Universal Terror

Universal Terror - Night Key, The Climax, The Black Castle

The normally locked vaults, attics and dungeons of Universal are once again visited by Eureka in their continuing journey through the expansive and varied back catalogue of Boris Karloff, three films gathered under the title of Universal Terror, 1937 thriller Night Key, 1944 murder mystery musical The Climax, the only one of the three filmed in colour, and The Black Castle of 1952, a tale of romance and revenge.

An elderly inventor who has spent fifteen years developing a light-beam based system superior to that used at private security firm Ranger Protective Services, David Mallory is once again swindled out of his work by Stephen Ranger who signs a contract but refuses to implement it. Furious, Mallory chooses to demonstrate the vulnerability in the current electrical contact system, embarrassing his former partner into capitulation, but inevitably the Night Key falls into the wrong hands.

Universal Terror - Cavanaugh and Karloff in Night Key

Directed by Lloyd Corrigan, Karloff is the kindly and well-intentioned Mallory whose happenstance encounter and act of kindness towards opportunistic thief “Petty Louie” (Hobart Cavanaugh) leads to an unfortunate obligation which places both him and his daughter Joan (Jean Rogers, Dale Arden to Larry “Buster” Crabbe’s Flash Gordon) in danger when gang leader “the Kid” (Alan Baxter) sees the opportunity of the invention.

Mallory and Louie initially partners in mischief rather than crime, Joan is assisted by the dependable Jimmy Travis (Warren Hull), assigned by Ranger to follow her in hopes of catching her father but seeing more to the situation than is apparent, and while the players do their best to cover the deficiencies of a script which requires Mallory’s later inventions to progress marginally into the realm of science fiction Night Key never unlocks the promised door to terror.

Universal Terror - Hull and Rogers in Night Key

Presented in Technicolor, The Climax is a premise altogether different but fundamentally flawed, set around the Vienna Royal Theatre where Doctor Friedrich Hohner (Karloff) serves as physician to the performers contracted to opera impresario Count Seebruck (Thomas Gomez) whose latest discovery, the student Angela Klatt (Susanna Foster), has a voice comparable to the great Marcellina (June Vincent) who vanished ten years previously.

Director George Waggner reuniting with the writer of The Wolf Man, Curt Siodmak, The Climax works neither as thriller, the opening flashback detailing the murder of Marcellina by Hohner who has improbably kept her body upstairs for ten years without discovery, nor as a romantic musical, Angela a frustratingly pathetic victim-in-waiting with her hair up in pink ribbons and possessed of a voice both astonishing and horrifying, the viewer’s sympathy entirely with Hohner in his desire to silence the ultrasonic torture.

Universal Terror - Foster and Karloff in The Climax

Technically superb, gloriously lit, designed and decorated, from the costumes and sets to the magnificent matte shots which enhance the scope of the theatre, The Climax is painfully static, the bland characters frozen in the cavernous spaces as, perhaps echoing the format of opera which forms the backstory, they spend twice as long as is needed to establish every plot point before the predictable grand finale.

Karloff the leading player of Night Key, despite being the principal protagonist and villain of The Climax he is a secondary character, his descent continuing in The Black Castle where Doctor Meissen is little more than a supporting character, though one who ultimately serves a purpose, more than can be said for the unfortunate Gargon, the mute brute played by Lon Chaney, Jr.

Universal Terror - Foster, Bey and Karloff in The Climax

Opening with wolves howling over a graveyard at night as a servant runs to the crypt carrying a flaming torch, in daylight the location of the Black Castle of the cruel Count Carl von Bruno (Stephen McNally) looks less like the architecture and scenery of the Black Forest in Austria than that of Southern California, Sir Richard Burton (Richard Greene) travelling incognito as Richard Beckett to investigate the disappearance of two comrades who have vanished, knowing that the Count bears a grudge against them all from their time in colonial Africa.

The corridors of The Black Castle filled with traps and surprises, among them a water-filled pit of crocodiles, a natural inclusion for every self-respecting middle European landowner in the unspecified time in which the film is set, leaving aside Rita Corday as the helpless Countess Elga von Bruno the parts and the ensemble who play them are a considerable improvement.

Universal Terror - Chaney and Corday in The Black Castle

Directed by Nathan Juran who ten years before had won the Oscar for Best Art Direction for How Green Was My Valley and would later make The Deadly Mantis and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Black Castle is one of his less well-remembered films but as with The Climax it cannot be faulted on a technical level with the sets and costumes presented in all their detail in Eureka’s new edition.

All three films of Universal Terror making their UK Blu-ray debut, Night Key and The Black Castle are presented from 2K scans of fine grain film elements and The Climax from an interpositive, the first two film carrying commentaries from Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby and The Black Castle from Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, and all three have galleries of both behind-the-scenes photographs and promotional artwork.

Universal Terror will be available on Blu-ray from Eureka from Monday 18th July

Universal Terror - Greene and McNally in The Black Castle



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