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The Man with Nine Lives

The Man with Nine Lives
1940 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 73 min. / Street Date October 4, 2005 / 14.94
Starring Boris Karloff
Cinematography Benjamin H. Kline
Art Direction Lionel Banks
Film Editor Al Clark
Original Music Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Written by Karl Brown, Harold Shumate
Produced by Irving Briskin, Wallace MacDonald
Directed by Nick Grindé

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Horror fans sometimes snipe at Bela Lugosi for being in so many terrible poverty row productions in the late thirties and early 1940s, something they believe Boris Karloff would never do. Well, old Boris doesn't do much better when it comes to his four Columbia mad scientist movies, which have slightly higher budgets but are some of the weakest classic-era horror product I've seen. The Devil Commands is weak and sleep-inducing, but it does have a good idea or two, like its linked seance of metal-suited corpses.

The Man with Nine Lives is simply less inspired. It's all about extreme cold, but it starts tepid and goes exactly nowhere. A potentially interesting idea is almost completely thrown away on a script that would be discarded by any self-respecting radio show, and the considerable talents of Karloff come to naught.


Dr. Mason (Roger Pryor) succeeds in curing a woman through 'frozen therapy' but is castigated by his superior Dr. Harvey (Charles Trowbridge) when the press exaggerates his achievement. On forced vacation, Mason takes his fiancée and nurse Judith Blair (Jo Ann Sayers) to a tiny island near the Canadian border where a certain Dr. Leon Kravaal (Karloff) experimented in frozen therapy ten years previous, before disappearing with four of the town's leading citizens. The two medical sleuths discover Kravaal's secret lab 100 feet below ground level, and, in a room filled with ice, the bodies of the pioneering lone wolf researcher and the four missing locals. Kravaal's wilder theories are proven true when all five of them revive, awakening back to life after ten years!

The Man with Nine Lives is laughable for a number of reasons, all of them pointing to an incredibly weak script. Mason's cold therapy looks like little more than covering patients with ice cubes and reviving them with hot coffee or tea (clips could be the basis for a modern coffee commercial!). The cold therapy leaves normal tissues unharmed but kills all the nasty Cancer tumors.

Just because Cancer is called by its name (a rarity even in straight medical films of the time) doesn't mean that The Man with Nine Lives approaches simple logic, let alone medical credibility. Mason hacks Kravaal out of an ice block and together they revive the four men that wanted to ruin Kravaal's experiment ten years before. Then the movie becomes a confusing series of reversals wherein Kravaal drugs first the scoffing, retribution-obsessed quartet of provincials, and then the doctor and his nurse. Then the mad doctor forces everyone to do guinea pig duty.

Karloff's character never even begins to make logical sense. Dr. Mason continues to champion the rightness of Kravaal's mission (curing disease) even though the doctor double-crosses everyone in the room. The angry brother of the patient who died ten years before throws Kravaal's only copy of his perfected revival formula into a fire, so Kravaal shoots him. When everybody stares in shock, Kravaal turns with his pistol and says, "You think everything is murder, don't you?" It's an unintentionally hilarious moment reminiscent of a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon: Calvin is caught hammering nails into his mom's coffee table, and looks at her with an utterly unrepentant "Well, what?"

Getting into Kravall's dingy three-room closet, I mean, futuristic lab takes fifteen minutes; I particularly like the scene where nurse Blair goes down 200 steps on a rickety ladder wearing high heels. The story then stays stuck there for the rest of its running time. The Man with Nine Lives may really have started out as a radio show, as people describe everything that happens, as it happens.

Karloff looks uninvolved. Everyone has seen interesting frozen makeup stills of him from this picture but no corresponding scenes emerge. Most of the other players are anonymous and make next to no impact -- the script has a lot of bickering dialogue, none of which impresses. It's just poorly written.

The film can boast a couple of production graces that poverty row would never attempt, however. Nurse Blair spends too much time off screen without dialogue cooking soup and serving coffee, but she does perform a terrific stunt by falling through a splintering floor -- about half a second after Mason looks at the woodwork and mutters, "Hm ... dry rot!" Down in the sub-sub basement mad lab, a steel door leads to a frozen room that is indeed just that -- either it was shot in an ice house as Capra did Lost Horizon or Columbia bought their own freezing unit and brought it to the sound stages. The photography doesn't exploit the icy room as well as it might, but the sight of Mason chopping through real ice is a lot more realistic than the phony ice caves in things like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

Columbia's DVD of The Man with Nine Lives looks beautiful and is practically flawless right up until the final reel, which suddenly jumps several generations to a dupe of far less quality. Apparently that last reel didn't survive some lab mishap or was simply misplaced. A torch lady logo is at the end but the film has a static reissue replacement card for a main title; perhaps the outside sub-distributor Columbia lost the last reel. It's okay, as by that time we're no longer expecting a socko ending.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Man with Nine Lives rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent 4/5ths of the way
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 12, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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