One of the greatest horror actors of all time, Boris Karloff faces only a few competitors to the title of ‘King of Horror’, with the likes of Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Lon Chaney and Claude Rains all in the running. Add in Christopher Lee to that list if we are going outside of Hollywood, too. With countless credits under his name and having portrayed unforgettable characters such as Frankenstein’s Monster, Imhotep, The Grinch and even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Karloff is a presence very few will forget.
This latest collection from Eureka! presents one large piece of his career: his films with Columbia, all six of which are making their UK home video debut in this collection as well as their worldwide Blu-Ray debut.
Although five of the six films are some of the “Mad Doctor” movies which were popular at the time, and which Karloff played many of, there is some variety with the first film in the Blu-Ray being a stand alone horror in it’s own right and the final movie being a comedy, a rare genre for Karloff to dabble in.
The Black Room (1935) is the first of Karloff’s films at Columbia and works as a fantastic entry into his time with the famous production house. The story of The Black Room tells the story of a deadly prophecy within the castle of the de Berghmann baronial family. The prophecy states that a younger brother will kill the elder in the black room of the castle. With the birth of twins Anton and Gregor, the family patriarch closes up the black room… but their fate has been sealed. It is an incredible set up which allows Karloff to show off his acting chops, essentially playing three different roles within one film.
However, the standout amongst the six films is undoubtedly The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), which in of itself is possibly the most underappreciated film of Boris Karloff’s entire career. It follows Dr. Savaard who is drawn to revenge after he is sentenced to death due to a failed experiment in which his patient dies. Boris is given a lot to work with, the screenplay gifting him several brilliantly written monologues as well as chilling dialogue in which Savaard slowly and calmly tells his victims how and when they will die. It is believed that The Man They Could Not Hang was made as a B-movie but it’s quality is that of an A-picture.
Following The Man They Could Not Hang was no easy task but The Man With Nine Lives (1940) makes a valiant effort. It starts off well and even features some early uses of some of the most famous horror movie tropes, however, the longer the film goes on the less impact it keeps. Ultimately finishing as a rather dull affair with some noteworthy moments.
With Before I Hang (1940) and The Devil Commands (1941) comes a downward slope in quality. Although none of the “Mad Doctor” movies are carbon copies of one another and each film does give the sub-genre, of sorts, a spin of it’s own, there is no denying that by this stage the idea had grown tired. Similar to the previous films, both films do feature early uses of horror movie tropes yet the characters in which Karloff plays are so bland that not even he can elevate the movies to a greater level of quality.
The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942) is the final film of the collection and allows the set to end on a film of a slightly higher quality than the last three. Though it is another “Mad Doctor” picture, The Boogie Man Will Get You places a comedic spin on the tired trope. The comedy aspect of the film allows viewers to see Karloff in a type of role that he is not as well remembered for. In addition, Karloff’s co-star is Peter Lorre, an actor primarily known for his role as serial killers. The two men are the best aspect of the film and both show good comedic chops. Not all of the jokes land and the movie feels as though it goes on for too long, even at a short runtime of 67 minutes, but it is one of the most interesting entries in the career of Karloff and worth a watch.
As for the special features of the set it is very much a case of quality and not quantity. Each film features stills, an audio commentary featuring Kim Newman, however it is the radio plays featured over both discs that stands out. Offering excellent voice work from Karloff and fantastic stories told in a fascinating way.
Although not every film of this collection is necessarily good, each film does present an interesting look into classic horror movies, as well as offering a fantastic piece of history in it being the entire collaborations between Columbia and Karloff, a fascinating time in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Karloff at Columbia is out now from Eureka Classics