Born William Henry Pratt in Camberwell, Surrey, in November of 1887, it is unlikely that had he retained that name that Boris Karloff would have become an international star and horror icon, but equally his frustrations with the limitations of the role which brought him his greatest fame are understandable.
The misunderstood mute creation in James Whale’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein, Karloff was obliged to reprise the role for Universal but was better rewarded with a role in Whale’s The Old Dark House, although the sequence of six films now gathered by Eureka Classics as Karloff at Columbia, making their worldwide Blu-ray debut and their UK debut in any format, allow a better appreciation of the actor and his work.
Opening with The Black Room from 1935, Karloff plays the dual roles of the cursed heirs of the House de Berghmann, the elder who inherits the title, Baron Gregor, cruel and manipulative, a fiend and a tyrant who preys on the local women, and only minutes younger Anton, gentle and kind yet foretold to kill his brother despite his paralysed arm.
Filmed on beautiful sets and backdrops, vast and theatrical, The Black Room uses clever camera placement, body doubles and split screen to create the illusion of Karloff as two distinct individuals, and for a film eighty-five years old it remains technically superb, presented in a flawless print which does justice to ambitious vision of director Roy William Neill and the cinematography of Allen G Siegler.
Moving from the 18th to the 20th century, next Karloff becomes Doctor Henryk Savaard for 1939’s The Man They Could Not Hang, developing a method for oxygenating blood and driving circulation externally, allowing complicated prolonged surgery previously impossible, but interrupted by the police his test subject predictably dies and Savaard is charged with murder and sentenced to death.
The first of three collaborations with director Nick Grindé in the set, The Man They Could Not Hang is a more daring script, ahead of its time in the concepts it presents, Savaard a sympathetic villain despite his apparent radical personality change, though the second half becomes a routine revenge story as the judge and jury Savaard holds responsible are invited to a dinner party they cannot leave alive which lacks the flair of the earlier experimental phase with its blown glass cardiopulmonary system.
Released in 1940 and again with Grindé directing, The Man With Nine Lives is Doctor Leon Kravaal, accused of murdering his terminally ill patient when an experimental cryogenic therapy is misunderstood; assailed in his own home and betrayed by those who promised to listen with an open mind, Kravaal froze himself and his uninvited guests… for ten years.
Paralleling The Man They Could Not Hang with pioneering medical research, concerned relatives, the intervention of the law and a sudden reversal of personality in the protagonist, Karloff is by far the best performer in The Man With Nine Lives despite Kravaal’s tendency to repeat dialogue and his abandonment the key tenet of the Hippocratic Oath, his homicidal frustration perhaps understandable when faced with fools who would thwart the advance of science.
The final Grindé film in the set, Before I Hang was also released in 1940, Karloff’s Doctor John Garth for once clearly having stepped outside the law by performing euthanasia on an elderly patient, but the prison warden allows him to continue his research into rejuvenation before his execution, stayed with an eleventh hour call from the governor but not before Garth has already injected himself with a serum prepared from the only available source – the blood of a convicted murderer.
Drawing heavily on The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, for once Karloff is matched in performance by one of his co-stars, Pedro de Córdoba as pianist Victor Sondini, one of a group of Garth’s companions who notice after release that their old friend is now noticeably younger than them, his fading talents encouraging him to agree to Garth’s offer of treatment, while too late Garth’s increasing awareness of his compulsions push him to take responsibility for his acts.
Later one of the “Hollywood Ten,” Edward Dmytryk brings a change of style with The Devil Commands of 1941 where Karloff played the more reasonable and sympathetic Doctor Julian Blair, head of the science department of Midland University and engaged in research recording brainwave patterns when his wife is killed in an accident; relocating to Barsham Harbour in New England, his work expands to “scientific communication between the living and the so-called dead” in hopes of contacting his wife.
The atmosphere more pronounced and the story unfolding rather than rushing forward in fits and starts, The Devil Commands mixes science fiction and supernatural horror and for once it is not blind madness which drives the descent to dark deeds but Anne Revere’s ambitious fake medium Madame Blanche Walters in a story of grave robbing and rioting townsfolk where structure and presentation owe more than a little to the aforementioned Frankenstein.
Each of the six films of Karloff at Columbia accompanied by a new commentary and a gallery of stills and artwork, the set closes with The Boogie Man Will Get You of 1942, in theory an antidote to what has gone before, a knockabout comedy directed by Lew Landers placing Karloff’s eccentric inventor Professor Nathaniel Billings opposite Peter Lorre as Doctor Arthur Lorencz, possessed of a hat for every occasion and a kitten in his pocket, but the effort falls flat.
Set in a shambolic guest house, fifteen characters battle for screen time in a script built for quirks and slapstick rather than a comprehensible story where a more focused approach would have showcased the stronger elements such as the Flash Gordon inspired basement laboratory and the Billings’ quest to create a Captain America style supersoldier, the result being undeniably high-spirited but tiresomely shrill as the visitors are obliged to behave stupidly to move the increasingly ridiculous plot forwards.