entrusted to the lawyer Havelock (David Horne), but if anything happens to the lord's son, pretty relation June (Lilli Palmer) inherits everything.

Ten years later, June is summoned by a dying man, and given one of the keys. The man is murdered, and June goes to the police. She meets the just retired detective Martin (Romilly Lunge) and his partner Sneed (Richard Bird), and they discover Havelock's office has been infiltrated and the keys are missing. The group, along with June's comic relief Aunt Glenda (a sometimes funny Gina Malo) go to the old mansion, where the weird Dr. Manetta (Leslie Banks) is now residing. Soon, clues start piling up, more murders occur, and Martin is hot on the case, and hot for June.

There are tons of plot twists that I cannot go into. There are almost a half dozen supporting characters that I could name, but won't. To be honest, the plot and acting is goofball. Martin is just too cool, and June is so dang perky. Glenda's desperation for a man is often funny, as is Sneed's inability to stay awake for long periods of time. Manetta makes quite the villain, a descendant of the Spanish Inquisitor Torquemada, and a collector of vintage instruments of torture. The action sequences have all the violence and gore of me and my little brothers wrestling in the den when we were kids. Lee's direction is standard, save a great use of close-ups during a fight scene between Martin and a major character that involves an iron maiden.

It is all so standard, and silly, but I am going to recommend it. Why? This is the perfect example of the type of film "they just don't make anymore." The suave heroic detective (former detective, in this case), the beautiful damsel in distress, the comic relief supporting players, the mad villain, the creepy supporting villains fighting amongst themselves, a scary old mansion and cemetery, it all somehow works. While I figured out most of the surprises before Martin and June did, I still had a ball watching the plot play out.

This kind of film would not do well today, in the age of Austin Powers poo-poo humor, or whether Pierce Brosnan will return as 007 (never mind that his stint as James Bond has been mediocre at best). Today, cops are tortured souls, seeing the grimy side of life. Film makers have tried to bring the golden days of English detectives into the modern age, but I still cringe when I think of the recent network remake of "Murder on the Orient Express."

"Chamber of Horrors" is not a great film, but it is good. If your idea of fun is to curl up with an Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh (or in this case, Edgar Wallace) mystery on a rainy day, this film would be for you. (* * *) out of five stars. Get this movie now!: Chamber of Horrors [Blu-ray]