Bite Size: The Black Room (1982)

The Black Room Poster/Box Art

There’s a reason people only call kids “bundles of joy” for a limited window after their arrival on the planet. Parenthood is an uphill battle to find personal happiness and equilibrium while simultaneously having to regularly subsume yourself to the greater good of trying to take these formless little creatures and mold them into something resembling a healthy and happy adult. Without a supportive partner, the supposed gift of parenthood can begin to feel like an isolating curse.

Robin (Clara Perryman) and Larry (Jimmy Stathis) are definitely feeling the strain a family can put on a marriage. Their two young kids constantly bicker, and seem to have an uncanny knack for interrupting any attempt at sex or intimacy the couple might have. Imminent bed death has started to take its toll, and soon even simple interactions like meals or errands are mine fields of mini resentments.

When Larry comes across a newspaper ad promising a Hollywood Hills room where you can “live your fantasy” he can’t drop his $200 deposit fast enough. The mansion is owned by Jason (Stephen Knight), a decadent photographer who promises to keep the wine flowing, the candles lit, and the Vivaldi on the speakers as long as he receives a warning phone call. It’s a perfect perch for vice and debauchery, wrapped in an immense yardage of black velvet drape.

Larry, having had a taste of the excitement of an illicit secret, spends increasing amounts of time in the black room. From hitchhiking students to call girls, he’s on the make with any and every woman he can find. His trysts starts out relatively vanilla, but edge further into drugs, drink, and kink as time progresses. By the time he hooks up with Jason’s sister, Bridget (Cassandra Gava) Larry is being ridden about the room like a bull while covered in elaborate body paint. Each night, Larry comes home to Robin and tells her a sexy bedtime story, leading her to believe the black room is just a fantasy roleplay exercise they share.

Larry is so caught up in his assorted affairs that he doesn’t realize that Jason’s mysterious illness is actually a form of vampirism, with a constant need for fresh donors for elaborate transfusions. Once Larry has had his fun with his latest fling, Larry and Bridget drain her in a much more horrific manner than sexual exhaustion. To add blackmail material to bloodletting, all of Larry’s extracurriculars have fueled Jason’s erotic photography hobby and Bridget’s taste for voyeurism.

Carelessly leaving the room keys and the original rental ad in the car, Robin discovers the black room is a real place and decides turnabout is perfectly fair play. If Larry can cavort with Bridget, she can seduce Jason, as well as the cuckolded boyfriend—played by a very young Christopher McDonald of Happy Gilmore fame— of one of Larry’s conquests.

Online databases list The Black Room’s release date as anywhere from 1982 to 1985, because of an intermittent distribution history. Stephen Thrower’s Nightmare U.S.A. places the actual filming at 1981, which would explain the lingering whiff of the 70s that hangs over the fashions, slang, and abundant fondness for hitchhiking that found their way into the final film. The plausible viability of rental rooms specifically for swingers —particularly one with a glowing coffee table surrounded by rutting ready floor pillows and black velvet— seems a definite relic of a more key party friendly era.

It’s easy to see why this movie would’ve struggled for financial backers for wider theatrical release, finally finding its most permanent home on video. While deeply sexual, the film’s action isn’t particularly sexy. None of the characters are easy to root for, and The Black Room doesn’t have the sort of clearcut survivors to facilitate a typical audience stand-in horror movie catharsis.

Larry is duplicitous and self centered. His various flings are thinly sketched caricatures. Jason and Bridget are serial killers, and even poor Robin only reaches any level of self actualization via spite and suffering. The only real innocents to be had are Larry’s bratty children and their non entity of a babysitter (played by a pre fame Linnea Quigley). Given that everyone else in the film is so deeply damaged, even the blameless parties nearly end up exsanguinated, too pure to exist as anything other than prey for the predatory.

Writer and co-director Norman Thaddeus Vane had lived more than his fair share of wild sexual misadventures and toxic personal relationships, from bedding his employer’s Penthouse Pets in rented rooms to a deeply questionable marriage to a teenage fashion model less than half his age. If there’s anything exquisite in such a bleak film, it is the finely drawn sexual politics of all of the various couplings, how sexual liberation can be both a smokescreen and a sidestep in the hands of broken individuals. The Black Room isn’t interested in punishing its principle characters for their non vanilla desires, but instead for their deep dishonesty in how they choose to approach them.

Larry’s Madonna/whore complex is abundantly clear, unable to separate Robin’s role as a wife and mother from her desires as an adult woman with value outside of those roles. A smarter man would be thrilled to have their partner so obviously open to sexual exploration, as she freely expresses her fetishes for leather and desire for the BDSM dynamics he has used on other partners. He could’ve hired a babysitter, or taken Robin to his new playspace rather than a random stranger. Instead, Larry considers his ability to have no strings sex as a given, then threatens to leave Robin when he discovers she can play the game of casual sex even more cleverly than he. She wastes no time gaining access to Larry’s debauchery sanctuary, and snatches up a few of his preferred partners along with it.

While I personally feel that The Black Room (along with 1973’s The Psychopath) is one of the endangered titles most deserving of rescue and restoration, there’s also a certain amount of mood that is helped along by the fact that the film only currently exists in the grainy VHS ether. The shaky editing and velvety darkness are only interrupted by flickering candlelight, spurts of bright red blood and flashes of discarded gold lamé on a sticky sex-stained floor. The audience is forced to be yet another layer of voyeurs watching the action unfold, the mood claustrophobic on both sides of the one way mirror.

The protagonists are all in their own private bondage, performing things they don’t quite feel long before the knots are tied or Jason’s camera is brought out. Larry is lost in his own fragile ego, Robin in her jealousy, Jason in his bloodlust. Bridget is terrified of Jason’s lingering illness leaving her alone in the world, the incest emotional (if not explicitly literal) . There’s some forms of pain you can’t fuck away, some regrets that can’t be purified by the lashes of the penitent.

The 80s slasher film boom would soon flood screens with super sex negative teen cautionary tales, but The Black Room is an adult film, in the broad sense. Its horrors are the sort that only come from experience, the last guest at a party realizing there’s nothing but regrets and a hangover coming with the sunrise. The freewheeling 70s were over. There’s an eerie, creeping prescience (no matter how accidental it may be) to the film’s specific choice to incorporate medical procedures and needles into its version of vampiric lore and imagery, even if none of the elements come together in the final reel.

While the the impending horror of the AIDS epidemic didn’t yet have a universally agreed upon name in 1981, there was already something lurking in the darkness, that would use any means necessary — sex, drugs, or otherwise— to get into your blood and turn you into a voiceless shadow of your former self. To add tragedy to terror, even those who managed to survive long enough to attempt a warning would find themselves consumed long before being heard or believed. When there is no one left to answer the call, the finest wine dries to dregs and even the brightest candles burn out, leaving nothing but the inky black.

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