KARLOFF AT COLUMBIA – Disc Two: On Blu-ray 3rd May

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KARLOFF AT COLUMBIA: On Blu-ray 3RD MAY, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT

DISC TWO

 

 

 

 

BEFORE I HANG [1940]

RUNNING TIME: 62 mins

Dr. John Garth is sentenced to be hung for murder after performing a mercy killing on an elderly friend. He’d been researching a cure for aging but hadn’t had time to perfect it before his friend’s pain became unbearable. Warden Thompson allows Garth to continue his experiments until his execution. Aided by Dr. Ralph Howard and the blood from a murderous prisoner who’s just been killed, he succeeds in developing a serum that may reverse the effects of aging and asks Howard to test it on him. Just before his hanging, Garth’s sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, but even more astounding it that the serum has indeed made him younger. Unfortunately, it’s also made him have urges to kill….

It’s very obvious by now that these Mad Doctor films all follow a formula which is slightly varied with each instalment – and there really isn’t anything wrong with that. Part of the fun of going through franchises which do this sort of thing is seeing how things will be tweaked while we still get what we’ve come to expect and enjoy. Karloff always seems to be the clever doctor who has noble aims who has things and himself go wrong. We suffer with his characters and feel their frustration while becoming a bit frightened of him too, which of course is how it should be in a Karloff picture. We don’t know exactly who to side with, which is interesting, but more conservatively we also seem to be asked to feel worried about where science could go. This one utilises the old Alraune-type cliche of tainted blood tainting the person who’s given it, an idea which was probably believed by many at the time, though it’s handled in a fashion more like The Hands Of Orlac [best filmed as Mad Love]; the guy whose blood is inside Dr. Garth was a murderous strangler, so when Garth feels the attacks coming on he fiddles with his hands as they seem to take on a life of their own in the most chilling scenes that Karloff has played in the series so far. This ensures that this is rather more of a genuine horror movie than the first two, a feeling of fear taking over as we wonder when Garth will lose it again and who will die as a result. The most suspenseful scene, which is quite drawn out, is when Garth is about to inject a willing subject with the serum but is starting to turn and we’re on tenterhooks as to when he’s going to strike.

This time the trial is at the very beginning, with Garth telling the courtroom about what he’s been trying to do rather than us seeing it. This is fine, seeing how good Karloff is at speeches. Looking different in each one of these, he here wears quite convincing old age makeup while he enacts the appropriate mannerisms without overdoing them. This friendly, calm chap is just trying to help humanity and obviously didn’t want to kill his subject. But sentenced he is by a hypocritical judge who condemns the taking of human life in all ways before condemning Garth to be killed, though he keeps working in prison. Human cells are born to live forever but die when the body ages, and he’s convinced that a serum taken from such cells, mixed with blood, could stop the aging process. I do like the way that Karloff’s laboratory equipment in each one of these is largely different, here having some bizarrely shaped tubes as well as a Polynesian statue with machinery inside the stomach area. Garth gets Dr. Howard, well played by Edward van Sloan, to inject him, and seeing as this is just before he’s led off to be hung it seems like we’re going to have him coming back from the grave which would be a somewhat different outcome to what Garth was aiming for, but then the governor, no doubt due to Garth’s daughter Martha’s pleading, orders the execution stopped. Garth faints and awakes younger and fitter, but is then overcome by a desire to kill two people, a moment signaled by the first bit of music scoring. But he doesn’t remember doing this, and the authorities think that one man killed the other and was then killed by Garth in self-defense. Especially now that his experimenting has seemingly had some success, Garth is granted a full pardon and returns home to live with Martha and continues his work, with aging friends as possible test subjects, but he could lose it at any moment.

Karloff’s character has a daughter again, though their final confrontation isn’t as dramatic as it should be. We could have done with more scenes of Martha becoming increasingly worried about and suspicious of her dad, but Evelyn Keyes still does well by the role. Garth is once described by somebody as “the only person who could be polite to me, and still have the chills running up and down my back”, a perfect description of Karloff as ever there was. This role needs him to be showier, but that’s just fine. Again, a lowered-billed actor from the previous film is promoted to higher billing for this one, here Bruce Bennett who plays Dr. Paul Ames the boyfriend of Martha, while Pedro de Córdoba is rather moving as Victor Sondini, a pianist friend of Garth’s whose great age is beginning to hamper his playing. In fact the look at aging is genuinely sympathetic and not at all crass. Director Nick Grinde and cinematographer Richard H. Kline go back to giving us a few good visual devices, like Garth’s face half bathed in black; it’s obvious but still welcome. The climaxes of these films tend to be slightly rushed; this one at least is handled more dramatically and given a nice twist when Garth’s behaviour turns out to be deliberate. In general this film seems less hurried than the others. Again we have the proving of Karloff’s character’s ideas to be scientifically correct, but wrong-headed. Is going mad a punishment or just something that could happen if you seek a better understanding of life and try to improve it? The essentially repressive view of progress may have been partly dictated by censorship, which is possibly why two references to faith by Garth seem shoehorned in. Or maybe they thought audiences of the day required this to like the character more?  More exciting than the second if not as much as the first, Before I Hang is decent stuff most of the time.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

 

‘BEFORE I HANG’ SPECIAL FEATURES

Audio Commentary by authors Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby
Lyons and Rigby return for this one, and in a way they’re like Jones and Newman, with one sounding more authoritative and doing the lion’s share of the talking , though Lyons gets an extremely long passage on a particular subject. We’re reminded of how reviews of the day could be offensively classist with one of this film saying how it would entertain “the industrial element”, told of told of how Karloff thought Frankenstein would ruin his career but that van Sloan said to him “not so Boris, not so, you’re made”, and learn about the real-life inspirations for this tale. The track veers in and out of being scene specific, and to be fair it would be extremely hard to talk just about this film for an hour especially as there’s little production information, but Rigby has a knack for making even the credits of on-screen actors seem interesting by his delivery. Another good one.

Still Galleries:
– Production Stills
– Artwork and Ephmera 

 

 

THE DEVIL COMMANDS [1941]

RUNNNING TIME: 64 mins

 

Dr. Julian Blair almost has his colleagues convinced that he’s able to record brainwaves with his new apparatus, but then his wife Helen is killed in a car crash. Upon returning to his laboratory,  he sees what he thinks is a message from Helen, so he redirects his work into making contact with the dead, despite dire warnings from his daughter Anne, his research assistant Richard, and his colleagues that he is delving into forbidden areas of knowledge. He enlists the help of a shady medium, Mrs. Walters, and found that she has a psyche so strong it can generate a powerful electric field, so the two relocate to an isolated seaside mansion to continue their work…..

Well this is a somewhat strange one, right down to its title, there being no devil or even satanic coven in the actual story. Based for once on a novel, The Devil Commands, which doesn’t employ either writer Karl Brown nor director Nick Grinde for the first time in this series, exists slightly separate to the other Mad Doctor films, still having many of the same elements, but having a different feel, one that’s very Gothic. It possesses a gloomy Poe-like vibe and some really creepy imagery. However, it fails to make a lick of sense, right from the early scene where Dr. Blair turns on his machine and some brainwaves are recorded on his chart. He instantly believes that they’re from his recently deceased wife – but how can he know it’s her? They could have been from anyone! And later on, why does he need to use other dead bodies to communicate with her? Would it not have been far simpler and indeed safer to just dig up her body and give that a go. Of course it’s quite possible though that this may originally have been explained in Robert Hardy Andrews’s and Milton Gunzburg’s screenplay, but it looks as if Columbia took a hatchet to this movie, which leaps joltingly forward and adds an often irritating narration from Amanda Duff’s Anne Blair, which seems partly designed to pepper over swathes of removed footage yet makes little sense seeing as we’re with Karloff’s character, not her, throughout the film.

The opening scene seems deliberately intended to recall Rebecca before virtually telling us what’s going to happen at the end. Once again a Karloff doctor is demonstrating what he’s been up to for a long time, and even uses wife Helen as a subject with success. He’s recording brainwaves while a giant stylus arm writes the patterns on a rolling slate that takes up a whole wall. The types watching seem almost sure about what they’ve seen so Blair is happy. He goes to pick up a birthday cake for Anne whose twentieth birthday it is while Helen drives round the block and has a fatal crash. Blair is a changed man after this and, after having got this supposed message from Helen, becomes obsessed with tweaking his work into talking to the deceased, even though, as he’s told, “there are things human beings are not meant to know”. His assistant Karl knows a medium called Mrs. Walters who can talk to dead people, but Blair immediately recognises her as a fraud when he attends a rather spooky though fake seance at her house. However, one thing that was not fake was an electrical shock he experienced, so he asks her to help and she agrees. Back in his laboratory, Karl becomes a brain-damaged mute so he can fulfill the typical Ygor-type assistant role, and Mrs. Walters takes charge. When we next see them in their new house, she’s certainly the one in control and has assumed a Mrs. Danvers vibe, but we don’t know much about their relationship. I assume that she’s doing it for the money, but get the impression that it’s more than that. Maybe they’re lovers? A lot seems to be missing here  -as it does elsewhere. Two years later and the local Sheriff is asking questions about missing dead bodies, but Blair and Mrs. Danvers claim that they don’t know anything, while maid Mrs. Marcy certainly doesn’t know anything – but could she be of use to the police?

Important, clarifying scenes of plot and character development seem to be increasingly bypassed. The finale may bring in some Universal-style angry villagers but doesn’t even let us see what happened to Blair. However, aided by Allen G. Siegler’s very noir-style cinematography with terrific use of shadows and pools of black throughout, the film reeks of despair and death which is a positive thing in this sort of tale, and there’s a terrific set piece of Somebody Venturing Where They Shouldn’t which thankfully doesn’t look horribly truncated and is instead allowed to play out. It’s probably not worth bothering attempting to work out exactly what’s happening, but the visuals in the later laboratory scenes are not just bizarre but quite nightmarish, with several dead participants, clad in the kind of space suits that people dreamt up in the days before space suits were actually made with neon wires coming out of them and tubes in their ears, sat in a circle around a table, making slight click-actions while a whirling vortex appears above them and, sometimes, a lone voice is heard. It’s extremely uncanny, and here the fact that so much is left unexplained is an advantage. And Karloff, once again – yes I know I can’t seem to stop praising him – is superb, letting us feel his pain and sadness. Our first sight of him when he’s been living with Mrs. Walters for two years is quite a shock because he looks so ill and wasted away – what on earth has she been doing to him? For once Karloff’s character remains totally sympathetic all the way through even when he goes too far. Director Edward Dmytryk was one who went on to bigger fare, though the hacking about makes it hard to fully assess the job he does here. Still, there’s enough in The Devil Commands to make it the most interesting of the Mad Doctor pictures. It has a haunted effect which has stayed with me.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

 

‘THE DEVIL COMMANDS’ SPECIAL FEATURES

Audio Commentary by author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman 
These commentaries are part of the fun of this set, this one being no exception. This time Jones says as much as Newman, both men obviously very fond of this film and loving talking about it while thinking like it did that it’s been heavily re-edited. We have the film compared to the novel, learn that it was cut by a whopping fourteen minutes in the UK because “the censor didn’t like the idea of talking to the dead” [it must have made no sense whatsoever] and have the point that these films have sort of fallen between the cracks because they’re not laughable yet are not classics.

Still Galleries:
– Production Stills
– Artwork and Ephmera 

 

 

THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU [1942]

RUNNING TIME: 63 mins

 

Professor Nathaniel Billings is attempting to create a race of supermen for the war effort, but his subjects keep dying. Faced with mortgage debts, he sells his 18th-century tavern to Winnie Layden who plans to turn it into a hotel, stipulating as a condition of sale that he’s able to continue working in a laboratory in the basement, while his housekeeper Amelia Jones and hired hand Ebenezer also continue to work there. Winnie’s ex-husband Bill thinks that several spooky happenings could be part of a plan to scare the new her away, and finds the dead body of a travelling salesman, but when he reports this discovery to the local sheriff Dr. Arthur Lorentz, Lorentz realises the potential for profit and decides to join Billings in his work….

So I guess it was thought that the Mad Doctor cycle was running its course, or Karloff was only signed for five films. So it was time to finish off with a comedy that would not just spoof the series but which would also riff on Arsenic And Old Lace which Karloff had been doing on Broadway and which was immensely popular. I haven’t seen the film version of that, but I’m sure that it’s better than this rather strained farce, and I’m not just saying this because I don’t take to very old-style horror comedy – I recently re-watched 1940’s The Ghost Breakers after what must have been several decades and enjoyed it just as much as when I was a kid. That was very funny yet at times scary; this constantly tries to be just funny but only sometimes succeeds and mostly just draws a smile, though of course a smile is better than nothing and The Boogie Man Will Get You is never bad, it’s just never as good as you want it to be, Much of the humour consists of lines like, “no, this is the first time, I’ve never killed him before, honest”, but there are bits of slapstick which are well timed, plus Peter Lorre mugging like there’s no tomorrow. The main thing I was looking forward to was Karloff teaming up with Lorre two decades before Roger Corman put them together, and the two are a great team, Karloff being very restrained unlike Lorre, who wears garb like Robert Mitchum’s Preacher in The Night Of The Hunteras well as often having a Siamese kitten hidden in the inner pocket of his jacket that he coos to in German. Perhaps the funniest thing in the whole movie is that, despite what he’s up to, Karloff’s character acts more calm than anybody else.

Comical music instead of the usual dramatics clues us in to the supposed comedic nature of this one, before we join the tavern, shrieking house keeper Amelia being namechecked on a radio programme and Winnie really enthusing over the place’s antiquities. When she almost falls through a stair, a gag repeated several times, she cries with joy “isn’t this wonderful, a worm-eaten step”. Even when there could be a ghost, she’s excited by the prospect. My kind of gal. Amelia and dumb hired hand Ebenezer keep getting at each other while Dr. Billings’s latest experiment has gone wrong because the test subject he put into a glass container died when he turned his ray on because he had a wench in his pocket. Winnie of course doesn’t know about all this but would she be particularly bothered if she did? What does bother her is ex-husband Bill turning up, but she soon ropes him into helping renovate the place. It’s very much like a play for a while, with folk coming on stage and leaving it whenever the script needs them to. Bill explores the basement and, whereas in the previous films this would have been turned into a creepy set piece with lots of shadows, here it’s well lit and not seemingly trying to be suspenseful. He finds a body and calls Sheriff Lorentz, only that Lorentz isn’t just a sheriff, he’s also a justice of the peace, a doctor, a coroner, the mayor, and probably some other things I didn’t note down or who I’ve forgotten. Billings easily talks him into helping him out. It seems like door-to-door salesmen are the easiest subjects, but what’s to do when the latest one turns out to be incredibly stupid who’s ticklish on his head so he can’t wear Billings’s helmet? Is someone or are some people trying to scare Winnie away? And what to do when a guest has a dagger in his back and who killed him?

We do get the answers to all these things, though not much sense of building to a climax or indeed a climax fullstop despite the presence of an Italian with a bomb and some live people whom we thought were dead as everybody crams together in one room in time-honoured style. The former may be one of several wry references to World War 2, there also being the narratively pointless but interesting scene of two cops speeding towards the house being shot at, intercepted and held up by a soldier, and of course the fact that Billings is trying to aid the war effort, surely the most noble cause of all at the time. Some odd lines may be references to things that audiences of the day would have understood; now they just seem bizarre though not necessarily out of place. Director Lew Landers brings little style and Henry Freulich’s merely functional cinematography really shows up how good the photography was in the earlier films. Of course this one is meant first and foremost as a comedy, but when the script by Edwin Blum and Paul Gangelin, working from a story by Hal Filmberg and Robert B. Hunt, resorts to things like a heavily creaking bed, one hopes for more to the proceedings. But Karloff, one more time, is fine as the senile Billing without overdoing things, letting Lorre chew the scenery and everyone else act crazy. Karloff’s laboratory here is the most elaborate, even venturing into Kenneth Strickfaden areas. The Boogie Man Will Get You is slight and in the end doesn’t poke fun at the others in the series as much as it could have done. But everyone looks like they’re having fun and it’s a somewhat appropriate way to finish this overall rather good little series off. At the end of Hammer’s last outing for Peter Cushing as the most famous mad doctor of them all Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell, the camera slowly zoomed out from him carrying on his experiments to reveal bars on the window, showing that he’s now a patient in the asylum where he once worked. Here, nearly everyone seems about to packed off to the nut house.

Rating: ★★★★★½☆☆☆☆

 

‘THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU’ SPECIAL FEATURES

Audio Commentary by authors Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby
The third of the Lyons/Rigby talk tracks may be their best even though it’s for a lesser film. They find a hell of a lot to say about it as well as talking about Arsenic and Old Lace and another play which inspired this movie George Washington Slept Here, plus horror comedies, coming to the conclusion that they tend to work best when being mainly one genre with bits of the other rather than half and half. Lyons has some good production info on this one, such as Karloff constantly drinking milk a the time to beef himself up after having lost loads of weight doing Arsenic And Old Lace for so long and Lorre saying to a reporter, “things are coming to a pretty pass when the greatest gh9ul of them all drinks milk”, Brown saying that none of the  performers knew that they were making a comedy which as our duo say is absolute nonsense, and how audiences outside the big cities may have found it original because they wouldn’t have seen the two plays or even knew what they were about.

Still Galleries:
– Production Stills
– Artwork and Ephmera 

Karloff on the Radio:
– Inner Sanctum Mysteries [23/10/45] The Corridors of Doom [29 mins]
No Lipton Tea promotion here but still plenty of awful puns from Raymond Edward Johnson to lighten the mood set by two dark stories. The Corridors of Doom has Karloff again as a murderer, an asylum escapee who’s calmed by the sounds of his canaries. He also has a pretty young wife who’s seemingly ignorant of things. A neat twist makes this quite a smart and in its own way sweet little tail.

– Inner Sanctum Mysteries [6/11/45] The Wailing Wall [29 mins]
This one has not one but several twists in a story you have to keep up with; perhaps not one to listen to while you’re doing something else. Karloff’s character and his wife formulate a plot to get a large sum of insurance money, but things like blackmail and supposedly dead people actually being alive mess things up for them. It’s highly unbelievable and I’m not sure it needed it’s flashback structure, but may have Karloff’s best vocal performance out of the four tales offered here.

 

DISC TWO SPECIAL FEATURES

Limited Edition O-Card slipcase [3000 copies]

All three films presented in 1080p
Again, these don’t seem like new restorations. The Man They Could Not Hang goes very grainy for a few minutes around the middle and The Devil Commands has some vertical lines at times, but the picture quality is otherwise fine.

Optional English SDH subtitles

A LIMITED EDITION collector’s booklet featuring writing on all six films by Karloff expert Stephen Jacobs (author of Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster); film critic and author Jon Towlson; and film scholar Craig Ian Mann [3000 copies]

 

We may not be talking classics here, but these six films are absolutely essential purchases for Karloff fans and lovers of old school horror and science fiction, and deserve to be more widely seen and appreciated, while all six audio commentaries are excellent examples of their kind . Highly Recommended!

About Dr Lenera 3059 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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