Friday, March 27, 2009

Karloff is up to more than monkey business in "The Ape"

The Ape (1940)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Maris Wrixon, Gertrude W. Hoffman and Henry Hall
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Disgraced medical researcher turned small town doctor Bernard Adrian (Karloff) has devoted his life to curing the illness that claimed the life of his wife and daughter, and which paralyzed the beautiful young Frances Clifford (Wrixon). After an gorilla from a traveling circus escapes and mauls his keeper, Adrian uses spinal fluid from the dead carnie to devise a treatment for Frances... and her paralysis starts to wane. However, Adrian needs more spinal fluid to complete the cure. If only that ape was around to kill a few more people so he could drain their spines....

"The Ape" is a film that's carried almost entirely by Boris Karloff, with a tiny bit of help from Wrixon and Hoffman (as his creepy, but devoted, house-keeper). Every other actor is fairly bad, and evey other character is fairly obnoxious and unlikable (except for Henry Hall, who, as the town sheriff is likable enough, but seemingly devoid of acting talent).

Karloff's character is likable and the viewer feels sympathy for him, despite the murderous extremes he goes to in order to find the cure he seeks. He's an underachiever in the mad scientist department, as he is actually motivated on every level by selfless and worthy goals and he's more than willing to work with the medical establishment. He's just a teensy-weensy bit morally challenged.

The biggest flaw with "The Ape", aside from the bad acting by the majority of the supporting players, is the ape. It's another instance of an actor in a laughably bad gorilla suit--hell, it's probably the SAME bad gorilla suit that's been in other films by Monogram Pictures!

On the up side, I've already mentioned Karloff's performance as a character who is both sympathetic and repulsive. Script-wise, the film is blessed with some decent dialogue (even if it's butchered by most of the actors) and it presents a small town where not everyone are closeminded jackasses--even if the majority are--and also a slightly more modern structure than many pictures of the period--it gives us a denoument after the main action is complete.

"The Ape" isn't Karloff's best picture, but it's worth seeing nonetheless. Dr. Adrian may be an underacheiver as far as mad scientists go, but he's one of the more appealing of the bunch.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Skinny dipping is hazardous to your health on 'Voodoo Island'

Voodoo Island (aka "Silent Death") (1957)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Beverly Tyler, Jean Engstron, Murvyn Vye, Rhoades Reason and Elisha Cook Jr.
Director: Reginald Le Borg
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When a professional hoax-buster (Karloff) is hired to investigate a supposedly cursed island where a hotel magnate wants to develop a resort, he and his party find their journey there disrupted by a string of strange occurances. The most unexpected horrors await on the island, however.

"Voodoo Island" is a film populated by fascinating, well-acted characters. Karloff's devout skeptic Philip Knight; Tyler as Adams, his Girl Friday with the photographic memory and endless suite of skills; Cook Martin Schyler, the greedy plantation owner who knows more than he tells; and Reason as Matthew Gunn, the boatsman with a troubled past. Unfortunately, these fascinating, well-acted characters are in a script that spends too much time getting to the island, gives us too much romantic subplot and not enough monsters once the characters are there, and then ends when we finally get to the sort of stuff we'd be watching the movie for in the first place.

The film is at its high point when architect Clair Winters (Engstrom) decides to go skinny-dipping in a particular idyllic looking lake, and gives us the first indication that there really is a grave threat on the island (aside from the natives who have the power to lurk unseen in really thin brush cover)... and this is a pretty weak highpoint. The voodoo build-up of the first half of the movie doesn't seem to go anywhere, and the hoax-busting Philip Knight doesn't really get to bust a hoax, nor does he get his come-uppance through the supernatural. I'm not entirely sure what sort of movie the filmmakers were trying to make, but whatever it was, they failed. It's too bad that a good cast and a collection of interesting characters were wasted in such a crappy script.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Karloff + Corman = Terror (and terrible, in this case)

The Terror (aka "Lady of Shadows", "The Castle of Terror", and "The Haunting") (1964)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Sandra Knight, and Boris Karloff
Director: Roger Corman
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A French officer (Nicholson) during Napoleon's campaigns encounters a mysteriously alluring woman, Helene (Knight). Everyone denies she exists, but when he tracks her to the isolated, crumbling castle of Baron Von Lepp (Karloff), he discovers the girl may be ghost.

"The Terror" is basically pretty awful, and it shows every sign of having been made up as filming took place--the number of times where a character/actor seems completely oblivious to what he supposedly just experienced in the previous scenes far outnumber the times when there's continuity between scenes--it takes forever to get going, the dialogue is awful and repetative, and the film can't seem to make up its mind what the nature of Helene is. (This waffling goes far beyond the filmmakers wanting to keep the audience guessing.) However, there's enough here that if you enjoy classic horror flicks, you'll keep watching.

Unfortunately, just as the movie starts getting good, the filmmakers throw in what is perhaps the dumbest and most pointless "twist" to ever be committed to film. It is so lame that it almost cost the film an entire Tomato in my rating. (It earned it back, however, with the very startling final scene.)

"The Terror" is better than many Roger Corman movies, but not as good as the Edgar Allen Poe films that it uses stock footage and sets from. If you're a lover of Amicus, AIP, and Hammer Films from the 50s and 60s, I think you might find something worthwhile here, but otherwise, I recommend you take a pass. (For the record, I was torn between giving it 4 or 5 Stars... it teeters on the brink between those two.

"The Terror" is available on DVD from a number of differet distributors, but I think it's only worth getting if it's part of a multi-movie set. Unfortunately, virtually every copy of the film I've come across has been lacking the one element that might have lifted the viewing experience a bit--the vibrant colors of the original set and costume designs. All the DVD copies avaiable seem to have been made from faded and worn prints. (For a look at what "The Terror" could look like, we have to turn to "Targets," as the clips from the movie-within-the-movie are actually scenes from "The Terror.")

Friday, March 20, 2009

Title by Poe; Creep-factor by Karloff

The Black Cat (aka "The House of Doom" and "The Vanishing Body") (1934)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Boris Karloff, and Jacqueline Wells
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Honeymooners Peter and Joan Allison (Manners and Wells) are stranded in an isolated house in a Hungarian backwater. Here, they become drawn into the evil Satanist Hjaldmar Poelzig (Karloff) and the revenge-plans of his one-time friend Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). As the story unfolds, the depth of Poelzig's evil and perversion is revealed in its fullest, and it seems there will be no escape for anyone.

"The Black Cat" is a stylish, incredibly creepy B-movie. It takes place almost entirely within a house built upon the site of a ruined WWI fortress, with the lower levels being the decaying remains of the original structure and the upper floors consisting of a sleek, ultra-modern home. Both sections of the structure lend to the tone of dread that permeates the entire film--with the well-lit, clean rooms of the upper levels of Poelzig's home being even creepier than that the shadow-haunted lower levels thanks to some fine camera work--although the revelation of Poelzig's "exhibit" of beautiful women below has got to be the most terrifying moment of the film. (In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a more evil and perverted character present anywhere in these classic horror films than Poelzig: Satanism, treachery, mass-murder, pedophelia... you name it, Poelzig's done it/is into it. (Karloff doesn't have a lot to do acting-wise, other than to just be sinister... but, boy, does he do that in spades here!)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is Lugosi. First, those who watch "The Black Cat" will get to see that he was, in fact, a great actor at one time. The pain Dr. Werdegast feels when he is told his wife and daughter died while he languished in a Russian prison is conveyed with incredible strength, as is the mixture of pain and rage when he later learns the truth about their fates, as he and the Allisons manage to seize the initiative from Poelzig and his cultists. Second, it's interesting to see Lugosi playing a hero for once, even if a deeply flawed hero.

On a quirky note, I often complain that horror movies from 30s through the 60s and early 70s often just end: The story resolves and the credits roll without providing the audience with the nicety of a denoument. "The Black Cat" DOES provide what I wish more films would, yet here I almost wish that last minute or so hadn't been included. This is a film that probably should have ended while still in darkness.

While "The Black Cat" has absolutely nothing to do with the Poe tale that "suggested" it--it's got more in common with "The Fall of the House of Usher", I'd say--I think it represents a high point of the horror films that Universal was making in the 30s. I don't see it mentioned often, and I think it's a shame. It's a film that's worth seeing.

"The Black Cat" is one of three films featuring Boris Karloff included in the five-movie set "The Bela Lugosi Collection." The other two are "Black Friday" and "The Invisible Ray."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Karloff is Killer When He Meets Abbott & Costello

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer (aka "Bud Abbott & Lou Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff") (1949)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Boris Karloff and LĂ©nore Aubert
Director: Charles Barton
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When Freddy (Costello), a dim-witted but harmless bellhop, is suspected of murdering a high-powered attorney, the arrogant hotel detective at the Lost Cavern Hotel, Casey (Abbott) decides to help him clear his name by prove that one of the other guests--many of whom were about to be ruined by the tell-all memoirs the attorney was about to publish. As evidence against Freddy starts to plie up (along with more bodies), a mysterious masked figure targets him for death as well... and wacky hi-jinx ensue.

"Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer" is a fast-paced, hilarious comedy that mixes the Bud and Lou's fast patter with a who-dunnit spoof. There are plenty of sinister suspects (with Boris Karloff leading the pack as a murderous swami), but the mystery isn't truly over until the final punchline (which is, literally, a punch line in this film).

Although the mystery elements of the script are weakened by virtue of having too many red-herring suspects, so virtually none of them are given any real development or screentime (with Karloff and Aubert being the only exeptions), the comedy aspects of the film are grand. The sequence where it's proven that some people truly are too dumb to die, and Freddy whiling away the time while waiting for the killer to arrive in the caverns from which the hotel draws its name, are priceless.

As I write this, this film is officially out of print, with no DVD or VHS prints in distribution anywhere. Its most recent home video release was in "The Best of Abbott & Costello Vol. III," copies of which may still be available in some retail outlets (and used via and elsewhere).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It's Spy vs Spy in this Karloff-starring WW2 propaganda film

British Intelligence (aka "Enemy Agent")(1940)
Starring: Margaret Lindsay, Boris Karloff, and Holmes Herbert
Director: Terry Morse
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

It's World War I. The German high command dispatches the beautiful master-spy Helene (Lindsay) to London to help the legendary German agent Strengler infiltrate of the very highest levels of the British war ministry. But British Intelligence have uncovered Strengler's ring, and they've inserted a double-agent into it. But which of the German spies is truly loyal to Britain? The milkman? The minister's secretary? Or maybe this is a case where the butler (Karloff) truly can't be trusted? Who will carry the day in the game of spy vs. spy double-crosses?

"British Intelligence" is a nice little spy movie with healthy doses of World War II propaganda. Despite its outdated political messages, the film is still fun to watch today for anyone who enjoys spy movies.

The film offers of a steady stream of plot twists and turns as British and German agents and double-agents try to trap and outwit each other. It is is well directed, with fine acting, great lighting and camera work, and no padding whatsoever. The final chase scene through the streets of London as it is being bombed by German zeppelins is very tense and expertly executed.

And, although we might think that Boris Karloff has GOT to be the mysterious master spy Spengler--he's Boris Karloff and the's got that creepy scar--the film is so well-crafted that it proves us wrong time again. Karloff may be creepy in the film, but is he a hero or a villain? The film will almost be an an end before we know for sure!

On the downside, the film starts to feel a little like a "Spy Vs. Spy" cartoon (from the old "MAD Magazine") toward the end, and the ending that I'm sure must have seemed ironic or poetic to viewers in the 1940s feels EXACTLY like the end of a "Spy Vs. Spy" cartoon.

Still, the film held my interest until the end, and it's a nice little time capsule featuring a tight story and fine performances. It's political message might be dated, but it's still a film that's worth seeing today.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Karloff's Last Great Screen Appearance

Targets (1968)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Tim O'Kelly, Nancy Hsueh and Peter Bogdanovich
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

As aging horror movie star Byron Orlok (Karloff) prepares to announce his retirement, a seemingly average young man, Bobby (O'Kelly), embarks on a murderous killing spree. The creator of make-believe monsters and the real-life monster come face to face when Bobby's day of terror culminates with a sniper rampage at the drive-in where Orlok is making his final public appearance.

In "Targets", Bogdanovich expertly interweaves two storylines that only really connect in a single scene at the film's climax. In the process, he manages to build a tremendous amount of tension, because we come to like and care about Orlock, his secretary (Hsueh), and the young writer/director (Bogdanovich) who is trying to convince him to make at least one last movie--his movie. The audience can see that these three characters are going to walk head-long into Bobby's gun-sights, and Bogdanovich establishes that he is a good shot.

Although the entire film is perfectly paced, well-acted--with Karloff in particular shining, despite his health being poor at the time--and looks far better than the shoe-string budget it was shot on should allow, it's the scene where the two stories finally completely merge, with Orlok and Bobby confronting each other that really makes the movie for me.

This is a film that's definately worth seeing for fans for suspense and horror movies and admirers of Boris Karloff. It's the last good movie in Karloff's career and like so many of his films it holds up spectacularly well.

As I make this post, "Targets" is officially unavailable commercially. A few copies may still be had at retailers and you want to make sure you get the "Paramount Widescreen Collection" DVD version of the film. That disc includes an interview with Bogdanovich. It gives some fascinating insights into how the movie came to be. It's a very different film than it started out as--a throw-away Roger Corman production made to fulfill Karloff's contractual obligations to the producer--and it's a story that illustrates that pure business decisions can sometimes lead to great art, even on shoe-string budgets and tight shooting schedules.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Politically Incorrect Karloff

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy, Lewis Stone, Charles Starrett, Jean Hersholt, and Karen Morley
Directors: Charles Brabin and Charles Vidor
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sir Nayland Smith (Stone) and an international group of archeologists led by Professor Von Berg (Hersholt) sqaure off against evil genius Fu Manchu (Karloff) and his diabolical daughter Fah Lo See (Loy), as both factions race to gain control of the regelia of Genghis Khan as they are the keys to the evil mastermind's latest scheme to conquer the world.

"The Mask of Fu Manchu" is perhaps one of the greatest "yellow peril" films, and it's the best use of the Fu Manchu character I've seen outside of Rohmer's original stories and the Marvel Comics series "Master of Kung Fu".

First off, the film has a great adventure story, with an even mix of weird science, bizarre torture-traps, supernatural hokum, savage natives lusting for a white girl to be sacrificed to dark gods, and, of course, Fu Manchu being thwarted with his own invention on the edge of victory. Secondly, its got a great cast that all give top-notch performances, even if Karloff is hidden beneath some ofthe very worst "China-man" make-up I've ever seen; yeah, the Orient may be alien, but that still doesn't mean Fu Manchu should look like a Martian. Finally, it's got some gorgeous sets that are augmented by some nice lighting work (and an even nicer use of Tesla coils and buzzing electrial devices).

Will some people in this overly sensitive age be offended by the film's racist undertones? Sure. But if they are going to fein outrage, I hope they'll notice that the British characters don't exactly come off as saints, either. Given their behavior, Fu Manchu isn't completely in the wrong.

"The Mask of Fu Manchu" is avaiable in the "Legends of Horror" DVD collection. It's the only one of the five included movies that features Boris Karloff, but the other films are excellent, rarely seen examples of the high quality films being made at the dawn of the horror movie biz.

Karloff Triple Feature: Frankenstein's Monster

Boris Karloff started the decade of the 1930s playing Frankenstein's Monster, and he ended the decade the same way. It is the role that brought him the greatest fame and it's fitting that we start this archive of Karloff reviews with those movies.

Frankenstein (1931)
Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, Dwight Frye and John Boles
Director: James Whale
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Henry Frankenstein (Clive), a true madman with dreams of "knowing what God felt like" when he created life, successfully animates a monster made from parts taken from several corpses. Unfortunately, abuse heaped on his creation by an idiot assistant (Frye) and Frankenstein's own missteps causes the creature (Karloff) to go bezerk and flee into the countryside. Soon, Frankenstein's Monster comes back to haunt him and those he cares about.

"Frankenstein" is one of the great monster movies that started the horror genre, so I feel a bit awkward about not liking it more than I do. I feel like I should be giving it a rating of 8 or 9, but all I feel it deserves is a low 7.

That is not to say that the film doesn't have some great moments. Boris Karloff gives a great performance as the creature who is clearly yearning for the sort of comforts every human being wants, but receives nothing but abuse. It's truly the only film portrayal of the Monster that made me feel sorry for it. The sets are also spectacular, the lighting and camerawork fantastic, and all the actors give excellent performances (but Karloff truly excels).

Where the film doesn't work for me is on the level of script and character interaction. I find it impossible to believe that Frankenstein's fiance Elizabeth (Clark) would want to go with a walk in the park with Frankenstein after the raw, total madness she witnessed when he brought his creature to life,and I find it even harder to believe that their mutual friend Victor (Boles) wouldn't be doing everything in his power to keep her from the marriage. I understand that horror movies Back In The Day tended to move rather swiftly along as far as characters go, but the lack of reaction to Henry's insanity really ruined the entire picture for me.

I think this movie is a must-see for anyone who considers themselves a film-buff or a fan of the horror genre, as it (along with "Dracula" and "White Zombie") set many of the ground-rules for horror films that persist to this day. However, as gorgeous a film as it to look at, as great as all the actors are, it suffers from some major story issues that may get in the way of your enjoyment.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester
Director: James Whale
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

As monster-maker Henry Frankenstein (Clive) is recovering from the near-fatal injuries he received at the hands of his monstrous creation, he is approached by the sinister Dr. Pretorius (Thesiger). Pretorius is a mad scientist, who, like Frankenstein, is obsessed with creating life. He has allied with Frankestein's creation (Karloff) in order to force Frankenstein to create a mate for it, so that Pretorius may learn Frankenstein's techniques. Frankenstein must create this other creature, or his own wife (Hobson) will be killed.

"Bride of Frankenstein" is presented as a direct sequel to the 1932 film "Frankenstein", but is somewhat divorced from that movie. First off, it's set up like a fictional story being told by Mary Shelley (Lanchester). Second, the film has a higher comedy element than the original. Third, a number of characters are somewhat different than they were in the first film, with Frankenstein being less of a complete lunatic, who actually wants to give up the whole monster-making gig until Pretorius and Frakenstein's Monster force him to make a mate for the original creation; and Frankenstein's Monster, who has grown in intellect while wandering injured in the wilderness.

What remains the same, however, is the tragic quality of the Frankenstein's monster. While the monster commits acts of genuine evil--where in "Frankenstein", he was mostly acting out of ignorance or self-defense--these are balanced by the presentation of the monster as a deeply lonely, unhappy creature who has no place in, purpose in, or connection with God's creation. The fundementally tragic nature of Frankenstein's creation, and the fact that the most evil players in the story are Frankenstein and Pretorius, has never been driven home in any other Frankestein film than in the final ten minutes of "Bride of Frankenstein." That final reel is one of the greatest horror sequences to ever appear on screen.

"Bride of Frankenstein" is also remarkable for the amazing sets and camera work. The fantastic use of lighting and quick cuts, and the twisted angles in the buildings serve to underscore both the horror and some of the scenes of absurd humor in the film.

Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Edgar Norton and Boris Karloff
Director: Rowland Lee
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathbone) returns with this family to his ancenstral home in the hopes of rehabilitating his father's name. His high hopes soon turn to bitter ashes as the villagers refuse to give him a chance--except for the police captain (Atwill) who has more cause to hate the Frankenstein name than any of the others--and he is soon drawn into a sinister scheme launched by psychopathic former assistant of his father (Lugosi) to restore the Frankenstein Monster (Karloff) to life.

"Son of Frankenstein" is one of the true classics among horror films. As good as "Frankenstein' and almost as good as "Bride of Frankenstein", it features a top-notch cast, great camera-work, fantastic sets, and a story that's actually better constructed than any other of the Universal Frankenstein movies.

Particularly noteworthy among thge actors are Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone. Lugosi is gives one of the best performacnes of his career, and as I watched, I once again found myself lamenting that he didn't do more comedic roles than he did. He manages to portray the crippled Ygor as funny, pitiable, and frighteing, showing greater range in this role than just about any other he played. The funny bits show a fabulous degree of comedic timing that Lugosi only had the opportunity to show on few other occassions. Rathbone is also excellent, as the high-minded dreamer who is driven to the edge of madness by frustration, fear, and guilt. (He may be a bit too hammy at times, but he's generally very good.)

Lionel Atwill is also deserving of a fair amount of praise. I think he is better here in his role as Krogh than in any other film I've seen him in. In some ways, "Son of Frankenstein" is as much Krogh's tale as that of Wolf von Frankenstein so pivotal is his character to the tale, and so impactful is Krogh's eventual confrontation with the monster that tore his arm off as a chld. Atwill also manages to portray a very intelligent and sensitive character--perhaps the most intelligent character in the entire movie.

One actor that I almost feel sorry for in this film is Boris Karloff. The monster has very little to do... except lay comatose and go on mindless rampages. ANYONE could have been in the clown-shoes and square-head makeup for this film, because none of the depth shown in the creature in the previous two movies is present here. (While the whole talk about "cosmic rays" and the true source of the creature's lifeforce is very interesting, the monster isn't a character in this film... he's just a beast.)

If you would like to add these films to your own collection, they are avaiable on DVD for reasonable prices at The best value is the "Frankenstein Legacy Collection", which includes the three films discussed above, two others, and lots of bonus features. Click on the cover images below for details.