When Hammer Horror offered its premier director, Terence Fisher, his own franchise, he chose to work with the Frankenstein character rather than Dracula. Fisher was astute enough to realize that Mary Shelly’s saga had more potential for expansion and innovation. Even so, Fisher was hampered Universal Studio’s preexisting model of dos and don’ts. Once Boris Karloff forever removed Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup, the Monster became a lumbering bore played by lesser actors (Lon Chany, Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange) and directed by hacks.
For his part, Karloff, in a variety of films, essentially took on the role of Dr. Frankenstein (in all but name). His Dr. Niemann was certainly the most colorful highlight in the assembly line monster mash House of Frankenstein (1944). Most regrettably, Niemann himself did not dispose of the whiny hunchback (J. Carrol Naish), Wolf Man (Chaney Jr.), or the irritatingly bland protagonists. While John Carradine’s Transylvanian count at least had a degree of personality, his screen time was brief. Briefer still was the monster (Strange) seen in a lethargic, somnolent state. When he finally awoke, his only threat was curing us of insomnia. This left Karloff to salvage what was left of the movie, and he did just that in a most entertaining way (unfortunately, the sequel, 1945’s House of Dracula, only had Carradine to attempt a rescue, which he failed to do). Of course, the doctor was infinitely more interesting than the monster here because he was played by the vastly superior, original monster. Fisher obviously realized this shift, paving the path for his Frankenstein series, which was actually about Frankenstein (the doctor, not the monster).
Karloff’s run as a mad doctor actually got its start in 1936, one year after his role in Bride Of Frankenstein. The Man Who Changed His Mind (aka The Man Who Lived Again) was made for a UK Production company and directed by Robert Stevenson. The formulaic script is aided considerably by witty dialogue from the scriptwriters (including John L. Balderston, who penned Universal’s Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Bride of Frankenstein); ripe, eccentric performances; and Stevenson’s fast-clipped pacing.
Expectedly, this is Karloff’s show, and he responds by bouncing off the walls. The absurd plot is about thought transferal (a brain transplant without actually removing the brain), and aptly, Karloff seems to have a hard time staying put in his skin. As Dr. Laurience, he nervously wrings his hands, incessantly pulls on his hair, chain-smokeshis way through the entire film, screams, paces the floor, and defies the censors by the look in his eye alone. The object of his implied lust is one Dr. Clare Wyatt (played by Anna Lee, whom Karloff will confront again in Bedlam). Clare has been summoned to be an assistant to one-time professor Laurience. In a Dracula-like journey, she travels first by train, then by coach to Laurience’s laboratory. Even the coachman echoes that earlier film by refusing to walk her to the door of that place.
Clare has an annoying fiancée in Dick Hasslewood (John Loder, who begins by acting as if he overdosed on Jimmy Olson comic books), but once she has arrived at her destination, a battle of wills unfolds. Lee is as up to locking horns with Karloff as she will be a decade later in the Val Lewton production. Smart and fiercely independent, she makes a charismatic lead and foil for Karloff.
The film at its silliest provides a pair of guinea pig chimpanzees, pseudo sci- fi gobbledygook, and a laboratory full of thing-a-ma-jigs. Fortunately, much of the campiness is offset by the hip art deco sets, atmospheric camerawork, lots of burning cigarettes, a stylish montage, and an excellent surrounding cast of antagonists (Frank Cellier as the constipated, bourgeoisie capitalist Lord Hasslewood and Donald Calthrop as Clayton, oozing slime from a wheelchair).
The Man Who Changed His Mind is endearingly bipolar, opening in a Gothic milieu before descending into delightfully dated puerility. Karloff, Calthrop, and Cellier have adolescent fun switching identities. Even Loder gets the opportunity to drop his dense David Manners persona when he channels Karloffian thoughts. Loder grabs Clare, who recoils upon spotting Doc Laurience’s burning fag between her non-smoking fiancé’s fingers. Kicking into spitfire mode, she rejects the potential rapist’s erection, sprints down a flight of stairs, does an about face, and dashing-ever-dashing upwards, flips an assembly line of switches, righting all those evil scientific wrongs.
After the relative success of The Man Who Changed His Mind, Columbia Pictures signed Karloff to a five-picture deal, roles in four of which were modeled after his Dr. Laurience (the fifth and last is a comedy). Unfortunately, the four, straight “B” programmers merely emulated the stale formulaic quality of their predecessor, without the benefit of the original’s superior cast.
The Man They Could Not Hang (1939 ) is the first of the three Karloff features directed by Nick Grinde. Here Karloff is Dr. Savaard, a genteel scientist modeled after the real-life Robert Cornish (who reanimated two dead dogs in 1934).
Dr. Savaard’s shirtless stud of a med student, Bob (Stanley Brown) volunteers himself to be scientifically put to death, in order to be revived. His bore of a gal pal, Betty (Ann Doran) runs to the kops, who arrest Savaard, preventing him from reviving Bob. After being found guilty of murder and an off-screen execution (we’re deep in the heart of the Production Code here), Savaard’s assistant, Lang (Byron Foulger) whisks the fresh corpse away and revives the good doctor. Alas, with a slightly repaired broken neck and mechanical heart, thegood doctor is now saddled with a side effect: Savaard has been transformed into… (insert drum roll) a raving lunatic (for daring to impinge on our heavenly Judge’s domain), which of course thankfully kicks Karloff into full King of Horror mode.
Under the pretense of anonymity, Savaard holds a pre-House on Haunted Hill (1959) gathering, inviting all those who condemned and obstructed him. Most regrettably, he only kills off a handful before daughter Janet (Lorna Gray) saves daddy from the dark side. Karloff fully excels as Dr. Super Bitch, and his dying-breath conversion is no more convincing or appealing than it would be for Darth Vader forty years later. Even with death cards, barred windows, and electrified gates, the film, like its non-entity supporting cast, is too subdued. Karloff alone is the film’s entertaining over-the-top redemption, moving things along at breakneck speed.
The Man With Nine Lives (1940) is the second collaboration with Grinde. The Forties were hardly horror’s best decade, and Columbia’s genre entries were among the most pedestrian (Lugosi, saddled with a talking, self-pitying werewolf in 1943’s Return Of The Vampire, fared no better with the studio). A lot of ice could only help. The Man With Nine Lives benefits from an almost entirely frozen landscape and a suitably absurd narrative.
Dr. Tim (Roger Pryor) and nurse Judy (Jo Ann Sayers) have found a cure for cancer, utilizing ice as a freezing agent. Despite the effectiveness of the cure, their boss (Charles Trowbridge) is upset with the pair’s heterodox methods and forces them to leave the hospital.
On a much needed vacation getaway, Tim and Judy stumble upon the Canadian lair of Dr. Kravaal (Karloff) who was thought mad because of his cryogenic research and vanished ten years before. Like Tim and Judy, Kravaal had been experimenting with frozen therapy. Lo and behold, our happy couple discover Kravaal’s secret laboratory: a frozen ice chamber. With ax in hand, Tim chops through the ice, and Kravaal slowly emerges from a decade-long sleep. Unfortunately, along with Sleeping Beauty, four bourgeoisie dwarfs are also revived (the law-abiding foursome had come to arrest Kravall, in an escapade that ended with all five being frozen in the ice chamber. They are revived, in part, with the aid of coffee!) No one learned any lessons in ten years of sleep. Idiocy raises its ugly head, and once more we are woefully deprived of witnessing Karloff dispatch the imbeciles. However, we are granted a degree of mercy through a yummy plate of Karloff going bonkers and killing the most annoying of the lot (God is good indeed). A menacing vault and secret passages add to the subzero milieu, but Karloff is saddled with an anonymous cast. Without his sagacious lead performance, the oddly named Man With Nine Lives would be hopelessly decaffeinated.
Before I Hang (1940) is the final and least of Karloff’s Columbia films with Grinde. It is kind of a half-assed remake of The Man They Could Not Hang and only remarkable for the amount of class Karloff manages to inject in the role of mercy killing Dr. Garth. Naturally, Garth is condemned to die. He does get a last second reprieve, but only after he and prison doctor Howard (Edward Van Sloan) have used an experimental anti-aging serum on Garth himself.
Without missing a predictable beat, the drug catapults Garth into a homicidal state. The only scene of note in this routine dreck is when Karloff kills Van Sloan yet again (echoing the monster’s strangulation of Dr. Wadlman in 1931’s Frankenstein).
The changing of the directorial guard (Edward Dmytryk, who later became one of the martyred Hollywood Ten) seems to have benefited The Devil Commands (1941); but being an early entry in the director’s career, it is only a slight improvement. The ads for the poster read: “When the Devil commands, Karloff obeys!” Alas, as much in the way of advertising, it’s a tad misleading, because Karloff retains sympathy as Dr. Blair.
The film opens with pointless voiceover exposition from the doctor’s daughter, Ann (Amanda Duff). Dr. Blair has developed a radio tube, which he claims allows communication with the dead. His wife, Helen (Shirley Ward) helps her husband out, but first it’s time for the good scientist to attend his daughter’s birthday celebration. During a heavy storm, stopping for cake, Helen is killed.
While Dr. Blair is immersed deep in mourning (as Ann keeps reminding us in narration, despite the fact that we see it), Helen communicates to her husband via EEG waves, but “nobody believes him.”
Assistant, Karl (Ralph Penny) introduces Blair to the medium Mrs. Walters (Ann Revere) and although she turns out to be a charlatan, Blair discovers her brain is actually receptive to “electrical currents from beyond.”
Mrs. Walters become Blair’s conduit for receiving posthumous brain impulses. Unfortunately, it is Walters who is the devil’s concubine. Eventually, she takes control of Blair’s life and work. Together, they relocate to a hideaway along a New England seacoast. An accidental death, a suspicious husband, a snooping sheriff, stolen bodies, a Frankenstein-like mob equipped with lanterns and baseball bats, storms, lab-created twisters, wacky graphs, and a round table of corpses harnessed in deep sea diver gear all barely muster any excitement beyond a straight line. Rather, it’s the always-reliable Karloff (the heavier the lisp, the more empathetic he is), interacting with a beautifully bitchy co-star, who carries the film.
Meant to capitalize on Karloff’s success in the famous play “Arsenic And Old Lace,”The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942, d. Lew Landers) is different, albeit silly, wartime fare. Karloff, as Professor Billings, gets to spoof his previous Columbia outings. Playing a bumbling, naive scientific quack working in the basement of a crumbling inn, Billings is trying to create a race of atomic supermen to help the war effort. He uses four dead peddlers as guinea pigs but has little success. Landlord Lorencz (Peter Lorre) is on the verge of throwing his tenant out until Billings is rescued by Good Samaritan Winnie (Miss Jeff Daniels—yes, her stage name was Jeff) who buys the inn with dreams of transforming it into a successful vacation resort. Winnie allows Billings and staff to stay on, but complications arise with the appearance of her ex-husband Bill (Larry Parks, who later gained fame in 1946’s The Jolson Story before becoming one of the most prominent victims of McCarthyism).
Lorencz becomes privy to the nature of Billings’ experiments and sees a potential goldmine. An assortment of screwball antics follows with Karloff and Lorre having fun playing off of each other and with their screen images. The ham meter goes red as Lorre goes the distance in his role of a landlord/sheriff/coroner/mayor/undertaker who keeps a Siamese kitten in his pocket (he talks to it in German). Karloff is equally engaging, and the two take more of a movie star posture than act per se, which works well.
Many argue that The Boogie Man Will Get You is not in the league of Old Lace, but that better-known film is curiously overrated. Larry Parks certainly grounds this film better than Cary Grant (who was miscast in Arsenic and threw it off-kilter). At the very least, the soon-to-be-shipped-off-to war Bill has a more intelligible motive in trying to bed Winnie. Despite the groan-inducing finale and blatant but enjoyably antiquated slapstick, it is the juvenile chemistry between Karloff and Lorre that sell this black comedy, which may be more effective as a “B” programmer. It is a surprising, mildly diverting cap to Karloff’s Columbia cycle.