Monday, April 27, 2009

Karloff unlocks light drama with 'Night Key'

Night Key (1937)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Hobart Cavanaugh, Jean Rogers, Warren Hull, Samuel S. Hinds, Alan Baxter and Ward Bond
Director: Lloyd Corrigan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After being cheated out his latest security system by his former business partner, Steve Ranger (Hinds), inventor and security expert Dave Mallory (Karloff) sets out to gain revenge and force the crooked business man to change the deal to a fair one. Together with a petty thief (Cavanaugh), Mallory sets about using another invention--the Night Key--to override the alarm system he created and cause harmless mischeif in places protected by it. But, before Mallory manages to embarrass Ranger into submission, a ruthless gangster (Baxter) learn of his device and forces him to assist them in a major heist.

"Night Key" is a fun, fast-paced 1930s techno-thriller--it's like a "Firewall" or "Mission Impossible II" of its day, only with humor replacing the violence and a script written by someone who actually knew how to write and properly develop characters in a very short space. Of course, it also helps that the film features a fabulous cast, with everyone being perfect in their parts and everyone giving top-of-the-line performances.

Thanks to good direction and even better acting, the film provides many moments of touching comedy (such as the scene where Mallory and his criminal associate have fun opening every umbrella in an umbrella store) and intense excitement (such as when Mallory devises a way to escape the clutches of the gangsters who have kidnapped him and are holding his daugther for ransom). Everything in the film works perfectly, except for a rather pointless romance between Mallory's daughter and a security guard. However, this is such a minor part of the overall movie that it hardly has an impact.

"Night Key" is one of five little-known Boris Karloff films included in the "Boris Karloff Collection" from Universal. The set is available from for less than S25, and, despite the deceptive cover blurbs ("Five Chilling Horror Classics!" and "The Master of Horror in His Most Frightening Roles!"), it's well worth owning for any Boris Karloff fan. Karloff's grandfatherly Dave Mallory is not a frightening role, nor is "Night Key" a horror movie, calssic or otherwise.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Karloff is key to comedic ensemble cast in "A Comedy of Terrors"

The Comedy of Terrors (aka "Graveside Story") (1966)
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Barbara Nichols, and Joyce Jameson
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When threatened with eviction by his cold-hearted landlord John Black(Rathbone), undertaker Waldo Trumbull (Price) decides it's time to work on actively expanding the funeral home's business... by sneaking into the bedrooms of wealthy old men, smothering them in their sleep, and then being onhand to make the funeral arrangements. Eventually, Trumbull decides to end his rent problems once and for all by making Black his next "client", but things go awry when Black won't stay dead.

"A Comedy of Terrors" is a hilarious horror movie spoof where a collection of dramatic and horror greats get to show off their talent for comedy and screwball antics. It's even more fun to watch the actors like Price (who plays a scarcastic, mean-spirited boozehound as oppsed to his usual suave character), Karloff (who plays a senile fool), Lorre (who gets to be the love interest!), and Rathbone (who is great as the sword-fighting, never-stay-dead landlord) do characters who are either totally different from what they usually play and/or wildly and hilariously over the top.

The film drags a little bit when the gags surrounding Rathbone's character get a little repeative, but the spectacular performances of its four great stars and the swift-running patter of Richard Matheson's breezy script still keep the energy high and the laughs coming. I think this film is a must-see for fans of its stars and for lovers of horror comedies.

As of this writing, this movie not available from any distributor. Copies may still be on hand at certain retailers. I recommend checking affiliates for the best prices should you want to own this movie.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Karloff is back in the lab with "The Invisible Ray"

The Invisible Ray (1936)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Frances Drake
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Scientific genius Janos Rukh (Karloff) discovers an amazing new radioactive element, but accidentially becomes poisoned by it. His equally bright collegue Dr. Benet (Lugosi) devises a serum that surpresses the deadly effects, but the chemicals and radioactivity drive the already mentally unstable Rukh over the edge, and he soon starts using his new radioactive powers to kill everyone he feels as wronged him. Will the kindly Benet and the police stop manage to stop Rukh's murderous rampage in time to save Rukh's ex-wife (Drake)?

"The Invisible Ray" has all the makings of a cool little Science Gone Mad film (complete with Karloff delivering the "they called me mad" speech!), but it is sabotaged by pedestrian direction, some of the tinniest dialogue ever put on film, and a too slow build-up before the killings start. Throughout the film, I saw glimmers of what it COULD have been if someone had written decent dialogue for the actors to deliver, but as "The Invisible Ray" currently exists, it's not until the action move to Paris and Rukh goes on his mad rampage that the film becomes entertaining. (There's enough going on at that point that the bad dialogue is no longer such an irritant.)

I think the only reason to watch the movie is for seeing Lugosi play a role that's almost entirely unlike any other part he's played; everyone else appearing doesn't really deliver performances that are noteworthy for being good or bad... they're just in the movie. Lugosi, however, is not only the film's indisputable hero (even if Dr. Benet is just about Rukh's equal when it comes to Mad Science... but he uses the WonderTech and crazy discoveries for good!), but for once he isn't over the top and chewing on the scenery. He is intense, but he's not as outrageous as is typical.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Best of Karloff as James Lee Wong

Between projects for major studios in the late 1930s, Boris Karloff appeared as urbane Chinese detective James Lee Wong in five B-pictures from from Monogram. The studio, best known for quickies of questionable quality, the "Mr. Wong" films ended up being some of the best product they ever released.

(They even have the benefit of Karloff's Asian make-up not causing him to appear like an invader from Mars like he did in "Mask of Fu Manchu.")

Here, I cover the three best installments of the series.

If these sound interesting to you, I recommend getting the boxed set from VCI. It's a great way to own all six movies (five starring Karloff as Wong, and a sixth featuring Keye Luke as the master detective), and the price is right. (And I'm not just saying that because they asked me to write the plot summaries for the films on the menu screen. :) )

Actually, an even better value would be to pick up the "Boris Karloff: Master of Terror" 20 movie set. You'll get all five Karloff Wong pictures... and 15 other movies.

Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, John St. Polis, Maxine Jennings, Lucien Prival and Evelyn Brent
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a powerful captain of industry is found dead inside his locked office moments after police detective Sam Street (Withers) saw him standing at the window, renowned private James Lee Wong (Karloff) joins forces with the homicide squad to interprert the only clues found at the scene--tiny fragments of delicate glass. When Dayton's business partners start dying under equally mysterious circumstances, and sinister agents of foreign powers start appearing in the shadows, Wong and Street have to race against time to prevent more murders, including, possibly, their own.

"Mr. Wong, Detective" is a fast-paced, well-scripted, complex mystery with lots of twists, turns, and misdirections. The array of suspects and the way suspicion moves on and off them, the way motives come into focus and blur again, the clever way the murder weapon is triggered, and the way Wong ultimately unmasks the very clever murderer, all add up to a mystery movie that deserves more attention than it gets.

Another element that adds to the film's quality is the acting. Boris Karloff is excellent as Wong, playing a more subdued and refined character than in just about any other role he played before or after, with the way Wong sarcasticly offers stereotypical "Oriental humbleness" to the face of the bad guys adding flavor to the character and comedy to the film. Grant Withers as Street is likewise excellent in his part, shining particularly brightly in the scenes with Maxine Jennings, who brings effective comic relief to the picture as his feisty girlfriend, Myra. The supporting cast and co-stars also all turn in top-quality performances.

"Mr. Wong, Detective" is a film well worth the time a fan of 1930s mysteries should devote to watching it. It's a great kick-off for the series.

The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, Holmes Herbert, Dorothy Tree and Lotus Long
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Seveven of Ten Stars

When a wealthy collector of Chinese antiques, with a list of enemies as long as a phone directory, is accidentally shot during a game of charades, brilliant Chinese detective James Lee Wong (Karloff) immediately suspects foul play. His suspicions are confirmed when it is discovered that a valuable gem has been stolen from the collector;s safe, and Captain Street of Homicide (Withers) shows up mere moments after the shooting, explaining that he was called about the murder 20 minutes before it happened. Wong, Street, and their old friend Professor Janney (Herbert) combine wits and resources to solve this most perplexing case.

The second James Wong film is not as good as the one that launched the series, but it's a solid entry that features a decent enough mystery, and a couple of clever murders (even if one is a bit of a plot cheat).

Like its predecessor, "The Mystery of Mr. Wong" provides a couple of nice changes from the detective flick standards of the day. There's Karloff's articulate portrayal of the character with a complete mastery of English. There's also the friendly relationship and the mutual respect that exists between Wong and Capt. Street, as opposed to the usual hatred and contempt that is present between cops and movie private investigators. Another nice change is that Street isn't a complete idiot--he's a competent cop who knows his job. He's just not as brilliant James Lee Wong. (Unfortunately, Street's intelligence seems to fade as the series continues and the writers guide it increasingly in the direction of a typical Monogram mystery flick.)

Karloff's performance is fine as always, and make-up that turns him Asian is again pretty decent. Withers seems a bit more comfortable as Street; in fact, all the players are closer to Karloff's level than what we saw in "Mr. Wong, Detective." (Lotus Long is particularly good in a small but important part.)

The Fatal Hour (aka "Mr. Wong at Headquarters") (1940)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, Marjorie Reynolds, Frank Puglia, and Charles Trowbridge
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a common close friend is murdered while investigating smuggling on the San Francisco waterfront, private dective James Lee Wong (Karloff), crime-beat reporter Bobbie Logan (Reynolds), and Captain Bill Street of Homicide (Withers) devote all their skills to finding the killer. Their respective investigations soon zero in on a failing retailer of imitation Chinese antiques, a waterfront nightclub being run by a shady gambler (Puglia), and the obscure connections that exist between them. Soon more bodies start to pile up, and if Wong can't solve the case, he may become a victim himself... and how can Wong hope to catch a killer who can commit murder within the sqaud room of Street's homicide department?

"The Fatal Hour" is another solid entry in the "Mr. Wong" series. The mystery is a multilayered one that's well thought out, and the performances are decent all around. It's not as good as "Mr.Wong, Detective" or "The Mystery of Mr. Wong", but its entertaining enough and it almost manages to reach the greatness that was present at the start of the series.

What keeps this film from rising to the level of the series' best entries is the overwrought nature of the third murder. While its arrangement and solution is as clever as anything you'll find in a Agatha Christie novel, it felt too far-fetched in the context of the rest of the film, and even the rest of the Mr. Wong series. (And this is a series where the murder weapon was triggered by police sirens in a previous film.)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

'The Climax' is a Karloff movie not worth singing about

The Climax (1944)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Susanna Foster, Turhan Bey, Ludwig Stossel, Thomas Gomez and Gale Sondergard
Director: George Waggner
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A young opera singer (Foster) becomes the target of the crazy house doctor (Karloff) at the Vienna Royal Opera. Will her dashing boyfriend (Bey) manage to save her before her voice is silenced forever?

"The Climax" is Boris Karloff's first color picture and it's pretty to look at. It also has some nice performances from Karloff, Turhan Bey--who swings from dramatic of comedic with graceful ease--and Thomas Gomez as the beleaguered manager of the opera company. Unfortunately, their performances are propping up a fairly boring melodrama the titular climax of which isn't much to sing about.

The film is available on DVD for the first time as part of Universal's "Boris Karloff Collection" and as such it rates as inoffensive filler. It's not exactly a bad movie, just a bland one, and one you can safely leave for last if you pick up the set.