A Room That Kills

"Something happens in this house, and no living soul knows what it is, for they who have seen it have never yet survived to tell the tale. It's not more than a week back that a young gentleman came here. He was like you, bold as brass, and he too wanted a bed, and would take no denial. I told him plain, and so did my man, that the place was haunted. He didn't mind no more than you mind. Well, he slept in the only room we have got for guests, and he—he died there."
- Liz (L.T. Meade & Robert Eustace's "The Mystery of the Circular Chamber," from A Master of Mysteries, 1898) 
Secret of the Blue Room is a black and white movie thriller/detective from 1933 and was based on a German movie from the previous year, Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers, which received two additional remakes by Universal – one as The Missing Guest in 1938 and the other as Murder in the Blue Room in 1944.

The original remake of the German movie was considered to be a lost movie, before it apparently resurfaced some years ago and now you can even watch it on YouTube.

Secret of the Blue Room attracted my attention when reading a glowing review describing the movie as "a gem of a locked-room mystery" with a "tight-as-a-drum plot" that "doesn't have an ounce of fat to it and moves quickly." Well, that was all the encouragement needed to make this movie a priority and the first half was like seeing Carter Dickson's The Red Widow Murders (1935) or Helen McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968) spring to life!

The location of the movie is an old, medieval castle in the possession of Robert von Helldorf (Lionel Atwill), Lord of the Manor, who's hosting a birthday party for his daughter, Irene (Gloria Stuart), and invited three of her friends and potential suitors – Captain Walter Brinks (Paul Lukas), reporter Frank Faber (Onslow Stevens) and a young cub named Thomas Brandt (William Janney).

They have a gay old time, playing the piano and singing songs, but when they sit down for drinks and cigarettes the conversation turns to the subject of ghosts. Lord von Helldorf is pressed by the party to tell the story of the Blue Room, which harbors a tragic and bloody history. Von Helldorf's sister and best friend died under peculiar circumstances in the Blue Room and suicide appeared as unfeasible as murder, because motives and means were lacking.

A third tragedy happened when "a detective made up his mind to spend a night in the blue room," but in the morning they found him on the floor "with his face frozen in a look of agonizing horror." He had died of fright! The room was locked and remained unopened for twenty years.

The three suitors want to prove their courage to Irene and decide to each spend a night alone in the murderous room, but the place lives up to its reputation and Brandt is the first to go. There was only key to the room and it was stuck in the lock from the inside. The open window had a drop of several feet and landed in a moat, but the body is not found and suicide is as unlikely as murder – just like twenty years ago!  

Note for the curious here: Secret of the Blue Room is a low-budget movie and this was apparent when they forced the door by ever so gingerly nudging it, because I suspect everything around them might have come crashing down had they applied any real force to the set piece. A door that can be forced that easily can be opened and closed with a large paperclip. Anyhow...

After having absorbed its first victim in two decades, the room truly awakens from dormancy and Faber is shot there while playing on the piano. A gun vanishes from the room after it was locked and Irene is attacked by a mysterious man, which is the point where they decide to call in the police – arriving in the form of Commissioner Forster (Edward Arnold).

The questioning of the occupants and servants of the castle by Commissioner Forster is interspersed with vignettes from the servant quarters, populated by some enjoyable characters, before the room is being investigated and several traps are sprung – ending with a gunfight between the murderer and last remaining suitor inside the castle.

Secret of the Blue Room is an unpretentious, well-paced compound of the thriller and mystery genre with elements of the classic horror story with its dark, wind battered castle, but robbed itself of a classic status by plundering the moth-eaten bag of tricks from the late 1800s for the explanation. A seasoned mystery addict will recognize the bits and pieces borrowed from Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and "The Empty House," from The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1903), but the overall movie was too charming and fun to care about the punctuation marks that ended it. The plot may've been littered with old tropes, but the movie used them very well.

So if you ever wondered how stories in the spirit of Wadsworth Camp's The Abandoned Room (1917) and John Dickson Carr's "The Devil's Saint," collected in The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983), translates to the screen... well... you'll be able to waste a fun little hour on this movie.

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