Universal Terror - Universal Terror(Blu Ray) [Eureka Entertainment - 2022]
From Eureka here’s Universal Terror another collection of Boris Karloff films produced by Universal Studios. The three films featured here date from between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. And while there not all are terror/ horror films, as the set's title might suggest, each features a great Karloff performance, and are in their own right worthy films. With each picture getting 2k scans & great new commentary tracks.
On the first disc, we find two films Night Key and The Climax. So first up we have Night Key- this is from the year 1937, and I guess you’d call it a thriller with light noir touches, which finds Karloff as an inventor who creates alarm systems. It was directed by San Francisco-born Lloyd Corrigan- he had just twelve feature-length directorial credits, an impressive one hundred and seventy-four acting credits to his name between 1925 and 1966. His feature-length director credits took in musical romantic comedy Follow Thru (1930), Fu Manchu spin-off Daughter Of The Dragon (1931), swindle comedy He Learned About (1933), adventure comedy and musical blend Dancing Pirate (1936), and romantic comedy Lady Behave! (1937).
The film opens by introducing us to the security firm owned by Steven Ranger (Samuel S. Hinds)- an older sleek businessman who has contracts with all the shops, apartments, and houses in the city. We see one of his alarm systems been installed in the apartment of an Italian couple- with a demonstration of how if someone breaks in the alarm rings down at Ranger companies’ base. Next, we meet David Mallory (Karloff) an ageing, mild-mannered/losing his sight inventor, and his often fairly swish and quirky dressed twenty-something daughter Joan (Jean Rogers). David has a new system he’s created which he’s keen to sell to Ranger company, and is putting the finishing touches to it in his apartment come lab.
David heads to Ranger’s offices to sign the contract- and we find out that years back the businessman ripped off the inventor on his last system. And guess what he does it again, with a trickly worded contract. The elderly inventor is pushed out of the offices- but just before leaving the building he comes across Petty Louie (Hobart Cavanaugh) a rather bumbling criminal, who has recently been caught in a local department store trying to steal something during the night. Louie is locked up in a cell, and David pulls out one of the latest invention- The Night Key of the film title- which blocks the flow of the system, letting him out & scrawling a message inside the cell wall.
Fairly soon the low-grade criminal/ inventor become friends- with David hiding out at Louie's apartment, so as not to get caught by Ranger’s goons. The pair start to break into shops at night- but instead of stealing things they set up pranks, like clocks all ringing at the same time, or a room full of open umbrellas. This, of course, angers Ranger even more- but worse of all it makes the pair's exploits get noticed by John Baron aka The Kid (Alan Baxter) a cool, calm and monotone gangster.
Acting wise Karloff plays wonderful against type- really selling the down-on-his-luck/ slowly going blind inventor. And Cavanaugh is lightly amusing and charming as the bumbling criminal Louie. The film runs at the hour and eight-minute mark- mostly it flows well enough, been entertaining, though around the midpoint we do get a few slight pacing issues. In finishing Night Key is an enjoyable Karloff film- but in no way does it really have anything to do with the horror/ terror genre, which this set is sold as.
On the extras front for this film, we have a commentary track from genre authors/ experts Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby- and we’ve come to expect from these two it’s a wonderfully researched and entertaining track. They begin by commenting on the Universal glass globe, and how this was one of the first films it was used in. They talk about the impressive security company set up, which is apparently based on a real firm of the time. They mention the names of bit-part actors, giving bio of film and TV work from some of the more notable actors. They discuss how horror was on the downturn when this film was released- but Karloff was still under contract to Universal, so they gave him non-horror roles like this. They define the film as a crime thriller with Sci-fi topes, and comedy elements. They point out a few of the more notable comedic moments. Later on, they comment on when the tone of the film shifts- from fairly light comedy lined, to darker almost noir-ness. They discuss the film's lead bad guy The Kid, and how Baxter is effective as the subtle unhinged madman. The film later effects and much more. A must-play track!
The second film on the first disc is 1944’s The Climax, which is a rather odd title for the film, suggesting something rather adult- but instead what we have is a blend of light thriller, and romantic drama, with touches of mad doctor horror- all set in an opera house, with more than a dusting of operatic singing. The film was directed by New York-born George Waggner- he had twenty-nine feature-length credits to his name- these went from a spate of westerns all from the year 1938- Western Trails, Outlaw Express, Black Bandit, Guilty Trails, Prairie Justice, and Ghost Town Raiders. Moving onto a fair few Universal genre films, taking in Man Made Monster (1941), comedy horror Horror Island (1941), The Wolfman (1941). And even a noir Sealed Lips (1942).
The film is period set, based in and around the Vienna Royal Theatre. We begin with a ten-year flashback as we see Dr. Friedrich Hohner (Karloff) asking his star soprano beloved not to sing- as he wants no one else to see & hear her beauty. She declares she no longer loves him and will not stop singing- he then seemingly strangles her. Flash forward ten years- the doctor now grey still works in the theatre and is still very much haunted/ obsessed with the soprano. He largely managers to carry on with his job- but everything is thrown out when a new young singer Angela Klatt(Susanna Foster) comes to the theatre with slicked back hair and pencil-thin moustache boyfriend Franz (Turhan Bey) pushing for her to be in the new show. Dr Hohner is determined to stop her from singing as she has a singing tone just like his ex, and he will do anything to stop her.
The film is captured in lush technicolour – with grand and lush theatre/ house sets. Yes, Karloff is rather playing your typical cunning, but clearly unbalanced Dr- but he sells it well, with that creepy stare and presence used to great effect. As mentioned early there is a fair bit of operatic performance going on, which at points pushes the film to been almost a musical- though it never fully goes there. We have this blended in with elements of drama, romance between the singer & her boyfriend, and general drama relating to the theatre. The horror touches are secondary- but Karloff is still compelling. Yes, the film has been compared to The Phantom Of The Opera- which is true to a point, though there is enough here to stand on its own. All in all The Climax is entertaining enough- with a classy set design, and a good performance from all involved.
With this film, we get another commentary track from Lyons and Rigby, it's once again it's most worthy. They start by talking about when the film first played in the UK, and read out a newspaper quote regarding it – that called it The Phantom of the phantom. We get talk about the film's light operatic music, and how the on-stage performance have a sort of surreal MGM musical quality. They discuss how the film themes of female objectivity/ silencing women. They mention the great quality of actors in the film. We get talk about the film's female lead Susanna Foster- she was just 19 in this film, having at the time quite a run of films under her belt to this point. Though she later moved away from acting to focus on singing, through landed up having a rather tragic life. Later on, they discuss hypnotism in this film, and in genre films in general- going on to point out it always has an evil/ supernatural tone to it. We get talk about notable supporting actors and their other key roles. Touches of light humour in the film, and much more.
Moving onto disc number two we have just a single film, and this comes in the shape of The Black Castle. This is from 1952 and is rather a gothic horror edge murder mystery- with a few land-based swashbuckling action touches. It was directed by Austrian-born Nathan Juran- this was his first directorial credit- he went onto twenty-three other credits taking in the Arabian adventure The Golden Blade(1953), peacekeeping western Drums Across the River(1954), giant creature feature The Deadly Mantis (1957), historic adventure caper Siege of the Saxons(1963), mountain-wilderness set lycanthrope pic The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973). And it’s fair to say The Black Castle is an impressive enough debut film, with nice gothic touches, a great baddie, routing for hero, and some nice banter/ tension…though Karloff plays more of a supporting role, it’s still an important/well-acted role.
The film is set in 18th century Austria- and kicks off in prime gothic horror terrority, as we see a lighting and rain storm-battered castle. Inside is a man in a coffin that is just about to be hammered shut, and it’s clear he’s drugged or paralysed in some way- as he is alive but can’t move, with his mind voice begging the man whose hammering up the coffin to see he is still alive. We then flashback to some weeks, and meet the man from the coffin Richard Beckett (Richard Greene)- who is our dashing & rather charming British hero- he’s going off to Austria to track down his friends who have disappeared around the black castle of Count Karl von Bruno (Stephen McNally). He and his man bushy eyebrowed man servant Romley (Turdor Owen) stop off at The Green Man, a tavern nearby the castle getting harassed and having a sword fight with a few of the count’s buddies. When they get to the castle and meet the eye-patched count, and it’s clear he’s an egocentric cad- who constantly belittles his recent married wife Countess Elga von Bruno (Rita Corday. Fairly soon Richard starts to fall for the countess, as he tries to find out what has happened to his friends.
Karloff plays the castle’s physician, Dr. Meissen- for the first half or so of the film, he only briefly appears making a few amusingly sniping comments- and it’s unclear quite where his loyalties lay. But in the last quarter or so he gets some decent screentime, and is vital to the story. Also, on the horror star front, we have Lon Chaney Jr. playing a rather typical balky and lumbering henchman of the Count, but he adds well enough to the more gothic tropes of the film.
Acting wise Greene makes for a good dashing hero, and McNally a boo-inducing villain. Karloff's role is fairly nuanced, and as I said early he nicely keeps it under his hat. On the whole, The Black Castle is an enjoyable romp of a film, blending murder mystery, and swashbuckling action with gothic and horror tropes.
Once again, we have a commentary track, and this time is with author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman. And again, it’s another very pro/ rewarding track. They begin by commenting on the castle matt shot, and the film's blend of gothic horror and swashbuckling action. They talk about the Premature Burial like framing story. We get talk about the comparisons between this and The Strange Door, which featured some of the same actors/ crew. We get chat about lead god guy actor Richard Greene, and his other notable roles like the UK tv series Robin Hood. They discuss the swashbuckling characters/tropes in the film. There is chat about key supporting actors, and other notable roles. They talk about sets that appear in other Universal productions. They discuss Lon Chaney Jr role in the film, and how slight/ sad it was compared with the early lead roles he did for the studio. Later on, we have talk about the film's writer Jerry Sackheim- and other notable films he worked on. They point out great shots/ set-ups in the film, double bills it played on, and much more.
The finished release features a booklet featuring new writing by Karloff expert Stephen Jacobs- though this is only limited to the first 2000 copies of the set. So, all in all, Universal Terror is another great collection of Karloff films from Eureka- with nice new prints, and most interesting commentary tracks too. To buy direct from the company drop by here.Roger Batty