In 1958, producer Richard Gordon offered Boris Karloff a two-picture deal with director Robert Day. The dual productions, The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood, would be A (or A-) budget productions, providing the actor a starring role and a salary to match. Karloff jumped at the offer. It had been twelve years since his last star-quality vehicle, the Val Lewton-produced Bedlam (directed by Mark Robson). Since then, Karloff had been stuck in character parts (1951’s The Strange Door, 1952’s The Black Castle), playing opposite Abbott and Costello (1949’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer), or crap (1954’s The Island Monster and 1957’s Voodoo Island). He had fared better in television (as one of the few big screen stars of the time who had no qualms jumping to the small screen).
The Haunted Strangler is often assessed as the lesser of the two Day/Karloff films, with the actor at his hammiest since 1934’s The Lost Patrol (directed by John Ford and featuring Karloff’s worst performance). Much of the film’s considerable budget went into expensive sets and into securing its lead actor, which unfortunately short-shifted the makeup department: Karloff’s Hyde-like transformation is reduced to the actor tilting his head, mussing up hair, twisting his hand into a claw, and biting lower lip. It is distracting as hell, and critics have been divided on assessing his performance as a whole. Another oft-cited critique is the predictable storyline. In its defense, classic horror fans usually rely on the overused virtues of atmosphere. There are also lurid elements of exploitation (champagne-soaked cleavage, Busby Berkeley-inspired can-can crotch shots, gruesome murders of women, floggings, bedlam abuses, broken glass to the face, etc) to keep up the interest.
A film is more than a plot or good makeup effects, however, and Day counts on the actor to carry this character-driven opus. Karloff plays a writer named Rankin, seeking justice for a man whom he believes was wrongly executed as the Haymarket Strangler. Rankin believes the true serial killer is still at large, and through his investigation we are transported through a series of impressive set pieces, from a dilapidated asylum to a gravesite ripe for defiling, a prison, and a sleazy cabaret. The narrative “twist” is transparent almost from the opening, and witnessing Karloff’s B-film descent into hysterical lunacy makes for a beguiling contrast with the A-quality art production. Given the flimsy plotting, a more subdued performance would have rendered the enterprise vapid. Despite the film’s obvious flaws, blatant titillation, and dated makeup, Karloff bounces through a project that is tailor-made for him.
Corridors of Blood is a different animal, with nary a monster in sight—at least not the genre expectations of a supernatural ogre. Rather, it is the monster of ignorance that rears its head here, and despite the overly familiar barbarous-naïveté-impeding-medical-progress theme, Corridors of Blood, like its brother, purports to go for shock. Despite the title and marketing campaign, however, Corridors of Blood is surprisingly subdued.
Karloff plays the humanitarian Dr. Bolton, a surgeon obsessed with alleviating surgical pain through anesthesia. Haunted by the screams of his patients, Bolton accidentally discovers a type of laughing gas. Impervious to pain from a cut suffered while stoned on the gas, Bolton desperately attempts to recreate the formula. Rejected by his peers, who take the Victorian attitude that suffering is good for the soul, Bolton ventures into seedy areas and characters, which leads him to an encounter with horror newbie Christopher Lee. Again, the set pieces are elaborately constructed and choreographed to a sleazy performance, this time supplied by Lee as the aptly-monikered “Resurrection Joe.” While effective, Lee is one-upped by Francis De Wolff as the blackmailing innkeeper.
The blood of the title is confined to hospital surgeries, but Bolton’s sense of panic leads him to a dark side replete with unlawfulness and eventual murder. Unfortunately, Day doesn’t visually accommodate Bolton’s addictive hallucinations. Additionally, the pacing is problematic; the film could have used a director more inclined to let loose. Still, Corridors of Blood features a solid, noteworthy performance from its star, is handsomely produced, and generally considered superior to its sibling—though some may prefer Karloff biting his lip and lurching, knife in hand, at wet udders.
Both films have surprisingly been given the Criterion collection treatment in the impressive “Monsters and Madmen” collection, along with the 1959 Day/Gordon productions Atomic Submarine and First Men Into Space.
Many critics and biographers rightly point out that Frankenstein 1970 (directed by Howard W. Koch) does not live up to its opening segment, is a talk fest, and features a hokey monster (revealed to be Boris himself) and an overly ripe performance from Karloff. Yet, this is the actor’s first appearance in a Frankenstein themed film since 1944’s House of Frankenstein, and although it cannot compare to the first three entries in the Universal series, it is certainly superior to everything that followed 1939’s Son of Frankenstein.
Hardly a great film, Frankenstein 1970 remains somewhat underrated. While Karloff indeed chews a lot of pork, he enjoys his role. Additionally, it has an intriguing pulp premise. The descendant of the original Baron Victor Frankenstein, horribly scarred as a holocaust victim, rents out the famous castle to a schlock Hollywood film crew in order to raise cash for the equipment necessary to carry on his ancestor’s experiments.
The opening segment depicts a buxom blond running through the swamp, fleeing from a clawed monster, which turns out to be a scene from the film-within-a-film. Naturally (this being a late 1950s AIP production) this new Baron is using “atomic energy” to carry out his evil deeds. The resulting monster looks more like a 1940s mummy than Karloff circa 1931. The speculation on the “future” of 1970 is predictably off and not exploited to its potential, which also renders the title nonsensical. Unfortunately, as in many late features from the horror icon’s oeuvre, he’s the best thing about it, surrounded by bland co-stars.
The marketing campaign blared “Karloff’s back!,” and at least it lives up to that billing: the veteran shuffles through blackened corridors, malevolently grimaces, ominously lisps, sends shudders through his chuckle, and gives no comfort to anyone as he takes his comfort in playing the organ (something dark, of course).
There is a lot of chatter, but Karloff’s piercing bark almost cuts through it all. Like Lugosi, Karloff is securely in his element, graduating from monster to monster maker. His performance here, which shrewdly plays off his screen persona, would make a grand double feature with the Baron from Mad Monster Party (1967). Indeed, the 1958 role could be seen a precursor to 1967’s delightful self-parody. Being Karloff, the actor injects the role with pathos (something Lugosi never did, nor wanted to do), but he’s also not so old that he can’t learn new tricks (from Peter Cushing’s doctor-as-monster Baron equipped with severed eyeballs from the year before). The Karloff of old resurfaces as well, giving the impotent Baron (his condition results from concentration camp tortures) a repugnantly lecherous, sexually charged undercurrent. Despite the film that surrounds him, Karloff gives a tour de force performance and for that reason alone, Frankenstein 1970 is enjoyably unremarkable, which is something that can be said for the bulk of the actor’s late film work.