Eureka present a first-time release for six classic Boris Karloff films, all from his post Universal days at Colombia Pictures. Karloff was a bankable star, whose mere presence seemed to raise the level of excitement in theatres all around the world. This release pools the six studio releases alongside four radio dramas and present them in one attractive package. Each film has a run time of just over one hour but that makes each release perfect for It’s absolutely packed to the gills with content, so let’s get to it!
The Black Room
Directed by: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Arthur Strawn, Henry Myers
Starring: Boris Karloff, Marian Marsh, Robert Allen
Running Time: 68 minutes
The first movie presentation is the only film not to feature a mad doctor. Karloff plays twins whose lives are entangled in an old prophecy that says that one will kill the other in the ‘black room’. Wishing to stop any notion of this tragedy coming true, the room is sealed and designated as never to be used again. The twins, Anton and Gregor grow up and go their separate ways. One grows up to be bitter, mean and capable of many devious acts while Anton returns home and is popular and generous of spirit.
The brothers battle their destiny while trying to achieve their goals in the present. It is a wonderful tale, full of twists and turns of greed, love, jealousy and deceit. Karloff plays both characters distinctly and you can’t help but think he had a lot of fun in the roles.
The film is shot beautifully, and its beauty of shadows and sets were something I was not expecting nor prepared for.
For me, this is the pick of the bunch as the tale has a solid three act structure that is never laboured or drawn out.
The Man They Could Not Hang
Directed by: Nick Grinde
Screenplay: Karl Brown
Starring: Boris Karloff, Lorna Gray, Robert Wilcox
Running Time: 64 minutes
This is the first of the mad doctor movies (and the first in what became known as the ‘Mad Doctor Cycle’) in the set and while each has their own twist on the tale, each sets out the central characters’ motivations differently. Karloff plays Dr Henryk Savaard who is a man who believes he has found a way to prolong life. A medical student agrees willingly to be a test subject for what looks like an artificial heart, but his girlfriend gets cold feet while the procedure is happening and interrupts the doctor before he can finish. The young man dies in the process and Dr. Savaard is subsequently tried for murder and death by hanging.
Where the plot turns next is not exactly surprising but the turn from well-meaning medical genius to evil and mad is enjoyable and fast paced. There are plenty of novel ideas (especially for the time I am sure) and the action never gets stale. Another winner.
The Man with Nine Lives
Directed by: Nick Grinde
Screenplay: Karl Brown
Starring: Boris Karloff, Roger Pryor, Jo Ann Sayers
Running Time: 74 minutes
This time the film centres on the work of a Dr Mason (played by Roger Pryor) who is experimenting (to some success) with curing cancer while using primitive forms of cryogenics – in this case packing ice around the patient. He is following on from the work of infamous doctor Dr Leon Kravaal who has been missing for ten years, presumed dead.
Pryor travels with his assistant (also his wife) to his old homestead to see if he can uncover the truths or glean more information. On the way, he is told that the homestead is haunted as anyone who goes there, is never seen again…
I haven’t mentioned Karloff by name, but I suspect I have already said too much. I probably also sound like a broken record in that this was again very enjoyable. Each of these films feels pulpy but I suspect that is due as much to the shortened run time as to the content as this film again makes use of limited sets, but the sets that are used are elaborate and used to their fullest extent.
Before I Hang
Directed by: Nick Grinde
Screenplay: Robert Hardy
Starring: Boris Karloff, Evelyn Keyes, Bruce Bennett
Running Time: 62 minutes
The final film in the ‘Mad Doctor Cycle’ starts with a contrite elderly physician John Garth, who is being sentenced for the apparent mercy killing of a patient who was also advancing in age. Dr Garth had been working on a serum to cure the body from the ageing process, calling it a disease just like any other.
He is sentenced to death by hanging (Karloff must have been getting sick of this moniker by this stage himself) but in an interesting turn of events the prison warden offers the doctor the carrot of allowing him to continue with his work in the three weeks that he has left. It seems a stretch but the importance of his work to the prison physician means that his last days can be fruitful.
Karloff again shows his effectiveness as a physical actor both in terms of stature and facial expression. He never overtly plays evil characters in the mad doctor films so it’s easy to side with Karloff in each part. It gives each film a sense of familiarity as you see the evolution of the character.
The Devil Commands
Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: Robert Hardy Andrews, Milton Gunzburg
Starring: Boris Karloff, Robert Fiske, Amanda Duff
Running Time: 65 minutes
This 1941 film see Karloff play another doctor, Dr Blair, who is obsessed with finding ways to communicate with his dead wife, who snuffs it shortly after the beginning of the movie. This presentation is the first that sees Karloff plays someone who is clearly driven by selfish motives and as someone who is so grief-stricken that those who love him warn him about the dangers of what he is doing from the outset.
It follows a different path than the others in that the doctor is aided and abetted by others in his attempts. It has much more of a science fiction slant as brain waves are used to represent life and pseudoscience is used as a plot device much more overtly.
There is a contrast between the science and the spiritual as a supposed medium (played by Anne Revere) seeks to influence proceedings. It is slightly less successful than the previous mad doctor films, but a fun watch nonetheless as Karloff is able to display his persona to the fullest from early on.
The Boogieman Will Get You
Directed by: Lew Landers
Screenplay: Edwin Blum
Starring: Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Max Rosenbloom
Running Time: 67 minutes
This film marks a stark departure from the rest of the set as it is much more of a farce. It is a comedic play on the mad doctor formula with most of the characters playing to form as wildly as they could. Accompanying our mad doctor Karloff as lead billing is Peter Lorre, who plays a law enforcement officer horrified with Karloff’s antics – but not horrified enough to do the simple thing!
It descends into a caper with characters being played against each other as alliances are formed. Each character has their own reason for doing what they do. For me, this film is the weakest link in the set, mainly due to the reason that the comedy and farce nature indicates that the stakes are less serious.
Thankfully, it is also the film that is the least predictable in terms of plot.
• 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
The commentaries are the star of the show in this release. I was initially wary of how these were to be presented with repeat pairings on multiple films, but it is a roaring success across the board. Lyons and Rigby tend to use the events on screen quite closely as their impetus, detailing character actors, scenes and critical reception to each of the films. They have great chemistry, and it was especially pleasing to hear them educate each other with nuggets or factoids as they progressed. For instance, the commentary for The Boogieman Will Get You talks a lot about what Karloff was doing before and around the time of filming, how he was suffering physically and how it could be seen in his performance.
The Newman and Jones commentaries are much more free form as the pair riff on general themes, actors and characters from the films. They are both very enjoyable to listen to and their off-hand knowledge is bewildering. It was really refreshing to hear the pair use the unusual nature of the multiple commentaries to their advantage as they could continue themes and topics of conversation across films. I found myself immediately going to listen to the next film in the series just to continue the commentary.
In addition, there are four radio plays included on the discs which I have not seen advertised as part of the set. Each is around 30 minutes in duration. Birdsong for a Murderer, Death for Sale, The Corridor of Doom and The Wailing Wall. I often find these types of radio plays difficult to focus on while listening to the discs, but they are interesting curiosities if nothing else. Karloff may have a distinctive voice, but his physical look and presence is his calling card for a reason.
The release also contains a 48-page booklet that looks at each of the films, their history and place in Karloff’s career, their critical reception while also providing praise for Karloff’s work in each. It is accompanied by some beautiful stills and the overall look of the booklet matches the menus of the release beautifully.
The set from top to bottom feels wonderfully crafted and thought out. It is a stunning collection and one I can heartily recommend to any fans of the genre or timespan. As stated elsewhere in the review, while I enjoyed each of the films, it is the commentaries that will make this release one I will revisit time and again. An essential physical release and one of the best of the year so far.