Between 1935 and 1942, Boris Karloff turned out six pictures for Columbia, all of which are featured in the Karloff at Columbia UK Box set from Eureka Classics. Together with the historical melodrama, The Black Room (1935) the six films include some of Karloff’s best-loved ‘Mad Doctor’ films, where the actor finally got away from being typecast as a screen monster only to shift to a series of roles that, while more suitable to his maturing age, were hardly more varied in their scope.
The Black Room is set in Hollywood’s interpretation of the Habsburg Empire, complete with embroidered pinafores, Hussar jackets, and fabulously engineered facial hair. The film was directed by Roy Williams Neill, who would later helm the final Sherlock Holmes titles for Universal, along with Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1942) with Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi. Written by Henry Meyers and Arthur Strawn from Strawn’s own original story, Karloff gets to camp it up big time as the identical twin brothers Baron Gregor and Anton de Berghman. Born just minutes apart, Gregor and Anton are physically identical except for Anton’s paralyzed right arm. Twins are bad news for the de Berghman clan, as a family prophecy predicts that the younger will kill the other in the so-called’ Black Room’ of the de Berghman’s castle. Now old man de Berghman is having none of this, so the Black Room is bricked up while Anton is sent away for his education.
Fast forward 20 years and Gregor has turned into a dissolute tyrant, seducing local women only to murder them and deposit their bodies in the reopened Black Room.. As the restless locals twitch their magnificent mustaches, kindly decent Anton turns up with his faithful hound Tor, offering Gregor a convenient way out by offering to turn the estate over to him. Naturally, Anton agrees to Gregor’s proposal only to end up having his body unceremoniously dumped in the Black Room. Gregor, posing as Anton, makes a move on Thea, murders her father, and frames Thea’s young lover for the killing. Is there nothing that can stop Gregor’s murderous reign of tyranny? All I’m saying is never underestimate a mutt!
Karloff revels in the dual role of nice Anton and nasty Gregor, delighted not to be in monster makeup in this high camp of a Gothic romp. While the fundamentally decent Anton was probably closer to Karloff’s own personality, the actor hits his groove camping it up as the louche Gregor, thoroughly enjoying himself while lounging in a chair with his leg decorously slung over the arm as he munches a pear. All the while Mashka (Katherine DeMille), his mistress, attempts to talk him into marrying her. Little does she suspect what is coming. Far from being the filler I expected, The Black Room was a thoroughly enjoyable delight.
While Karloff had played crazed scientists in The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936) and The Invisible Ray (1936), it was at Columbia where the ‘Mad Doctor’ cycle truly became established. The first three ‘Mad Doctor’ movies, The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), The Man With Nine Lives (1940), and Before I Hang (1940), were all directed by Nick Grinde within a three-week shooting schedule and all follow the same basic plotline: Boris makes a discovery that will revolutionize the practice of medicine and save many lives, but thanks to his rather tenuous grasp of medical ethics and experimenting on live humans, law enforcement turn up to stop the experiment before he can prove his the theory which results in one dead patient and Boris either in jail, dead, or both. Boris is then revived to take his revenge before ultimately finding his own redemption.
In The Man They Could Not Hang, Karloff is Dr. Henryk Savaard, who invents an artificial heart designed to revive dead patients following surgery. When he attempts to test his theory on a willing medical student, his nurse Betty (Anne Doran) shops him to the police who turn up and stop the experiment before the student can be revived. Condemned to be hanged, Savaard leaves instructions with his assistant to retrieve his body and revive it with the artificial heart. Back in the land of the living, Savaard determines to invite Betty, the jurors who found him guilty, the cops who arrested him, the DA who prosecuted him, and the judge who sentenced him to a dinner party at his isolated mansion where they will be knocked out one by one. Curiously, the lurid consequences of Savaard’s actions in The Man They Could Not Hang were partially inspired by fact. The recent invention of the Lindbergh artificial heart grounds the story. However, it was loosely based upon the case of Dr. Robert E Cornish. After successful attempts in reviving dead dogs, he was denied the opportunity to bring back a San Quentin death row inmate, because under California state law, freeing the revived murderer would fall under the ‘Double Jeopardy’ clause.
The medical breakthrough in The Man With Nine Lives is based upon genuine, if slightly misinterpreted medical research. On this occasion, Cryotherapy, where a patient can be put into a state of suspended animation to cure their cancer and then revived, is the inspiration of the plot. This would be achieved by pouring hot coffee poured via a funnel and a rubber tube into a (fortunately!) unseen orifice. Here, Karloff is Dr. Leon Kravaal, a biologist who has been missing for ten years. Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) goes searching for clues at Kravaal’s lakeside house on the Canadian border. Turning up frozen in a basement cave are Kravaal, the lawman, DA, Local doctor, and relatives who turned up to stop Kravaal from using the technique to cure a local millionaire. Sound familiar? Revived Kravaal sets about using the frozen folks as guinea pigs to prove his theory. The Man with Nine Lives is a nicely claustrophobic piece with much of the action taking place within the confines of the dingy basement and the cave.
The third of Grinde’s films, Before I Hang, features Karloff as Dr. John Garth, on trial for the mercy killing of a cancer patient. Condemned to be hanged, Garth is sent to a jail where Dr. Ralph Howard, the prison medical officer (Edward Van Sloan who coincidentally played the doctor who delivers Gregor and Anton in The Black Room as well as Van Helsing to Bela Lugosi’s Dracula ), is an admirer of Garth’s and is keen to work on his rejuvenating serum with him. As the date of Garth’s execution draws near, Garth and Howard use the blood of an executed prisoner to culture the serum that Howard injects into Garth shortly before his eleventh-hour reprieve from the governor. Miraculously, the serum works, completely rejuvenating Garth, which is great, except for that pesky killer blood from the executed murderer. The serum keeps reasserting itself every time Garth tries to persuade one of his aging mates to take it.
Each of Grinde’s films provides entertaining big-screen hokum, but by the time Before I Hang was released, the recurring theme was getting a bit tired, so it was time to hire a new director and bring a little magic to the ‘Mad Doctor’ cycle. The Devil Commands (1940) did just that. Based upon William Sloane’s recent novel The Edge of Running Water and directed by Edward Dmytryk, the film takes us into new territory, complete with crackling electrical machines and psychic gales. Karloff is Dr. Julian Blair, a scientist researching how brain waves are specific to individuals. When Anne (Amanda Duff), his wife, is killed in an auto accident, Blair discovers that her brain waves are still present. Convinced that his machine will be able to communicate with Anne, Blair falls under the influence of the statuesque medium Blanch Walters (Anne Revere), who convinces him to try to boost the machine’s signal by relaying it through another human brain. This, as we all know is seldom a good idea, and when Blair scrambles his lab assistant Karl’s (Cy Schindell) brains, the gang flees the university for Blair’s rain-swept ancestral home in New England. Now you just can’t keep a ‘Mad Doctor’ down, so pretty soon the locals are getting a bit annoyed at the corpses of their relatives vanishing from the graveyard to be used in Blair’s research. Delightfully atmospheric thanks to the Noirishly dark and moody cinematography of Allan Siegler, The Devil Commands brings forth a wonderfully emotional performance from Karloff as the bereaved scientist. Not to mention a fabulously wild conclusion as the spectacular final experiment is interrupted by that perennial hazard of early horror talkies, the arrival of the local torch-bearing mob.
Sadly, the final film in the set, The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942) is a bit of a misfire. Karloff had been enjoying stage success in Arsenic and Old Lace, since completing The Devil Commands, and Columbia was keen to give him a comedy. Since Warner Brothers had snapped up Arsenic and Old Lace’s film rights, Columbia decided to team Karloff with Peter Lorre. The result was a screwball comedy about a ‘Mad Doctor’ who sells his interest in a failing hotel on the condition that he is allowed to use the hotel basement and continue his experiments to create an allied supersoldier to win the Second World War. Try as they might, Karloff and Lorre just can’t get the laughs from a script that tries too hard to be wacky with eccentric characters and very few of the jokes landing at all.
Still, five out of six ain’t bad.
As with any Eureka release, Karloff at Columbia comes with plenty of extras including Limited Edition O-Card slipcase [3000 copies], all six films presented in 1080p across two Blu-ray discs, Optional English SDH subtitles, brand new audio commentaries on The Black Room, Before I Hang, and The Boogie Man Will Get You with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby, brand new audio commentaries on The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man With Nine Lives, and The Devil Commands with author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman, 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]