GORE IN THE STORE
KARLOFF AT COLUMBIA *****
Directed by Roy William Neil, Nick Grinde, Edward Dmytryk, Lew Landers.
Starring Boris Karloff, Anne Revere, Edward Van Sloan, Miriam Marsh, Peter Lorre, Amanda Duff, Evelyn Ankers.
USA 1935-1942 Certificate: 12 Total Running Time 400 mins
Released on Limited-Edition Blu-Ray from Eureka Entertainment on May 2nd, 2021
Boris Karloff made three classic horror films in 1935: James Whale’s peerless black comedy sequel BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the playful Poe-inspired perversion THE RAVEN (featured on last year’s Eureka Classics Lugosi collection) and THE BLACK ROOM, the first of six movies he made for Columbia Pictures over a seven-year period, most slotting into the “Mad Scientist” sub-cycle. All six afford the horror legend plentiful opportunity to display his considerable screen presence and versatility while, simply, having a lot of fun.
After THE BLACK ROOM and Karloff’s subsequent THE WALKING DEAD (1936) for Warner’s, a backlash toward horror cinema – owing in large part to the British Censors’ characteristically Fascist attitude to the medium – ensured a genre drought. It was only relieved at the start of the war in 1939, when the successful reissue of Karloff’s early 1930s Universal monster movies ensured a lavish return to his most famous character via SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. If you’re a fan of Karloff, and classic monochrome horror in general, this sextet of vintage chillers will likely be among your favourite physical media releases of the year – particularly now that the days are long gone when vintage shockers would routinely play in the small hours on BBC2 or Channel 4.
Roy William Neill’s THE BLACK ROOM is the standout, with Karloff portraying twins dogged throughout life by a family curse prophesising that older brother Gregor will slay his slightly younger sibling Anton, in the eponymous room of their noble family’s castle. Upon reuniting for the first time in decades, the suave Anton indeed falls prey to the nefarious intentions of the lecherous, paranoid Baron Gregor – mostly so he can get his corrupt hands on beautiful harp-playing Colonel’s daughter Miriam Marsh (among the most radiant female leads of 30s horror). Rife with thunderstorms, ominously locked rooms and old pubs where the music stops playing as soon as Boris Karloff walks in, this macabre, briskly paced picture has Karloff relishing the contrast between the wine-quaffing, unkempt Gregor (note the suggestive pear eating) and the sympathetic, fey, partially paralysed Anton.
Three of the movies in this set were directed by Nick Grinde between 1939 and 1940 and possess easily confused titles. THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939) sees Karloff’s world-respected scientist sentenced to death for a fatality caused by his work with mechanical hearts. Following his execution – and his passionate monologues during the trial – members of the jury begin expiring in bizarre “suicides”. A particularly strong second half involves those responsible for his fate invited to a bizarre dinner party overseen (as a disembodied voice speaking from elsewhere in the house) by Karloff, portraying a wartime forerunner to the SAW series’ John Kramer. His carefully planned vengeance and ingenuity results in a series of clever death set pieces in quick succession.
Karloff is also sentenced to death in BEFORE I HANG (1940) as a convincingly aged, kindly scientist who inadvertently kills an elderly patient while working on a serum to extend human life. In his final three weeks, he begins experimenting on himself but makes the schoolboy error of using an executed murderer’s blood for the process. As with THE BLACK ROOM, this taut chiller gives the actor the chance to transition from saintly gent to dead-eyed killer – and there is a terrific travelling shot revealing his murderous alter-ego rapping at the door late one fog-enshrouded night. Karloff’s subtly shifting mannerisms and physical changes as he morphs into a sweaty strangler impress, though Grinde sure had a way with compact quickie thrillers: a stylistic highlight is a double murder in a shadowy laboratory.
The third Karloff-Grinde union, THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES (1940), sees him on another radical medical mission: the development of frozen therapy to cure cancer. Frozen for ten years on the Canadian border and revived by medical researcher Roger Pryor, Karloff finds his efforts to resurrect his project hindered by sceptical / jealous rivals. This tidy containment piece slightly fizzles out at the end but displays a neat line in gallows humour (“Nicest collection of certain death I’ve ever seen!”) and striking visuals of a frozen research station.
The long-underrated, highly atmospheric New England-set THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941) is hauntingly narrated in flashback by Amanda Duff, whose father (guess who?) is a famous science professor whose work on recording the impulses of the human brain evolves when his beloved wife is killed in a road accident. With a scene-stealing, sinister Anne Revere as a duplicitous medium and an evocative coastal locale, this builds to a splendidly creepy final act as the grieving husband’s lofty ambitions generate an angry mob en route to an eerily resonant conclusion.
Lew Landers’ engagingly off the wall THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942) offers Karloff gamely sending up the Mad Doctor archetype as a genteel scientist attempting to create a “superman” for the war effort in the basement of his crumbling 18th century tavern. The script deftly balances physical comedy – worm-eaten steps, toppling old furniture – with wordplay (“I touched it! A dead corpse!”) and genuinely demented jokes. This is your only chance to see Karloff exclaim with glee “Look! Powderpuffs!” during an inspired interlude with an under-achieving travelling salesman. Best of all is his interaction with the great Peter Lorre – portraying the black-clad local Doctor, who also doubles as the town coroner, Justice of the Peace, Sheriff, Mayor and Mortgage Broker, a little like Miss Rabbit in PEPPA PIG.
Eureka’s two-disc set has a collector’s booklet with first-class analysis from Karloff biographer Stephen Jacobs and an enjoyable overview of Karloff’s Columbia period from the always engaging Jon Towlson. The six films, receiving their worldwide Blu-ray premiere, look and sound terrific. Each comes adorned with a commentary track by the reliably entertaining, knowledgeable duo of either Kim Newman & Stephen Jones or Jonathan Rigby & Kevin Lyons. These esteemed genre scholars provide context, trivia and bags of enthusiasm for a delightful collection of short, witty creepers long overdue such loving attention.