Thursday 29 April 2021

Karloff At Columbia (1935 - 1942)

"An Essential Set"

Eureka are releasing a Blu-ray set of six splendid films that Boris Karloff made for Columbia Pictures in the 1930s and 1940s, consisting of THE BLACK ROOM and five mad doctor pictures. Previously this set has only been available on a Region 1 DVD set. You can now safely replace that with this, which also comes with excellent commentary tracks on every film. Here's what's on them in more detail:

Disc One

The Black Room (1935)

The earliest film in the set is a full-blooded period gothic set mainly in the early nineteenth century. Twins are born to the de Berghmann family and they both grow up to be Boris Karloff in dual roles as Gregor (the evil one) and Anton (the good one). In order to maintain control of the estate Gregor kills Anton and impersonates him, paralysed right arm and all. But the prophecy that Anton will kill Gregor in the black room of the title is yet to be fulfilled.

Terrific production design and skilful direction from Roy William Neill (Universal's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN amongst others) combined with two fine performances from Karloff mean THE BLACK ROOM is at least the equal of some of Universal's gothics of the period, even if it's not as well known. Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons provide an engaging fact-packed commentary track covering the careers of many of the actors featured, the subject of twins in cinema, Roy William Neill's fascination with ravens and much more.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Karloff is Dr Henryk Savaard, creator of an artificial heart. His first experiment on a human subject results in death not because of the device but because his nurse calls the police before the experiment is over. Sentenced to death he swears revenge on those who sent him to hang and when he's up and about again, thanks to his assistant, that's exactly what he does.

The commentary track on this one is from Stephen Jones & Kim Newman who, as is usual for them, exhibit such knowledge and enthusiasm that there's barely space on the soundtrack for both of them to get all their facts and opinions out. I especially liked that if the film had been set in California it would have had to be called THE MAN THEY COULD NOT GAS and I agree with Kim Newman that the final act deserved another fifteen minutes to fit in three more killings.

The Man With Nine Lives (1940)

After twenty minutes of set up we finally get to see Karloff - encased in ice! This time he's Dr Leon Kravaal, experimenter with cryogenics, who has frozen himself and those who doubted him in the caves beneath his creepy old isolated island home. He's defrosted but has forgotten the formula for his revolutionary treatment, which is the cue for further underground experiments. Compared to THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG what this one lacks in vitality it makes up for with the claustrophobia of most of the film being set in a couple of small rooms.

It had never occurred to me before, but the Newman and Jones commentary track quite rightly alludes to MAN WITH NINE LIVES feeling in the tradition of stories from the US magazine Weird Tales, with both this and its predecessor firmly in the 'shudder pulp' tradition. Their commentary this time makes for a good 'follow on' from MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG and is therefore worth listening to after that one.

Karloff on Radio

Two stories from the Inner Sanctum radio series - The Corridor of Doom and The Wailing Wall. Both are great fun to listen to, and the references to Liptons Tea (the show's sponsor) beforehand actually serve to help turn the clock back and weirdly improve the listening experience.

Disc Two

Before I Hang (1940)

Karloff is Dr John Garth (and not Gaarth despite recurring writer Karl Brown's name being once again in the credits). Sentenced to death for euthanasia he spends his remaining days  perfecting an anti-aging serum that has the side effect of turning him into strangler, and when he's unexpectedly pardoned that's exactly what he keeps on doing. Better paced that MAN WITH NINE LIVES this keeps you so enthralled you don't even realise you've been listening to five minutes of Chopin's Etude No.12 in C Minor near the end. Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons provide the commentary duties on this one with plenty of detail on cast and crew, & Mr Rigby even mentions the Lindbergh cardiac pump that possibly formed the inspiration for one of the devices seen in this one.

The Devil Commands (1941)

Taking its inspiration from William Sloane's excellent Nigel Kneale-esque novel of cosmic horror The Edge of Running Water this sees Karloff's Dr Julian Blair attempting to 'pierce the veil' to see what lies beyond death after his wife is killed and he believes she is trying to contact him through his new brainwave machine. Some bland voice overs from Amanda Duff and some fumbled direction from Edward Dmytryk who gave us CAPTIVE. WILD WOMAN makes THE DEVIL COMMANDS less effective than it could have been but there's still some marvellous mad doctor stuff in this one. Stephen Jones & Kim Newman return for commentary duties, talking about the William Sloane novel on which the film is based, the career of Edward Dmytryk and lots more.

The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

The final film in Columbia's mad doctor series is strictly played for laughs as Karloff's mad doctor sells his house to pay off the mortgage imposed on him by the town doctor / sheriff / notary / moneylender, played by Peter Lorre. Karloff stays in the house to continue his experiments on travelling salesmen as he tries to perfect a race of supermen to help the war effort and convinces Lorre to help him. The interplay between the two stars is a delight, making up for some somewhat tired slapstick old dark house shenanigans. Your tolerance for screwball comedies of then 1940s will dictate how well you'll get on with this one. Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons return to provide the final commentary track of the set.

Karloff on the Radio

Two more tales from the Inner Sanctum radio series - Birdsong for a Murderer and Death For Sale round out the second disc.

With the transfers, commentaries and assorted extras (including stills and poster galleries for each film) this is an essential set. It would be wonderful if Eureka could do the same with the Region 1 six film MGM set of years past that also included Newman and Jones commentaries on movies like Tod Browning's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. Failing that, how about giving us a three disc set of BELA LUGOSI AT MONOGRAM?

KARLOFF AT COLUMBIA is out in a two disc Blu-ray set from Eureka on Monday 3rd May 2021

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