Our friends at Eureka! In the UK have released a terrific new set of some of legendary horror star Boris Karloff’s most enjoyable B-movies of the 1930s and early 1940s; a staple on Shock Theatre TV shows throughout the heyday of TV horror hosts, and now they’re back in a gorgeous new package that is sure to be a contender for our Release of the Year – check back in December.
First, capsule views of the six films, all of which are making their worldwide Blu-ray debut…
The Black Room (1935) Dir. Roy William Neill
Twins sons are born to royalty in a crusty 18th century Eastern European village, bad news all 'round because there's a prophesy and a family curse and all that. Want to know more? Read THIS on the family crest: "Principio et Finem Similia". THERE! Doesn't THAT make your blood run cold?!?!?
Specifically, the family began with twins and the younger killed the elder, and everyone's always said that the family will end the same way (you know how villagers love to gossip) so when twins come along the nice one, Boris Karloff, is sent abroad so that the older one, Boris Karloff, who becomes Baron by virtue of being a tad faster out of the womb, can rule in peace, although he grows up to be a very nasty man who rapes and murders women and tosses their bodies down a pit he keeps in a "black room" of the castle and say, Mr. Karloff (both of them) pronounce it "kaw-sell" and it's just the CUTEST thing. Well, eventually Karloff the Younger is summoned back by Karloff the Elder, who has a despicable plot in mind, part of which entails wooing lovely Marian Marsh by taking her away from her lover, a boring soldier who dresses like The Student Prince.
This was a one-shot picture for Columbia; the studio was probably testing the waters to see if horror films had legs, but it wasn’t much of a success (for some reason, the critics savaged it, even though it’s an excellent picture) and it would be four years before the studio brought Karloff back. Robert Allen (who later became "Bob 'Tex' Allen") is Soldier Boy; he and Miss Marsh went right from this to Crime and Punishment for the studio.
For the first time since The Mummy Karloff gets to carry a picture pretty much all by himself and does so with great success. Fine direction by Roy William Neill, too. One of our favorites in the genre.
The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) Dir. Nick Grinde
Following his success in Universal’s Son of Frankenstein, Karloff headed back to Columbia for what's become known as his series of "mad scientist" roles, four enjoyable B movies (with interchangeable titles). In each, he seems to play a kindly old professor whose work is ignored or sneered at by humanity, causing awful, awful things to happen. Most of us, I assume, love B movies or we wouldn't be here in the Balcony.
Karloff invents an artificial heart (science-fiction in those days) and is going try it out on a volunteer, the boyfriend of Boris' nurse. Well, she is fearful for his life and runs to the cops, who interrupt the operation, resulting in the kid staying dead more permanently than Karloff had planned. He's convicted and hanged for the crime, but his assistant, Byron Foulger, revives him (and how an artificial heart can revive a broken neck, they don't tell us). Karloff plots revenge against various people he blames, with a reporter known as (of course) "Scoop" on his trail.
Nurse to boyfriend: "Don't you realize he's going to KILL you? That you're going to DIE?"
Boyfriend to Nurse: "That sounds a lot tougher than it is."
In a plot twist I thought was stolen from Agatha Christie except "Ten Little Indians" wasn't published until a few weeks after this film was released, Karloff tricks his victims into coming together in a mansion sealed off from the outside world, and begins killing them off one by one. It's not REVENGE, though, he tells us: it's RETRIBUTION, you see.
More Million-dollar Dialog:
Daughter: "You only have to show yourself and the world will beg your forgiveness!"
Mad Scientist Father: "Not THIS world of savage cruelty. We gave them wings to fly and they rained death on us. We gave them a voice to be heard around the world and they preach hatred to poison the minds of nations. Even the medicine we gave them to ease their pain is turned into a vise to enslave mankind for the profit of a few. Don't you see? Every gift that science has given them has been twisted into a thing of hate and greed."
Wow. He's right. Damn.
After this, Boris went back to Universal to rejoin Roland V. Lee and Basil Rathbone for a big production, Tower of London; wonder if he lunched in the commissary with Bela Lugosi, who was making The Phantom Creeps?
The Man with Nine Lives (1940) Dir. Nick Grinde
Probably my favorite of all the films in the collection. Dr. Mason (Roger Pryor) is working on experiments in freezing cancer patients and destroying the bad cells, following up on the work of a mysterious Dr. Kravaal, who disappeared a decade earlier. Mason and his fiancé/nurse decide to go looking for Kravaal, and poke around his rotting house on a small island on the U.S./Canadian border. There, the nurse falls through the rotting floorboard and they discover an ice cave in which Kravaal and a party of lawmen have been frozen for 10 years. Thawed, Kravaal decides to recreate his experiment, but he's going to need plenty of human guinea pigs; lucky he's got a bunch of unwilling ones on hand.
Nobody is going to claim that The Man with Nine Lives is a really good movie. Actually, it's really dumb. But it's irresistibly so; the science is so daffy, the actors are so weirdly cast, and the story is such hokum that it's impossible not to enjoy every reel of the darn thing. I love Dr. Mason's experiment, which opens the film: they freeze a woman for a week by putting ice cubes on her chest, pointing electric fans at her, and taking her temperature with a thermometer that never touches her body. Oh, and get this: they thaw her out by (you're gonna think I'm kidding; I'm not) pouring hot coffee down her throat through a funnel. And Dr. Mason himself! In a part that calls for, oh, Robert Lowery, we get Roger Pryor, who looks like the illegitimate son of Franklin Pangborn and Og Oggilby. And it's even fun to watch this "cancer doctor" leave the operating room and immediately light up a Chesterfield. What a fun movie!
The ice vaults are a VERY impressive set and the film is well made, good sound, a nice musical score, and Karloff once again is very good (and is made up to look like Trotsky, for some reason).
It’s a wonder people didn’t think they were seeing a reissue, though. The Man they Could Not Hang with Byron Foulger in a key role, and Boris Karloff as Dr. Savaard, a scientist who found an unusual way to kill a man and then bring him back to life, but scoffing scientists arrested him, causing the death of his subject and leading Karloff on a mad rage of murder. Roger Pryor co-starred. The Man with Nine Lives gives us Byron Foulger, with Boris as Dr. Kravaal, a scientist who found an unusual way to kill a man and then bring him back to life, but scoffing scientists arrested him, causing the death of his subject and leading Karloff on a mad rage of murder. Roger Pryor co-starred.
And some people say they can't tell these movies apart!
Before I Hang (1940) Dir. Nick Grinde
And a few months later we’re back; Karloff has invented a nifty serum that can roll back the aging process, but he’s also convicted of the mercy killing of one of his subjects, a terminally ill patient. In the prison lab, he manages to perfect his serum, but makes the mistake of injecting himself with blood that came from a just-hanged serial killer. Whoops. His scientific achievement rates him a full pardon, and the killer’s blood rates him a string of strangulation victims, including old buddy Eddie Van Sloan, reunited from their days together on Frankenstein and The Mummy.
Bruce Bennett and Evelyn Keyes provide support, and that's not bad right there for your 62 minutes of entertainment, is it?
Death-row Mad Scientist Talk: "Fortunately, I'm not to be electrocuted, and hanging does not affect the cells."
The Devil Commands (1941) Dir. Edward Dmytryk
On January 10, 1941, a new play opened at the Fulton (later Helen Hayes) Theatre on Broadway: a black comedy by Joseph Kesselring about a pair of sweet but murderous old ladies and their goofy brothers, including one who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt and another who's a criminal on the lam and who received plastic surgery to hide his identity: but the darn inept plastic surgeon made him look just like Boris Karloff! Arsenic and Old Lace became one of the great success stories of the American theatre, playing for three and a half years, giving Boris, who plays... well, guess which brother... a whole new career. A month later, Boris' new film debuted, the penultimate one under his Columbia contract, and it's one of his best, probably thanks to director Dmytryk, who would go on to Murder, My Sweet, Crossfire, and The Caine Mutiny.
Boris is a nice old scientist experiment with the recording of brain wave patterns; when his wife dies in an accident but her pattern shows up on instruments anyway, he sets about perfecting his instruments to communicate with her. His obsession leads to a phony spiritualist who has a gift but not in the way she thinks; the story skips a couple of years ahead, and we find Boris and her in a full-scale bad scientist laboratory full of corpses wearing metal bonnets, creating an electrical "brainstorm" that looks like a tornado. Even an electrical backfire that turns Boris' handyman into a moron doesn't slow down the experiments, but Karloff's estranged daughter and her boyfriend contact the cops and the brainstorm shakes loose, and yeah, this movie IS absolutely as stunningly weird as it sounds, particularly because the whole thing is narrated by the daughter (Amanda Duff) in an oh-so-grave-and-ponderous voice.
"Perhaps the time will come when the door to infinity will open. Perhaps. Perhaps."
Unlike most of these "mad scientist" pictures of the day, some genuine shocks; Boris' dead wife walks in the door, he does a double take, and the camera cuts back to the daughter standing there in her mother's place. And the housekeeper getting locked into the corpse room'll give ya nightmares. Highly entertaining film.
The Boogie Man will Get You (1942) Dir. Lew Landers
Finally, we close off with a pretty lame attempt to recreate the magic of Arsenic and Old Lace. Karloff is the wacky scientist with a cellar full of corpses, Peter Lorre is his sidekick, [Miss] Jeff Donnell is the young divorcee attempting to turn Karloff's house into an inn, Larry Parks is her prone-to-hysteria ex-husband, and Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom is the next victim.
Boris is pleasant in a doddering old role; Lorre gets the film's only laughs as the town doctor/sheriff/mayor, and Parks is awful. Maude Eburne as Karloff's old aunt in the picture seems about 10 years younger than he does.
Old Aunt: "When he was a baby, he never cried, not even when we dropped him."
It's nice to have Boris back in pictures; it had been nearly two years (The Devil Commands) since a new Karloff film. He owed Columbia one picture on his old contract, and they insisted he fulfill it while his star was still a-blaze on Broadway and so Erich Von Stroheim subbed for him in Arsenic while he flew to Hollywood to make this thing. The N.Y. Post congratulated Boris on his Broadway success but said, "Frightening people in the theatres takes more ingenuity and adroitness than the authors of this screenplay put into it."
Not a horrible film, but a misfire and a pale shadow of Arsenic. One really needs to sit back and enjoy seeing Boris, Lorre and Slapsie Maxie and the room full of electrical equipment and not fret about the script to find enjoyment here.
The Eureka! Set
Eureka! gives us the six films across two Region B Blu-rays and manages to keep the image and sound quality at a top level despite the age of the material while still piling on the bonus material. All six films include commentary; we were going to just sample them, but ended up enjoying writers Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby so much on The Black Room that we ended up listening to the entire thing, which will give you some idea of the quality. (The duo does commentary on Before I Hang and The Boogie Man as well, with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones handling the other three films.)
There are also extensive image galleries for each film and perhaps best of all, a thick 48 page booklet with a series of well-written essays on the films.
Our highest Balcony recommendation. This is going to give us many years of enjoyment.