Secret of the Blue Room (1933) used to be standard fare on TV in the days when “Shock Theater” and other horror-centric late shows were common. Since such programs — especially the double-feature ones — ran through movies at a rapid clip, it was standard practice to pad the shows with movies that weren’t quite horror, but were close enough to fit. This is where Secret of the Blue Room entered the scene — and horror movie history. It’s really an old dark house — or castle, in this case — mystery, but it looks like a Universal horror, sounds like one, and was generally embraced by the horror community. Unfortunately, it’s rather fallen by the wayside in recent years because it lacks the market value of one of the studio’s “monster” movies and doesn’t boast a major horror star, though it certainly has a solid cast of old favorites.
The film was made at an odd time when Lionel Atwill was briefly a major horror star. Secret of the Blue Room comes hot on the heels of Doctor X (1932), The Vampire Bat (1933), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Murders in the Zoo (1933), and The Sphinx (1933). But it cast him as a red herring who is never a very serious candidate for being unmasked as the killer in the final reel. In fact, the most suspect thing he does is give his daughter (Gloria Stuart) a pretty unfatherly birthday kiss at the beginning of the movie. But he plays it all with agreeable aplomb and an air of sort of justified mystery. The film seems more interested in trying to establish Paul Lukas as a romantic lead (that never really worked) and grooming Edward Arnold for improbable stardom (and that did work for about three years). None of this, however, keeps the film from being a very entertaining movie with terrific atmosphere.
The story concerns Stuart’s three suitors — Lukas, Onslow Stevens, William Janney — opting to prove their bravery by each spending a night in the castle’s supposedly haunted blue room, which had previously been the scene of three never explained deaths. Not unreasonably, Atwill has kept the chamber locked for years, and only reluctantly agrees to this idea. And, of course, this turns out to be a very bad idea — otherwise, there’d be no story. The secret itself — that is, who’s behind it all — is not that hard to guess, but the film is filled with all manner of other, less obvious revelations along the way, which add to the level of interest. It may not be one of the truly great horror movies, but it’s certainly a good one that ought to reclaim its place — however honorary — in the classic horror pantheon.