Born in 1887 in Surrey, England, William Henry Pratt would eventually change his name to Boris Karloff and wind up becoming one of the most important figures that the world of horror cinema has ever known. Although he had been in films since as early as 1919, it wasn’t until his legendary turn as the Frankenstein monster in the classic Universal film of 1931 that Karloff’s career really got off the ground. Between then and the end of his career, in 1968, Karloff appeared in hundreds of films, both on the big screen and on television, around 60 of which served to cement his reputation as one of horror’s all-time greats. I have already written here at some length regarding a few of his films – The Walking Dead (1936), Isle of the Dead (1945, and a personal fave), Voodoo Island (1957) and Frankenstein – 1970 (1958), not to mention his wonderful contributions as host of the Thriller! TV program of the early 1960s – and in today’s Shocktober column would like to shine a brief light on six more of Karloff’s lesser-discussed pictures. Need I even mention that each and every one of these might make for perfect fare during this spookiest season of the year?
You’d think that folks would realize that it doesn’t pay to get Boris Karloff ticked off! Well, this British film was made way back in ’33, so I suppose that the characters in The Ghoul have some excuse. In this film, Karloff plays an Egyptologist who, on his deathbed, instructs his servant to bury him with a jewel that will confer immortality on his soul. Said servant later pilfers this gem from Karloff’s corpse, and so Boris comes back from the dead, and boy, is he P.O.ed! Unfortunately, what sounds in synopsis to be a zinger of a horror movie turns out to be a rather middling affair. The picture, as directed by T. Hayes Hunter, has a slow start, and drags whenever Karloff isn’t on screen. The direction of the picture is fairly stiff and unimaginative, but what’s worse is the fact that there’s an abundance of lame comedy. Nothing torpedoes a film faster for me than lame humor. On the plus side, we have some beautiful B&W photography, shown to good advantage on the crisp-looking DVD that I recently watched, and some wonderful acting support. Ernest Thesiger, perhaps best known for his turn in Bride of Frankenstein two years later, is excellent here as Karloff’s servant; Cedric Hardwicke is his usual hissable self; and Ralph Richardson, here in his debut film role, supplies a nice surprise ending. The makeup job on Karloff is also first rate and, well, ghoulish. Still, despite all this, I found the film a disappointment. Viewers would be well advised to rent out a later British Karloff vehicle, The Man Who Changed His Mind, a real minimasterpiece, instead. This one is for Karloff completists only.
As it turns out, Bride of Frankenstein wasn’t the only great film that Boris Karloff appeared in in 1935. That same year, in The Black Room, he played twin aristocrats – Gregor de Berghmann, the beastly ruler of an early 19th century Hungarian hamlet, and Anton, his kindly brother – and is quite excellent in both roles. The brothers live under the shadow of an ancient prophecy that the younger (Anton) will one day kill the other, but the viewer will never foresee how this prophecy will play out, much less the picture’s numerous twists and turns. Besides Boris’ superb contribution in his dual roles, The Black Room also features extremely handsome production values, imaginative lensing deploying interesting camera angles and appropriate (given the twins theme) mirror shots, and a compact, suspenseful story. The film is a concise little gem as directed by Roy William Neill, a minor masterpiece, and the supremely crisp-looking DVD that I recently watched it on makes for a perfect showcase.
THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939)
This film, directed by Nick Grinde, resides on the same DVD disc as The Black Room, in another lush-looking print, and is a lesser but still mighty fun Karloff vehicle. In The Man They Could Not Hang, Boris plays Dr. Henryk Savaard, a scientist who develops an artificial heart decades before Barney Clark received his Jarvik-7 in 1982. After one of Savaard’s young male volunteers dies on the operating table during a police raid, the scientist is found guilty of murder and hung. Good thing that his lab assistant is able to bring him back using that glass heart; but too bad Boris now has an overwhelming lust to kill the judge and jury that had found him guilty… This film is extremely similar to Boris’ The Man With Nine Lives (1940), and even features several of the same character actors, but it moves along briskly and Karloff is again wonderful (particularly during his courtroom pleas). In short, this film, paired with The Black Room on the same DVD, makes for a superb double feature that I can highly recommend.
THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES (1940)
I have a feeling that many of us have entertained the whimsical notion, as we dragged ourselves to work in the morning, that it might be nice to have hot coffee fed intravenously into our systems. Well, in the misleadingly titled Boris Karloff vehicle The Man With Nine Lives (1940), we get to see that such a procedure might be as pleasant as imagined. In this picture, experimental patients of one Dr. Mason, who’s looking to cure cancer victims via cryogenics, are brought out of deep freeze in just that manner! Dr. Mason and his nurse fiancée soon discover the body of cryogenics pioneer Dr. Leon Kravaal, 100 feet underground in a Canadian ice cave, where he’d been laying frozen – a corpsicle – for a full decade. Dr. Kravaal (played by Karloff, of course, in still another of his overly ardent scientist roles) is remarkably brought back to life, and begins his scientific pursuits anew. Anyway, this film, directed by Nick Grinde, is a fairly restrained affair, impeccably acted by its small cast, economically written, nicely photographed, and finely captured on the pristine-looking DVD that I recently watched. The goateed Kravaal, likable at first, grows increasingly deranged as the film progresses, but still manages to hold the audience’s sympathies; a brilliant scientist using unethical methods to achieve great ends. Despite the far-fetched central conceit of the possibility of freezing a man indefinitely and bringing him back to life, the movie is fairly believable; a testament to its intelligent script and fine players. But wait … did I say “far-fetched”? I have a feeling that Walt Disney, Ted Williams and thousands of frozen sperm cells the world over might disagree with that sentiment!
In The Climax, directed by George Waggner, Boris plays Dr. Friedrich Hohner, the physician at the turn-of-the-century Viennese Royal Theatre. After murdering his prima donna girlfriend, he keeps her body preserved for a decade and then hypnotizes the newest soprano sensation into believing she can’t sing. Boris is as good as usual, but he hasn’t much to do here and seems not nearly sinister enough. The always likeable Turhan Bey and the always interesting Gale Sondergaard provide sterling support, but the film’s main drawing card has to be its remarkably sumptuous sets and lush Technicolor (this was Karloff’s first color film, I believe), combining for a real visual treat. The film also gives us one of the most unusual-looking flashbacks I’ve ever seen. Still, those lengthy operetta sequences, though a feast for the eyes, hardly appeal to the ears. But that’s just me … I’ve never been a fan of Jeanette MacDonald-style warbling.
THE BLACK CASTLE (1952)
In the 1951 Gothic melodrama The Strange Door, Boris Karloff played a subsidiary role, that of Voltan, the hulking manservant of the wicked Squire de Maletroit (Charles Laughton, in a deliciously evil performance). In his next film, 1952’s The Black Castle, another Gothic melodrama with horror trappings, Karloff again took a backseat, playing another grotesque servant to a wicked castle owner. In the latter film, Boris plays a medical man named Dr. Meissen, a retainer of the castle’s eye-patched owner, the Count Karl von Bruno (played with relish by Stephen McNally), deep in the Black Forest. To this gloomy abode (in what appears to be the late 18th century) comes a handsome Englishman, Sir Ronald Burton (hunky Richard Greene), purportedly to go hunting on the count’s estate, but in actuality seeking two comrades who he believes the count had murdered. And Sir Ronald certainly does find a lot more than he’d been looking for, in this surprisingly well-done little film. The Black Castle throws quite a bit into its brief 82 minutes to ensure a good time. It is well acted by its entire cast (McNally makes for an excellent, hissable villain, although he does not seem especially Germanic; Greene is quite dashing and likable; Paula Corday is quite fetching as the count’s miserably downtrodden wife) and features some striking B&W photography. Director Nathan Juran – who, later that decade, would endear himself to psychotronic-film fans by helming such wonderful entertainments as 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Brain From Planet Arous and the camp classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman – utilizes interesting camera angles to give his film an off-kilter look, and his use of light and shadow is masterly. For a “B picture,” the film looks terrific, and, like The Strange Door, features an extremely exciting and suspenseful windup. As for those above-mentioned horror trappings, they are there in both the presences of Karloff AND Lon Chaney, Jr. (here playing Gargon, a shambling mute, and sadly underused), as well as the inclusion of an eerie leopard hunt, a dungeon filled with hungry alligators, a drug that simulates death, and a double premature burial … not to mention some nifty swordplay and assorted murders. Truth to tell, I really did enjoy this picture, and cannot understand why the Maltin Classic Movie Guide terms it “uninspired,” or why even my beloved Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film calls it “tame, dull Gothic horror.” The film is hardly tame, never dull, and features some truly inspired action scenes and situations. Or maybe I’m just easier to please than some others. True, when compared to several of Boris’ other “black pictures” – such as 1934’s The Black Cat, 1935’s The Black Room and 1963’s Black Sabbath – the picture comes off second best, but those others are bona fide horror classics. The Black Castle is not in that rarefied league (how many horror films are?) but remains a memorable and exciting chiller/thriller nevertheless. It is highly recommended to all genre buffs!
So there you have it, FanLit viewers … a half dozen films starring Boris Karloff that will really help you get in the mood for this Shocktober season. Even the lesser ones in this bunch have something to offer all fans of vintage horror! I do hope you get to enjoy them!