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The Door with Seven Locks (1962)
Before the giallo, there was the krimi – West German crime films frequently based on the works of British novelist Edgar Wallace and his son Bryan Edgar Wallace. These movies were marked by their sensationalistic content and their tendency to skirt the horror genre when they weren't plunging headlong into it. Alfred Vohrer's The Door with Seven Locks (German title: Die Tür mit den 7 Schlösser) is a horror-skirter, but it also skirts nearly every other genre that doesn't involve bursting into song or traveling back in time. If it can conceivably be stuffed into a pulp crime novel, it's here. With so many weird plot elements flying around, The Door with Seven Locks often feels a little breathless, but it's quite enjoyable if you don't bother with thinking through its various twists and contrivances.
Based on Edgar Wallace's novel of the same name (previously adapted in Britain in 1940), The Door with Seven Locks follows Detective Dick Martin of Scotland Yard (Heinz Drache) as he attempts to solve a pair of murders connected by the identical keys found on the victims' bodies. Somehow tied into this is the fantastic story that nervous safecracker Pheeny (Klaus Kinski) tells, right before he's killed, about a door with seven locks. Somehow tied into that is the estate of the late Lord Selford, Selford’s world-traveling heir, and his pretty cousin, Sybil (Sabine Sesselmann). But the plot threads get knottier still, because there's also a lumbering brute (Ady Berber) who enjoys making people dead, a conspiracy to steal the inheritance, two foreboding mansions, secret passages, a tank of snakes, the enigmatic Dr. Antonio Staletti (Pinkas Braun), and an ape in a cage.
Oh yes, there's an ape in a cage. We'll get to that a little later.
The general throughline of The Door with Seven Locks is roughly the same as in Wallace's novel, which presents no problems if you like your detective stories unfocused. To start, Seven Locks is not content with one perpetrator and a passel of easily absolved red herrings. Not only are there multiple suspects, but most of them are all guilty at one level or another. Additionally, at various points the importance of the keys to unlock the door of the title is raised and then completely dropped, with the focus either switching to the missing Selford heir, another murder attempt, tense interrogation, or a thrilling fight. The MacGuffin, an object of importance to the characters but not to the audience, is nothing new; Hitchcock was quite fond of them, but in his films there was rarely more than one. Seven Locks tries to keep two (or three if you count the door and the keys separately) MacGuffins going at once and as a result none feel particularly organic.
Screenwriter Harald G. Petersson's few attempts to introduce changes to Wallace's story simply add new, more ridiculous complications. For example, in the novel, Sybil comes to the police after having her life threatened. Probably to give his two leads a chance to flirt, Petersson chooses to have Martin meet Sybil by random chance at a library where he's researching a coat of arms. After she retrieves the requested information for him in record time, she reveals that she is a poor relation of the Selfords and thus a key figure in Martin's investigation! Who would have thought it, that of all the library clerks in all the libraries in London, Martin happens to bump into the one who is terribly likely to be targeted for murder or kidnaping by the same people the detective is after? Craziness! Additionally, there is a major alteration to what lies beyond the eponymous portal, which I won't detail here for fear of spoilers, suffice to say that the switch renders the mystery in the movie extremely convoluted at best and non-sensical at worst.
Petersson also assigns the villainous Dr. Staletti a new, edgy-sounding field of study -- “constructive biology” -- which gives the climax a manic sci-fi/horror angle that really works. Well, when I say “works,” I don't exactly mean “makes a lick of sense” -- Staletti has an ingenious plan to increase the intelligence of humankind by... grafting their heads onto the bodies of apes. While this solution would certainly help those afflicted by a total lack of unsightly body hair, it wouldn't do a thing for their brainpower. No, by “works”, I mean “is utterly nuts.” There's an ape in a cage, for the love of Mike, rattling the bars. Never gets out, never attacks anyone. Just sort of hangs out, like a warmly nostalgic leftover from a Poverty Row mad science flick starring Bela Lugosi or George Zucco.
That's not the first time that horror pops up in Seven Locks, however. One could argue that the genre's influence hangs over the whole film, even in the parts more easily compared to a generic crime thriller. Credit for that goes to director Alfred Vohrer, who directed more Edgar Wallace krimis over the course of his career than anyone else in his field. Vohrer's stark shadows, looming large over the action, maintain a sense of foreboding, even when the script doesn't. The director also has a knack for sinister camerawork that overwhelms the frame – a shot will begin focused on the lower two-thirds of a characters face to show their fear, and then zoom out to bring them into the action at large. This consummate visual stylist manages to keep the look of Seven Locks consistent even when the writing has a tendency to wander.
I'd like to take a second to recognize Heinz Drache's performance as the genial Inspector Martin, because it adds whole levels of enjoyment to the movie. Drache, a veteran of several krimis, plays his scenes with charisma and verve; a grin is never far from crinkling the corners of his eyes. Drache's Martin has a quick wit, an answer for everything, and a confidence that the seat of his pants is the only way to fly. While some of this is certainly in the script, it's Drache that really brings his character's part-cop, part-con artist attitude to reality.
The Door with Seven Locks sometimes feels as though it was written by someone with Attention Deficit Disorder, but the direction, thankfully, is far less given to meandering and the performance by the lead actor is riveting. The result is a film that is consistently entertaining and exasperating. Watch this movie for Vohrer's crisp black-and-white visuals, Drache's assured acting, and the nutty plot twists. Just don't expect to find any solid logic behind The Door with Seven Locks.
This review is part of German Horror Week, the third of five celebrations of international horror done for our Shocktober 2008 event.