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Icons of Horror Collection: Boris Karloff
The four features, all making their DVD debuts and none longer than 70 minutes, fit on two single-sided discs, which are housed in slim packs inserted in a colorfully lurid box.
The Black Room (1935, aka "The Black Room Mystery," directed by Roy William Neill, 70 minutes)
Karloff shows off some impressive acting chops playing twin brothers -- one good, one evil -- in early 18th century Germany (or Austria, or wherever they have burgomasters). A prophecy dating back to the Middle Ages says that if twins are ever born into the noble De Bergmann family, the younger sibling will eventually kill the elder. Having spent his early adulthood away from home because the pressure of the curse was too much to bear, Anton, the younger, saintly brother, is called back to the castle by Gregor. The nasty Baron Gregor is despised by the townfolk -- they believe he has raped and killed a few girls -- and fears his luck is running out.
A cool castle set (complete with a dry indoor well where Gregor dumps his victims), taut storytelling, and Karloff's subtle and convincing differentiation of his dual roles make the thriller a perfect little treat for a rainy Saturday afternoon. Marian Marsh, who plays the village ingenue Gregor has his eye on, died Nov. 9 at age 93.
The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, directed by Nick Grindé, 64 minutes)
The first of three "mad scientist" thrillers Karloff made with director Grindé finds Boris taking on the Dr. Frankenstein role. He's well-meaning scientist Dr. Henryk Savaard, who believes he can bring the dead back to life via a sort of prototype defibrillator. One of his students happily volunteers to have his heart stopped by the doctor in order to be revived, but the young man's girlfriend, who is also the doctor's assistant, panics and calls the cops. They intrude and prevent Savaard from performing his crucial final life-saving step, and after a quick trial montage, Savaard is sentenced to hang for murder.
Before going to the gallows, Savaard arranges for a colleague to use his device to resuscitate him afterward. The procedure works, but the "new" Savaard is now a stooped and evil avenger, who goes about killing the jurors who convicted him and, in an Agatha Christie-worthy climax, invites his unsuspecting enemies to a house party with the intention of picking them off one by one.
Before I Hang (1940, directed by Nick Grindé, 62 minutes)
Kindly old Dr. John Garth (Karloff) has a sincere ambition to eliminate death; yes, no one will ever die and aging will be stopped by a human-cell-based serum he has created to eliminate the "poisons" brought by the stresses of everyday living. Sentenced to death for trying his serum on a patient and killing him, Garth tries the juice on himself, and lo and behold the next day his white hair is now merely gray and his formerly pouchy eyes are taut. But there's an unfortunate side effect: an uncontrollable urge to strangle people. Look for support work from Edward Van Sloan, another icon of horror cinema: he was Van Helsing in "Dracula" and Dr. Waldman in "Frankenstein."
The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942, directed by Lew Landers, 66 minutes)
The title is deeply misleading. This is a stage-bound rural comic thriller about an absent-minded professor, Nathaniel Billings (Karloff, totally harmless and ridiculous), living in a 200-year-old Rhode Island shack. He has a mortgage hanging over his head and is delighted when a pretty young divorcee (Miss Jeff Donnell) happens upon the place, deems it adorable, and instantly buys it with the intention of transforming it into a cozy inn. Billings stays on and continues his mysterious work in the basement, which has something to do with creating a superman and seems to amount to having door-to-door salesmen willingly sit in a metallic box and have electricity pumped into them. Some apparently die, which brings the attention of the town's all-in-one police chief, mayor and shady lawyer Dr. Lorencz (Peter Lorre, who steals the show, or at least whatever there is worth stealing).
Playing a hapless salesman is Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, the former boxer who parlayed his broken face and cartoonish voice into a 35-year screen and TV career. The scenes of Rosenbloom's dumb lug delivery juxtaposed with the British Karloff's effeminate lisping are bizarre, made more so by the fact that the director doesn't see anything weird or exploitable in this coupling.
With most of Boris Karloff's classic movies long established on DVD, Sony -- like Universal with its recent "Boris Karloff Collection" -- is resorting to the B material here. Which isn't a bad thing for Karloff completists. However, besides high-definition remastering, not much work has gone into the discs.
For the most part the movies look good and crisp. I did notice a few frames missing about 55 minutes into "The Man They Could Not Hang" and some splicing tape marring the picture momentarily four minutes later; at the 20-minute mark in "Before I Hang," the picture turns grainy and blurry, possibly a result of using a different print to make up for missing footage. The aspect ratio on all four films is, of course, 1.33:1; the hiss-and-pop-free sound is Dolby Digital 2-channel.
But, besides optional English subtitles, there's nothing else, not even trailers. Each disc's bland menu offers just a choice of movie and subtitles. Though they aren't offered on the menus, there are 12 chapters per movie.
The star's devotees will be happy to have Icons of Horror Collection: Boris Karloff, though most horror lovers will probably only get a thrill out of 1935's "The Black Room," the oldest picture here. "The Man They Could Not Hang" and "Before I Hang," two of the three "mad scientist" thrillers Karloff made with director Nick Grindé, are talkfests that only vaguely fit the genre, while "The Boogie Man Will Get You" is a strange folksy comedy with weak suspense elements. Missing from the set is Karloff and Grindé's other shocker, 1940's "The Man With Nine Lives"; Sony issued that title by itself a year ago and it logically should have be included here as well. So, definitely rent the set for the ominous "Black Room," and take a look at the others at no extra charge.