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Karloff At Columbia - Karloff At Columbia( Blu Ray) [Eureka Entertainment - 2021]

Often when people think of Boris Karloff, the image of his iconic take on the Frankenstein monster comes to mind, but he was a hugely talented and versatile actor who could easily take on many different characters. Here from Eureka Entertainment is a two Blu Ray set bringing together six films, that Karloff made for Columbia studios between the mid-1930s and early 1940s. And it's a wonderfully enjoyable collection of films- with the selection going from a gothic thriller/ chiller, a varied selection of Mad Doc pics, and a horror-comedy. Each film gets a nice crisp and clear new scan, and each features a new commentary track too.

The Black Room (aka The Black Mystery in the UK) appeared in 1935, and is a great gothic thriller, with Karloff playing a dual role of two brothers- one kind and caring, and the other devious and deadly. The film was directed by Irish born Roy William Neill(R. William Neill)- who in all had an impressive 110 credits to his name between the years of 1917 and 1946. His output went from Civil war veteran drama The Girl, Glory (1917), Cowboy comedy The Fighting Buckaroo (1926), voodoo fed horror Black Moon (1934), a few 1940’s Sherlock Holmes films, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). The Black Room is a well-scoped slice of Gothic- with a castle set, graveyard, and angry villagers.

The film is set in the 1800s and tells of the De Berghman family- who have a deadly prophecy running through their seemingly privileged and castle living life- and this is that one twin brother will kill the other in The Black Room. Playing the twins is of course  Karloff- we have Baron Gregor- the deviously, ragged hair and blunt older brother, and Anton- the kind, caring, and more charming younger brother. All is done to try and avoid the prophecy- the black room is bricked -up,  and Anton leaves the castle for many years. But one day Gregor requests his brother to return- we find out that Gregor is hated and feared by the local villages, and there is the suggestion that he has killed some of the villages. Anton tries to smooth things over, but fairly soon it seems his brother is going to depart the castle handing over Baron title to his brother, but has he really gone or is the evil Gregor pretending to be his brother.
Karloff is great in the dual roles of Gregor and Anton- really revelling in playing up the evilness and devious of the bad brother, and equally playing the nice brother too who is identified by his one useless arm and smarter appearance. The surrounding cast is good too- there’s Thurston Hall as Col. Paul Hassel, whose keen to have his daughter Thea(Marian Marsh) marry into the De Berghman family. We have Robert Allen as Lt. Albert Lussan, Thea true love who gets accused of a crime he didn’t commit. The films sets look good and well-realized for the period- we have a neat graveyard set-up, the castle set including of course The Black room- which is lined in Onyx and has a pit/ well in it. The film slides in around the one hour and eight-minute mark, and it’s a most enjoyable and moody gothic drama- with a great central performance from Karloff. So The Black Room is a great opening to this boxset.

On the extras front for this film, we get a commentary track from the always great genre commentators/ writers Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby- and as you’d expect from this pair you get a wonderfully informed, researched and entertaining track. They start off discussing why the film's credits look somewhat of a mishmash- with this been down to the film been reissued in the 1950s. They move onto give actors bios, other twin films, including three twin films that made in the same year as The Black room. They discuss the films gothic tropes and how well-realized they are. A bit later they talk about the backlot the film was shot in, the film sets wonderful details, and more. Also for this film, we get a selection of films stills and promotional material.


Next, we have The Man They Could Not Hang- this was released in 1939, and it found Karloff in a mad-doctor setting; though he gives some depth and humanity to the role, which one can't usually say for this genre. The film was helmed by Wisconsin born director, assistant director, writer Nick Grinde. Between 1928 and 1945 he had 47 future lengths directorial credits to name, these go from Western Riders of the Dark(1928), bank robbery comedy-adventure Remote Control( 1930), gangster film Public Enemy’s Wife (1936), Romantic drama Delinqent Parents( 1938), Prison action drama Men Without Souls(1940), and comedy thriller Hitler—Dead Or Alive(1942)- so he was certainly a versatile director, and he does a good enough job with this largely one location set film.
The film opens with a young and fit man ready himself for an experiment by seemingly respected Dr Henryk Savaard( Karloff)- who is going to try and put the man to death then start his heart back up once more in his houses laboratory. The man seems happy and confident in the Dr Though his girlfriend is less sure, rushing off to get the police- they break in, finding the young man dead- and won’t let the Dr bring him back to life. He’s taken to court, found guilty and hanged- with his dead body been taken away by his sweaty, balding and bearded helper Lang. Sometime passes and those involved in the Dr’s case start dying, and those left surviving are invited to the Dr’s seemingly abandoned house. So has the Dr come back from the dead?, is it a copycat?, or is something else going on?.
The film roles in one hour and six-minute mark, and is largely an enjoyable enough twist on the mad-doctor genre. Karloff gives a good lead performance as Savaard- balancing well early care and compassion, with impassioned courtroom performance, and later creepy deviousness. The supporting cast is all good too, though at times maybe a little cliched in their 30’s character tropes- with worthy mentions going to Lorna Gray as the Dr’s daughter Janet, and Robert Wilcox as the slip in anywhere journalist 'Scoop' Foley. The film is difficult to genre peg really- as it moves from Mad- Doctor caper, onto courtroom drama, onto folks caught and killed in a house thriller. All in all, aside from some of the slightly dated elements, The Man They Could Not Hang is another worthy Karloff pic- with his acting talent shining through.

On the extras for this film, we get a commentary track from author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman, and as you hope from these seasoned commentators, it’s a great fact-packed and entertaining track. They start off by commenting on the films elegant title credits, move onto discuss the films initial science fiction thriller feel, and how it shifts genres as it goes along. Next, they discuss how Karloff came to Columbia and his film work before his move to the studio. They talk about the film's writers giving bios for each, they discuss Karloff different look for each of the Mad doctors' films made by Columbia. Later they talk about the real-life case that may have influenced the film- a doctor who was claiming he was bringing dogs back from the dead. They comment on onscreen action, the films house setting that was apparently used in a lot of studios film. And much, much more- making for a classy and easily play again commentary track. Lastly, we get a selection of films stills and promotional material for this film.

 

The last film on disc one is The Man With Nine Life’s, which appeared in 1940, and was another go at the mad-doctor genre, but with more of a mystery edge to proceedings. The film was directed by Nick Grinde again, and while there are a few slight similarities to The Man They Could Not Hang plotting, The Man With Nine Lifes does enough original things with the mad doctor form. 

The film begins with brill creamed and neat moustached Dr Tim Mason( Roger Pryory) carrying out a cryogenic operation on a female patient- she was under for five days, with her cancer been removed. Mason is pleased with his successes but also disappointed as he feels the use of cryogenics could be used for more medical treatments. He talks about a book he’s read by Dr Leon Kravaal( Karloff), that details how more extreme medical treatment can be done with cryogenics. Kravaal seemingly disappeared ten years back from his isolated island home that’s between America and Canada- so Mason with his fiancé/ nurse assistant Judith(Jo Ann Sayers) make their way to the coast near the island. They are warned not to go on the island, as a group that went looking for the doctor disappeared too, and when a search party went they found no sign of the doctor or the group. Tim & Judith make their way around the overgrown house, which seems very dangerous with rotting floors and walls- they are just about to leave when they uncover a secret passage in the basement- they follow this down sever a hundred steps, finding an abandoned lab- which has alongside it a frozen room, where they find a body, who turns out to be the missing Doctor- so they bring him round. I won’t detail the plot beyond this point, as it’s nice to take in the whole mystery unfold in a  fairly unspoiled manner.

For this film, Karloff is sporting a goatee, wearing round glasses, and side-parted hair. Once again he does a great acting job- moving from focused yet caring scientist, to more devious and creepy. The surrounding cast is largely all fairly good/ even, and the one hour and fourteen-minute runtime fly by fast- as the plot is a nice blend of mystery, atmosphere, and thrilling twists.

On the extras front, we have get a commentary track from author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman. And once again it’s a very informative and well-researched track, and this time around the pair seem a bit more chatty/ relaxed. They move from talking about the films alternative UK title Beyond The Door, and how is does quite fit the film. They discuss the smart credits and the more medical-based texts that reeling up after it. They talk about recurring actors from The Man They Could Not Hang, they discuss the rather neat abandoned house set. As they go on and Karloff appears- they talk about his performance on screen, and his mad doctor look for this film. Later they discuss how Karloff and Bela Lecose careers crossed, and how they differed and much more. Again another track you could easily play again. Lastly, we get once again a selection of films stills and promotional material for this film.

This first disc is topped off with Karloff on the radio- and this takes in two creepy radio plays from the 1940’s- these each run around the thirty-minute, and again are well worth a play. So all in all we get three films, three commentary tracks, loads of stills/ promotion material, and the two radio plays- so really a crammed Blu Ray.

 

Moving onto disc number two- and once again we have another three films. First out of the gate is Before I Hang- this is from 1940, and is once again directed by Nick Grinde. Once again we have another Mad Doctor film, with this time around we have a Jekyll-&-Hyde twist to proceedings. The film opens with Dr John Garth(Karloff) in court, due to the death of a patient he tried to use an anti-ageing serum on- he is given the death sentence. For this time around Karloff is initial made up a lot older- he has a moustache, pebble glasses, and is very frail - he plays as the Dr as a charming old man, who regrets what he’s done and is seemingly accepting his fate. When arriving in prison the warden ( Ben Taggart) calls him in and suggests he works with the prison doctor Dr Ralph Howard(Edward Van Sloan) who is keen to help Karloff with his research before he’s put to death. Just before he’s due to be put to death, the pair decide to inject Karloff with the serum- which has been mixed with the blood of a killer who was put to death days before. But at the last minute, his sentence is changed to life. The Serum works and Karloff starts to de-age, but unfortunately, he now has a split in his personality- with moments where he switches to a strangling manic.

Karloff is once again great in the lead role- first playing the frail old man very well, and later cleverly switching his mannerism to a younger man- lastly of course he plays the madman with great unhinged and creepy flair. The surrounding cast is good-to-adequate too, Van Sloan is well placed as the older and curious prison doctor, Evelyn Keyes is believable as Karloff's daughter Martha. In conclusion, Before I Hang is most enjoyable- sure the film is replaying plot tropes/ points from the other Mad Doctor pictures in this series, but there are enough rewarding twists on the theme- and Karloff is great, with a blend of wonderful acting and moments of tension.

On the extras side for this film, we get a commentary track from genre commentators/ writers Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby. And once again this is a wonderfully researched, entertaining, and rewarding observation packed track- they start off comment on Karloff’s old man's make-up, and who created it- we find out he was only fifty-two when the film was made, which makes both Karloff acting/ make-up the more impressive. They move on to give at points quite in-depth bios of supporting actors, they mention other films Karloff made around this film. They talk about the medical fact behind the plot, comment on the on-screen action, and talk about the career of key crew members. So most certainly a track you could easily play several times. Once again selection of films stills, and promotional material for this film.

 

Second, up on disc two, we have 1941’s The Devil Commands- which suggests it’s going to be Satan loving romp, but is, in reality, is another mad doctor picture. The film was directed by American born Ukrainian Edward Dmytryk- who had fifty three feature-length credits to his name and seemingly filmed in a far few genres. This time around Karloff is playing Dr Julian Blair- who starts off the film looking very suave with brill creamed side-parted hair and neat moustache- and to begin with, he seems to be the sanest/ balanced of all the Mad docs he’s played, he has a loving wife and daughter and is carrying out seemingly save experiments with brain waves. Fairly soon while picking up a birthday cake his wife is killed, and this starts the Doc on the search to contact his wife in the beyond, he teams up with fake spiritualists Blanche Walters(Anne Revere)- with his experiments get more dangerous and unhinged- first giving his loyal-yet-slow assistant Karl( Cy Schindell) a nasty brain-damaging jolt. At the midway point in the film, the doc, Walters, and Karl move to an isolated house- and multiple bodies start going missing from the nearby cemetery. Of all the Mad doc films on this set, this is the most cliched/predictable- sure Karloff is as always great shifting smart and self-assured, to looking almost proto goth-like. Revere is good as the devious Walters, and Schindell is effective enough & rather creepy later on as the doc helper. But largely the film follows the mad doc tropes and pitfalls, also its structure seems a little muddled and messed about, including a voice-over that seems rather awkward and tagged on. On the whole, it’s a passable/ enjoyable enough mad doc film, but one of the lesser films on offer here.

On the extras for this film, we find Stephen Jones and Kim Newman returning for another commentary track- and once again it’s another great track, which actually had me reassessing the film. They open by discussing The Edge of Running Water the William Sloane novel that the film was based on, as they move on they discuss the films more supernatural sci-fi feel, and some noir-like tropes. They talk about supporting actors work, the original set design with the driving helmets that plug into Karloff machines. They discuss the cosmic horror elements in the film/ story, and much, much more. Lastly, we get once again a selection of films stills and promotional material for this film.


Last up on the disc and last, in the set we have 1942’s The Boogie Man Will Get You. And what we have here is a screwball horror comedy- with Karloff playing a bumbling scientist, and he’s paired up with Peter Lorre as the towns sheriff quack doctor. The film was directed by Lew Landers- who is seen as one of America's most prolific directors- between the years 1934 and 1963 had 176 credits to his name- so it's a very competently made film.  The film's plot focuses on the older bumbling Prof. Nathaniel Billings( Karloff)- he lives in a run-down historic house that he is trying to sell, to clear off his considerable debut. Living with him is Amelia(Maude Eburne)- an older woman who is obsessed with chickens she hasn’t got, and a plump redneck who keeps pigs. Into the house comes Winne Slade( Jeff ‘Jean’ Donnell)-a rather naive young woman who buys the house from the prof- but lets him and the other occupants stay. She’s joined by her ex-fiance Bill(Larry Parks)- who tries to convince her to leave the house. As we get into the film we find in good prof is experimenting of travelling salesmen in the cellar trying to change them into supermen- with them seemingly dyeing and been put in a secret room nearby his cellar lab. Coming into the story we have Dr Arthur Lorencz(Lorre)- the local sheriff-come-quack doctor who sees worth in the experiments, so decides to help him. The film is a really wacky-at-points off the rails comedy- blending elements of mad doctor horror, creepy house chiller, and (implied) psycho-thriller. Karloff and Lorre are great together- really thick as (comic) thieves in their performances. And we get a great selection of wacky and wonderful characters turning up at the house- including Maxie a powder puff salesman(played by boxer-turned actor Maxie Rosenbloom). All in all, this is a lot of screwball fun- making for a great end to this collection.

On the extras side for this film, we get a commentary track from Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby- and yet again we another very well researched and entertaining track. They start talking about Karloff career at this point, and that he was doing a lot of Broadway work- they also comment on his weight loss and back issues during filming. They move onto discuss the film's similarity between two Broadway plays, they comment on the decidedly wacky characters in the picture, when Lorre appears they talk about his career at this point. They quote reviews of the time for the film, they giving supporting acting bios and a lot more- yet another very repayable track. We get once again a selection of films stills and promotional material for this film. With this disc we get another Karloff on the radio- and this takes in two more creepy radio plays from the 1940s.


In the finish, this really is a wonderful set- with most of the films here been great and highly watchable. The extras are great too, and it is a treat to get a commentary track for each one of the six films on offer here. If you thought that all Karloff could play was either monsters and ghoulish creeps, this set certainly proves he was a highly versatile and clever actor who never got the praise he deserved as a great actor. All in all, Karloff At Columbia is most certainly one of the highlights of 2021 thus far, but I’d act fast as the release is limited to just 3000 copies.

Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5

Roger Batty
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