Following the success of last year’s Bela Lugosi films, two of which teamed him up with Boris Karloff, Eureka Entertainment’s latest release is ‘Karloff at Columbia’ – a collection of no fewer than six films starring the legendary British horror actor who became a Hollywood legend.
‘Karloff at Columbia’ is a must-have release for fans of 1930s Hollywood horror movies. The films are, customarily for the era and the genre, not much longer than an hour each in duration. Appropriately, they dive straight into the story and don’t waste any time in moving the plot along. Contained within this two-disc release is ‘The Black Room’ (1935), ‘The Man They Could Not Hang’ (1939), ‘The Man With Nine Lives’ (1940), ‘Before I Hang’ (1940), ‘The Devil Commands’ (1941) and ‘The Boogie Man Will Get You’ (1942). Ever the prolific actor, these six titles represent but a snapshot of Karloff’s incredible body of work during this period.
The film that gets this release started is ‘The Black Room’, which is probably the most original plot. Fans of Karloff’s will be delighted to see that he plays a dual role in this one, as twin brothers, the despotic ruler Gregor and the kindly, debilitated Anton. An old family prophecy suggests that Anton will kill Gregor within the castle’s ‘black room’. Gregor has acquired many enemies among the villagers, and he sees a way to win back their affections, by pretending to be the loveable Anton, whilst also getting Anton out of the way to make sure the prophecy can’t be fulfilled. There are a few films where notable actors have played dual roles successfully – Jeremy Irons in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers is a good example, but ‘The Black Room’ can be added to that list. Karloff differentiates brilliantly between the brothers, and even as Gregor pretending to be Anton, you know exactly who he’s playing! Karloff’s impressive performance and the magnificent castle sets lift ‘The Black Room’ up to being a highly enjoyable curiosity from pre-war cinema.
The other titles on the discs start to follow a familiar theme: that of an ambitious scientist or ‘mad doctor’ who tries to play God – and suffers the dire consequences. As Arthur Conan Doyle put it, through the voice of Sherlock Holmes: “When one tries to rise above nature, one is liable to fall below it.” The second film on this release, ‘The Man They Could Not Hang’, sees Karloff as a doctor trying to bring the dead back to life. When he is arrested for the murder of a young man he was about to use his new science to resuscitate, he swears to take revenge upon the judge and jury who condemn him to be hanged. After his assistant revives him using his own invention, Karloff is free to exact a terrifying vengeance. He invites those who wronged him to a dinner party, where his guest meet their end one by one.
In ‘The Man With Nine Lives’, Karloff plays a scientist who has been frozen in ice for a decade, a method he has invented of preserving life. It is notable for the impressive ice cave studio sets. In ‘Before I Hang’, Karloff’s mad doctor has found a cure for the ageing process. The only problem is that the serum he has developed contains blood from a murderer, which for reasons not adequately extrapolated upon in the film, this causes him to murder the patients in his clinical trial. In ‘The Devil Commands’, Karloff plays a grief-stricken doctor desperate to communicate with his dead wife, despite the dangers of meddling with things beyond human comprehension…
It’s easy to see why these films, so similar as to be almost indistinguishable in parts, were churned out by the Columbia studio. Karloff was brilliant at playing genteel, mildly effete gentlemen, but his talent also incorporated an ability to turn on a dime and become a glowering, sinister, merciless killer. His skill at pulling off that trick should not be underestimated – there simply wasn’t anybody else in the business who could do it with the flair and conviction of Karloff. Taken individually, all of the films are enjoyable morality tales that follow a fairly predictable yet satisfying pattern. It’s good to have them all grouped together under one release, though casual viewers may weary of what is essentially the same plot being reheated and served up under a slightly different guise each time, a bit like turkey leftovers at Christmastime. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot that actor Roger Pryor appears in both ‘The Man They Could Not Hang’ and ‘The Man With Nine Lives’. Both were directed by Nick Grinde.
Another film that stands out on ‘Karloff at Columbia’ is ‘The Boogie Man Will Get You’, which teams up Karloff with the baby-faced Hungarian actor Peter Lorre, best-remembered for his role as a child-killer in Fritz Lang’s seminal thriller ‘M’. The film works as an amusing parody of everything that has gone before it, even though Karloff is in familiar guise as a mad scientist conducting nefarious experiments in the basement of his house.
Each of the films is presented in high-definition and the black and white prints are crisp, though there are occasional single-frame picture distortions not uncommon for films of the age. This collection is a welcome reminder of what an impressive talent Karloff truly was. He may be best-remembered for bringing to life some of Hollywood’s and Gothic horror’s most famous ghouls, but he was an actor of enormous talent and subtlety, and one who is both easy and compelling to watch for each new generation. Fans of the horror genre, especially those who admire Boris Karloff’s work, will simply adore this release.
Cast: Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Richard Fiske, Roger Pryor Directors: Nick Grinde, Lew Landers, Roy William Neil, Edward Dmytryk Writers: Karl Brown, Edwin Blum, Robert Hardy Andrews Certificate: PG Duration: 400 mins Released by: Eureka Entertainment Release date: 3rd May 2021 Buy Karloff at Columbia