Maniacal Mayhem

Just in time for Hallowe’en, Eureka make another triple dip into the vaults of Universal to revisit the career of Boris Karloff with a set of films released under the banner of Maniacal Mayhem, The Invisible Ray of 1936, Black Friday of 1940, both of which see him paired with Béla Lugosi, and The Strange Door of 1951 which instead puts him in a sympathetic supporting role with Charles Laughton playing the gleefully murderous villain.

A trip around three continents, or at least the studio scenery dock, The Invisible Ray sets off from the Carpathian Mountains where astrochemist Doctor Janos Rukh (Karloff) prepares to reveal his findings to his invited guests, among them his rival Doctor Felix Benet (Lugosi) before an expedition to Nigeria to locate the theorised meteorite which contains the powerful but deadly “Radium X,” leading to a confrontation which plays out in Paris.

Directed by Lambert Hillyer from a script by John Colton, The Invisible Ray opens magnificently at the mansion of Doctor Rukh, illuminated by flashes of lightning as Diana (Frances Drake) dons her raincoat to make her way to the observatory where here her husband sits at his telescope under the dome open to a night curiously clear and still, obsessing over the distant past and the possibilities of the future.

Rukh gazing at the stars, believing that all events leave “a vibration” in any material with which they interact, an idea proposed by The Eidoloscope of Robert Duncan Milne and later formalised as “the Stone Tape theory,” his eccentricity devolves to madness and a desire for revenge on those whom he feels betrayed him, releasing the power of Radium X to kill the members of the African expedition even as he slowly succumbs to the effects of the radiation himself.

The premise intriguing but poorly developed and executed, The Invisible Ray suffers from the same static pacing and staging of many of Universal’s films of the time with Karloff and Lugosi playing variations of the same characters and events and little sympathy or kindness to be found for any of them save Violet Kemble Cooper as Frau Rukh, blind mother who once saw the genius of her son but now sees only his evil.

Directed by Arthur Lubin from a script by Curt Siodmak which presents a premise he would revisit time and again in his career, Black Friday is more narratively daring and experimental but is unfortunately no more successful than the radical unsanctioned surgery performed unaided by Doctor Ernest Sovac (Karloff) to ostensibly save the life of his best friend, Professor George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges, whose performance makes him the true star of the film).

Suffering a traumatic brain injury when hit by a speeding car driven by a gangster fleeing his former accomplices led by Eric Marnay (Lugosi), Sovac conducts a brain transplant using the criminal as donor (later revised in the dialogue to a partial brain transplant) and is surprised when his friend begins to display a personality less like a teacher of English literature and more like the gangster who knocked him down, though he decides to use this to his advantage to attempt to trick his patient into revealing the location of the stolen money to fund his research.

Black Friday a ridiculous twist on Jekyll and Hyde which even contemporary audiences must have found difficult to accept, it is debatable which is more ridiculous, a well-regarded surgeon who abandons any semblance of medical ethics to murder one patient and lobotomise another or the patient who recovers without any time to recuperate or ill effects save the radical personality change, nor displays any scars, Sovac presumably the true genius behind the technique which Doctor Michael Hfuhruhurr would later describe as “screw-top surgery.”

The best of the trio, partially due to being an adaptation of a literary source, Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Sire de Maletroit’s Door, and also due to the presence of Joseph Pevney in the director’s chair, The Strange Door sees roguish fallen noble Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley) tricked into believing he has killed a man then held hostage by the monstrous Alain de Maletroit (Laughton) who blackmails him into marrying his niece Blanche (Sally Forest) as part of a complex plot of revenge against his brother, held in a dungeon for twenty years.

Laughton playing a character which suits his heavy frame, pompous, manipulative, wealthy and decadent, de Maletroit’s only joy in life is inflicting cruelty on others, physical and mental, believing his brother Edmond (Paul Cavanagh) to have been driven insane by his years of imprisonment, unaware that he has been cared for by manservant Voltan (Karloff) who has remained loyal to his true master and continues to protect Blanche as best he can.

Fifteen years before he made some of the most beloved episodes of Star Trek, Pevney’s direction lifts The Strange Door above the stock format of typical Universal Horror of the era from a swashbuckling barroom brawl to the action sequence of the finale, more ambitious than anything attempted in the two accompanying films and with exquisite costumes and elaborate sets beautifully presented in Eureka’s restoration.

All three of the films comprising Maniacal Mayhem presented from 2K scans of the original film elements, The Invisible Ray and The Strange Door are supported by newly recorded audio commentaries from author Stephen Jones and critic Kim Newman and Black Friday is covered by Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby, each film also coming with original trailers and galleries of poster art and stills, while The Strange Door also carries radio adaptations of Stevenson’s original story.

Maniacal Mayhem will be available on Blu-ray from Eureka from Monday 17th October



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