When the wealthy Lord Selford dies, he is entombed with a valuable collection of jewels. Seven keys are required to unlock the tomb and release the treasure, but a series of mysterious events cause them to be scattered. The Canadian heiress to the Selford fortune attempts to unravel the circumstances, but she and her fellow investigators find themselves caught in a terrifying web of deceit, torture and murder
The McGuffin is the essential element for every thriller. The object that propels the plot and pushes the characters on their journey. For Norman Lee's 1940 thriller Chamber of Horrors, the McGuffin is a strong one, seven keys that open seven looks to a tomb containing untold riches. It's a terrific setup for a classic "who done it?" murder mystery. Unfortunately, the final results are less than thrilling as the short runtime fails to adequately manage the numerous characters and build suspense.
The head of an ancient house is about to die. Knowing his impending death, he's set up an elaborate plan to ensure his heirs receive their due fortune. Seven keys will unlock his tomb and only when all seven keys have been properly distributed will his last will and testament be rendered. But what happens when the people who hold the keys die before the rightful heir is found? Through happenstance, June Lansdowne (Lili Palmer) witnessed the murder of one of the key holders. With the help of detective Dick Martin (Romilly Lunge) and her flighty friend, Glenda (Gina Malo) aim to solve the murders and the mystery behind the keys. Their investigations lead them to the eccentric Dr. Manetta (Leslie Banks) and his collection of ancient torture devices!
Clocking in at the average runtime for a feature film of about 89 minutes, Chamber of Horrors feels altogether too short to work out all the intricate details it sets up. From the dark and stormy night intro to the claustrophobic conclusion, the film speeds along and only casually drops hints to the identity of various characters and their relationships to one another, but the film never really finds its footing. It feels choppy. Almost to the point where you feel like you're watching a truncated serial. Pieces of the story are there, but they don't quite come together to create a satisfying picture.
Where I will give Chamber of Horrors some measure of credit is creating a sustained sense of dread and suspense. The basic setup of the plot with the seven keys, the murders, and the basic mystery are all there. It's a gloomy film. It's got those canned thunderstorm sound effects and howling winds to give you a little chill down your spine. It's just, unfortunately, clunky to the point that this sense of eery suspense is constantly thwarted by oddly scripted chunks of exposition. This exposition, which should work to the film's favor by thickening the mystery and intrigue only shines a light on the true culprits so by the time they're unmasked, we the audience are already ten paces ahead. Even as unsatisfying as it was, I did enjoy the film's charms. It makes several early stabs at the gothic horror that would be perfected with Italian Giallo films.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Chamber of Horrors arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber through their Studio Classics label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc, the disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case and features reversible alternate artwork. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options. Also included is a booklet containing cover artwork for other Kino Lorber Studio Classics releases.
Chamber of Horrors sports a 1.33:1 1080p transfer that is best described as "good as it will get." Age and improper storage are evident from the very start. To look at it, you would swear that it was a silent film that had been archived on paper rolls and then rephotographed. Detail levels fluctuate scene to scene. One moment faces and costuming details look terrific, the next everything is awash in a crispy mess with jagged edges. The black and white presentation often appears with crushed blacks and supernova hot whites with very little grayscale separating them. Then there are some sequences in the middle and latter end of the film that genuinely look quite good for a film of this vintage. Scratching and speckling are evident throughout. Hardly an ideal viewing experience, it's not likely we'll see this film receive better treatment.
Featuring an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track, Chamber of Horrors earns middling marks in the audio department. Hiss and pops are frequent - but thankfully don't distract from the conversations. Dialogue is audible throughout but has a tinny lifeless quality to it at times. Sound effects are on the diegetic side of things, if you see an object you hear it, otherwise, it's complete silence. Without the moody and effective music score, I'd swear that there are sections of the film without any other recorded sound.
Outside of a great commentary track, the bonus content assembled for this release is little more than a collection of trailers.
Audio Commentary: Featuring Film Historian David Del Valle and Filmmaker Kenneth J. Hall
Donovan's Brain: (HD 2:02)
The Undying Monster: (HD1:04)
The Black Sleep: (HD 1:36)
White Zombie: (HD 2:46)
Chamber of Horrors has a solid premise to it, a great cast of convincing actors, but the low rent production values coupled with the sprawling storyline keeps the Horrors from truly taking shape. As a sort of murder mystery thriller, it has a lot going for it and classic movie nuts should enjoy the show. Kino Lorber brings Chamber of Horrors to Blu-ray in decent enough shape. The A/V quality is far from perfect, but it's watchable. I didn't love the movie, but I enjoyed it enough to suggest that the curious individuals out there give it a rent.