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With Halloween upon us the studios are looking for appropriately themed releases. Columbia has marketed but a trickle of horror product for years, and last summer's loss of the MGM distribution deal may have contributed to a sudden interest in the boxed set idea that has become a profit center, especially for Warner Bros. Icons of Horror - Boris Karloff pulls together the remaining four Columbia Karloff titles. It consists of one bona fide-Boris classic, two of the curiously unadventurous mad doctor movies, and a silly comedy straggler.
The Black Room
1935 / 70 min.
Starring Karloff, Marian Marsh, Robert Allen, Thurston Hall, Torben Meyer, Katherine DeMille
Cinematography Allen G. Siegler
Art Direction Stephen Goosson
Film Editor Richard Cahoon
Written by Henry Myers, Arthur Strawn
Directed by Roy William Neill
This lone Columbia Karloff vehicle from the middle thirties presents everyone's favorite horror star with one of the best roles of his career. It's the kind of vanity part that few actors turn down, a chance to play twins, one evil and one good. We're used to seeing Karloff stranded in roles without much dialogue. When given the chance to really act, he can make a rather simple tale into an unforgettable gem.
The Black Room is straight gothic horror from the Family Curse playbook, with a clever twist. Realizing that he won't get away with his murderous crimes much longer, the evil Gregor plots to trade places with his benign brother Anton. Although the story is cleverly told, the only thing we really learn about Gregor and Anton is that one is good and the other bad. Karloff makes up the difference and more in a bravura double role. With only seventy minutes of screen time, the actor makes every appearance count, and we can't take our eyes off of him. Gregor growls and glares and grinds his teeth, while Anton is the 'sweet Boris' alternative, all politeness and gentle speech.
Director Roy William Neill manages the good trick of using split screens and cleverly aligned doubles to soften the sight of seeing two Karloffs on screen at the same time. After the initial amusement, the necessity of following Karloff's careful performance(s) leads us to simply accept the fact that there are two of him.
Naturally, bad Gregor is the most fun. He ignores the advances of peasant girl Mashka (Kathering DeMille) while eating a pear, and delivers a hilariously nasty double-edged soliloquy on the fruit: It tastes good, it's nice and juicy, and you can get rid of it when it tires you. "Adam should have had a pear!"(spolier)
As part of his plan Gregor must imitate Anton, who has a paralyzed right arm. He carefully rehearses his arm position and a necessary change in vocal tone, in an actor's 'miracle take' before the onyx-mirrored wall of the Black Room. Like Lon Chaney but without makeup, Karloff uses his body language and voice to transform himself. This is artifice but also the soul of acting. To anyone unfamiliar with Karloff's special talent, this movie, Frankenstein and The Body Snatcher are essential viewing.
Another superb scene has Gregor-as-Anton switching hands to sign a document while the kindly Colonel's back is turned. But the Colonel catches the subterfuge in a mirror. Director Neil's moving camera deftly underscores the tension. The only real flaw in the picture is when Karloff plays dead at the bottom of the Black Pit ... his eyes twitch, and then blink in full close-up. Those old studio lights must have been as bright as they claim.
The Black Room has the usual content of a Universal horror film -- the nondescript mittel-European setting (which looks altogether too much like a western ranch) populated by a cowed peasantry eager to revolt. The film is too rushed to develop any theme except the central sibling rivalry. After the big chase, we aren't even given a 'happily ever after' shot of Gregor's abandoned bride with her true love. The movie's politics are unresolved. The peasants revolt against a monstrous monarchy that rapes and murders their women, yet can be persuaded that their tyrant Baron will be replaced by his kinder and gentler brother. But aristocratic perfidy knows no bounds, and disaster results. At the conclusion, we don't know how the Barony will be ruled but it's obvious that an earlier revolution would have been better for everybody.
The production makes use of some impressive interior sets and an unusually tall castle exterior, which might be an oversized foreground miniature. The plot mechanics employ some rather hasty developments like poor Lt. Lussan's trial and generally moves too fast for any but a surface read -- all the subtlety is found in Karloff's performance. Kids love the 'good dog to the rescue' conclusion, even if they figure out the resolution of the Twin Curse long before it actually happens. The Black Room is a top-line Karloff vehicle. Were it developed a bit more it could have been one of the more satisfying gothic horrors ever.
The Man They Could Not Hang
1939 / 64 min.
Cinematography Benjamin H. Kline
Film Editor William A. Lyon
Written by Karl Brown, George Wallace Sayre, Leslie T. White
Produced by Wallace MacDonald
Directed by Nick Grindé
The Man They Could Not Hang is the first and probably the best of several Karloff quickies for Columbia, each barely over an hour long. Each budget offering gives us Karloff as an increasingly ineffective scientist with a hare-brained scheme to prolong life, create rejuvenated supermen or commune with the dead. Each scientist is foiled by glaring incompetence and the uncomprehending attitude of a society that just can't seem to find a way to condone murder. In general, the films are forgettable and easily confused one with another. Karloff tends to walk through them as if convinced that his career is finally about to go the way of Bela Lugosi, and he ought to collect his paychecks while he can ... all those years as a starving actor in Canada taught him not to sniff at a good offer.
Karloff's benevolent Doctor Savaard is interrupted in the midst of bringing forth a medical miracle and condemned as a murderous madman. He has a loving daughter (Lorna Gray) to bring out his kindly instincts. Of course, Savaard has never considered the fact that society might take a dim view of his experiments, and at his trial foolishly uses his defense to attack the short-sightedness of the jury. His outlook grows dark and he plots a ghoulish revenge for the judge, the jury and the various associates and cops that dared stand in his way. The second half of the short film has Dr. Savaard trapping his enemies for a night of horror in a house rigged with electrified doors, poisoned needles, etc..
Even when The Man They Could Not Hang is effective, it has a general air of pointlessness. The brilliant Savaard defies society and therefore must go murderously insane, attacking everyone including the devoted assistant that has saved his life. He succeeds in killing a number of his enemies, but the rest band together to defeat him with the help of his own daughter. At the end Savaard demonstrates his miracle, but it means nothing. He destroys his 'magical' invention and the surviving jurors have no appreciation of his original benevolent aims.
Frankly, the whole thing plays as an analogy of political extremism. When the doctor's high ideals come in contact with reality, he transforms into a dangerous terrorist and must be neutralized. His progressive ideas are forgotten or associated with Evil.
The Man They Could Not Hang shows the typical shortcomings of studio genre work. Although smartly filmed, the story might as well be as a radio play. After repeatedly establishing that their room is barred by electrified gates and iron-shuttered windows, one of Savaard's captives states the obvious: "Every possible escape route is blocked!" (para). The captives play along with Savaard's evil game instead of doing something creative, like battering down the metal gate with a piece of furniture. Not even the reporter is willing to believe that, when a dozen people are brought together by underhanded means, it might be a trap they cannot handle. The film has respect only for the sentimental aspects of its characters. The surviving cast might remember that Savaard loved his daughter, but they'll forget all about his medical genius. He was crazy, after all.
Before I Hang
1940 / 62 min.
Cinematography Benjamin H. Kline
Art Direction Lionel Banks
Film Editor Charles Nelson
Written by Robert D. Andrews, Karl Brown
Produced by Wallace MacDonald
Directed by Nick Grindé
The follow-up Before I Hang might as well be a remake of the previous film, on a fraction of the budget. Neither film has a hanging scene, as executions were a Production Code no-no. It's more of the same from some of the same writers and the same producer and director. It makes us wonder if lower-case productions at Columbia were ordered by the yard.
Before I Hang uses ellipsis to avoid telling big pieces of its story. This time we start right with a trial, and hear rather confused testimony about Dr. Garth wanting to work out a formula for eternal youth and health, but also performing euthanasia on a suffering old man. Karloff's Dr. Garth lays out the interesting idea that our bodies were meant to live forever but that 'poisons built up in the cells drag us down; it's not all that different from modern hopes (wishful thinking?) that human DNA has an 'aging' chromosome that scientists might be able to switch off.
In either case, the religious censors label this sort of thinking, along with reviving the dead, as blasphemy that must seal the doom for the scientific transgressor. These mad doctor films spend an hour proving Karloff's ideas to be scientifically correct, but 100% wrong-headed. It's heresy, I tells ya.
The opening trial scene hilariously puts advances an unintended anti-Capital Punishment argument. Judge Charles Trowbridge (who apparently survived electrocution in the previous film) condemns killing human life outright, for any reason whatsoever. With practically the same breath he then sentences Garth to death by hanging.
Scientific approval of Garth's ideas leads to more experiments right in the prison -- three weeks are all that is needed to produce a miraculous serum. But after his self-inoculation, Garth involuntarily twitches and scratches his neck, indicating that the 'Evil' blood from a condemned murderer has made him into a dangerous madman. The story therefore combines some fairly progressive thinking with a hoary repressive bugaboo from the days of Alraune: Criminals are not created by a poor environment and they're certainly not like you and I. They're 'tainted' with EVIL.
Even as Garth makes plans to grant youth and longer life to his gifted but elderly friends -- one of them is a concert pianist -- his EVIL side takes over and murders them instead. It's a frustrating story in that science is BAD, and fighting against the known limits of human existence is BAD. Before I Hang is a bit like an old traffic safety film that preaches that any attitude toward driving but the approved one will lead to BLOODY DEATH. We watch these movies thinking that Karloff is getting a bad deal, forced by repressive forces to pay for his modern thinking.
Evelyn Keyes and Bruce Bennett are on hand as Garth's daughter and prospective son-in-law, but have little screen time to make an impression. Perhaps the way to appreciate these pictures is to realize that Karloff is carrying them almost single-handed. He is the show, and therefore he is the star. Even when his roles became less prominent, he was almost always the star attraction of whatever show he'd appear in.
Columbia made two more of these pictures about equally misunderstood medicos that go raving mad simply for seeking a better understanding of life and the cosmos. They've been released separately and Savant has reviewed them: The Man With Nine Lives, The Devil Commands. It may be a simplification of Karloff's career, but his stage success in Arsenic and Old Lace turned his fortunes for the better for a number of years, and perhaps saved him from sinking permanently into the swamps of Monogram and PRC.
The Boogie Man Will Get You
1942 / 66 min.
Starring Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Jeff Donnell, Larry Parks, Max 'Slapsie Maxie' Rosenbloom, Frank Puglia
Cinematography Henry Freulich
Art Direction Lionel Banks
Film Editor Richard Fantl
Written by Edwin Blum, Hal Fimberg, Paul Gangelin, Robert B. Hunt
Produced by Colbert Clark
Directed by Lew Landers
Boris Karloff's last for Columbia is a welcome change of pace, a silly wartime comedy patterned after his success on stage in Arsenic and Old Lace. Four writers collaborated on a story that spins for just over an hour and never really finds out what its point is; dead bodies stack up in a run-down old house, but the eccentric activities are more in line with You Can't Take It With You. If this is making the movie seem good, think again. Karloff stumbles through as a rather simpleminded scientific genius, while Peter Lorre has a field day doing goofy schtick like carrying a kitten around in his pocket!
The Boogie Man Will Get You shapes up as utter nonsense, but is still not as annoying as Karloff's involvement in RKO's You'll Find Out with Kay Kyser. The animated actors play the farce as best they can but the script just isn't all that funny. Besides a few well-timed pieces of slapstick the only comedy that gets beyond the weak smile stage is Peter Lorre's uncontrolled mugging. Lorre is often inspired; it's hard to tell if his quasi-improvisational timing is helping the film or just drawing attention to himself and throwing the other actors off task. Lorre certainly looks great in his country preacher outfit that makes him into a sawed-off version of Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. His above-mentioned kitten gag would be perfected by Peter Sellers in 1966's The Wrong Box: Sellers' dotty notary public uses the butt of a mewing kitten as an ink blotter.
Karloff is a doddering fuddy-duddy, an inoffensive and absent-minded professor who just can't understand why all the salesmen he talks into becoming mental giants, fall out of his mind & body expanding machine as if they'd been strapped into an electric chair. Along the way Karloff and Lorre come across a man looking for secrets in hidden passageways, and an Italian saboteur (?) named Silvio Bacigalupi (Frank Puglia) to provide some 'wacky' menace for the last scene. The story works its way to a 'who cares' conclusion where practically the whole cast is sent to the nut-house - the ingenue couple (Miss Jeff Donnell, Larry Parks) included.
Larry Parks would later become a vocal victim of the blacklist, after being nominated as Best Actor in The Jolson Story. Miss Jeff Donnell shows up as Tony Curtis' reluctant secretary in the peerless noir drama Sweet Smell of Success. The real problem with this Boris Karloff movie is that Karloff hasn't much of anything interesting to do. If he was to take time off from Arsenic and Old Lace's stage run, it's too bad he couldn't use it to be in Frank Capra's film version.
The four films in the Icons of Horror - Boris Karloff collection look and sound great, with no complaints. The Black Room's main titles retain an alteration that replaces several handsome 'book' text cards with more standard titles, and we wonder what was replaced. Contributors to some online discussion boards have pointed out that the shots of Karloff at the bottom of the Black Pit appear to be not Karloff but a stand-in. I tend to agree ... perhaps Karloff had a problem lying perfectly still?
A couple of the other titles have replacement main cards indicating the 1947 reissue by a distributor called Favorite Films Corporation. That means that Columbia allowed the original negatives to be altered by an outside distributor.
The two discs in the Icons collection have two titles each and are contained on two slim cases in a card sleeve. There are no extras, and the disc menus are depressingly generic. The disc set tagline shows some effort -- "Boris Karloff was to the Horror Movie what Fred Astaire was to The Musical" -- but has an unnecessarily defensive tone. Why should that statement be in the past tense?
What horrors are still left at Columbia? Plenty of great titles from the 50s, especially Hammer imports. The only classic title I can think of is the sad little 1941 mini-masterpiece The Face Behind the Mask. Peter Lorre is a miserable little immigrant horribly scarred in a fire, who then turns to a life of ruthless criminality. Perhaps it would go well with Josef Von Sternberg's 1935 Columbia version of Crime and Punishment, also starring Peter Lorre? Columbia has a new head of Home Video, who will hopefully exploit the Columbia library's hidden treasures.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: two discs in two slim cases in card box
Reviewed: October 29, 2006