Friday, May 22, 2009

Karloff violates laws of nature in "Before I Hang"

Before I Hang (1940)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Evelyn Keyes, Edward Van Sloan, Bruce Bennett, and Don Beddoe
Director: Nick Grinde
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

John Garth (Karloff), a research scientist who devoted his career to cure the disease of aging, developes a successful anti-aging serum that has one teeny-tiny side-effect: It turns him into a mad killer whenever he sees blood.

This is a decent little horror flick with sci-fi overtones and elements that resonate even louder today than they did when it was released in 1940. With its themes of mercy-killings of suffering old people, the death penelty, stem cell research, and anti-aging drugs (I can see Dr. Garth working in one of those "anti-aging clinics" we have a small chain of here in the Northwest), the fillm has something to say on a number of topics that remain the subject of heated discussion in the halls of both scientific and political power.

With good acting--Boris Karloff once again does a great job at transforming one character he is playing into another one, with just his facial expression and body language to help him--and the supporting cast are all excellent in their parts.

This is an interesting flick that might well be a real classic, due to its timeless subject matter. It's one of four Karloff films included in "Icons of Horror: Boris Karloff."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Karloff has a secret behind "The Strange Door"

The Strange Door (1951)
Starring: Charles Laughton, Richard Stapley, Sally Forrest, William Cottrell, Boris Karloff and Michael Pate
Director: Joseph Pevney
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

An evil, demented nobleman (Laughton) sets about forcing the basest rogue he can find (Stapley) to marry his innocent young niece (Forrest) as the culmination of a 20-year revenge plot against his brother. But he has misjudged the true character of the intended brides groom, and the young man soon teams up with one of the servants (Karloff) to secure the girl's safety and freedom.

This Univesal Studios production has the tone and feel of the gothic horror flicks that Hammer Films would start doing so well throughout the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. It compares favorably to Hammer's lesser efforts, but it is pales in comparison to Hammer's greatest gothic chillers, or even movies starring Charles Laughton in similar roles (such as the 1930s Hitchcock film "Jamacia Inn").

Speaking of Laughton, he is the most outstanding member of a cast that gives performances that bring to mind an excellently mounted stage performance. Usually, when I say that the actors in a film come across like they are performing in a theater, I mean it negatively; not so here. For the most part, the performances are of a style that the world "melodrama" was created to describe and they they bring this story and its characters to a sort of life that more restrained performances would have failed to do. Only Richard Stapley is a bit much, with delivery that clearly signals he is the Hero of the piece but that is so extreme that he comes across like a Dudley Doright charicature rather than a character--it's too much of a good thing.

But this is Laughton's movie in every sense. He steals every scene he is in, and he even manages to infuse a tiny bit of sympathetic humanity into a truly monstrous character. (We start out feeling that there's somethinng wrong and creepy about Sire Alain de Maletroit, and we come to be repulsed by him, yet Laughton still manages to shade his performance just enough to mae the audience feel a twinge of hope that he may yet redeem himself before it's too late for everyone. It's an excellent performance.

Boris Karloff makes his usual solid contribution to the film, but he doesn't have much to do except to serve as a dark comic relief and the guy who may or may not save the day in the end. (Although, frankly, given the nature of the story, there's never any real doubt as to how it's going to turn out.)

"The Strange Door" is one of five obscure movies that Karloff made for Universal during the 30s, 40s, and '50s that are included in "The Boris Karloff Collection." While none of the films will ever be ranked among the great cinematic works of all time, they're decent enough and well worth a look by lovers of old-time movies.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Karloff is hilarious as a quirky supporting character in "Lured"

Lured (aka "Personal Column") (1947)
Starring: Lucille Ball, Charles Coburn, George Sanders, George Zucco, Cedrick Hardwicke, and Boris Karloff
Director: Douglas Sirk
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Scotland Yard's Inspector Temple (Coburn) hires sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, and sharp-tongued down-and-out American actress Sandra Carpenter (Ball) to serve as a lure for a serial killer who has been prowling through London's shadows, murdering young women he contacts through personal ads. With her Scotland Yard "guardian angel" Barrett (Zucco) watching over her, she undertakes the dangerous task of drawing out the insane killer.

"Lured" is a well-done, light-touch police procedural thriller (with touches of romance and melodrama along the way) that features an all-star cast of 1940s B-movie actors (and a respected stage actor thrown in for good measure), all of whom deliver great performances.

The dialogue is snappy, the tense moments geniuinely tense, the funny moments genuinely funny, and the many red herrings tasty. Boris Karloff's character serves as the oddest and funniest fish of them all--and it's not a spoiler to say that he isn't the serial killer. Yes, it's the sort of part he often plays, but not here, and it will be obvious to viewers almost immediately.

I think this is a film that will be enjoyed by anyone who likes classic mystery movies. I also think that fans of Lucille Ball will enjoy seeing her in her pre-screwball comedy days. (Speaking of comedy, George Zucco's scenes with Ball are always amusing, as Sandra repeatedly inadvertantly helps Barrett solve the crossword puzzles he's constantly working on with stray comments.)

Monday, May 4, 2009

Don't bother visiting "Isle of the Snake People"

The Isle of the Snake People (aka "The Snake People" and "Island of the Dead") (1968)
Starring: Ralph Bertrand, Charles East, Boris Karloff, Julissa, Santanon and Tongolele
Directors: Juan Ibenez and Jack Hill
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When a new police captain (Bertrand) arives on a small Carribean island, he vows to clean up police corruption and to break up the local voodoo cult. The cult, which is on the verge of ushering in a new age where their dark gods will rule supreme, go on the warpath against him. Can one honest cop defeat a cult specializing in zombie sluts and led by a crazed, tophat-wearing dwarf (Santanon), a voodoo priestess--or maybe just an exotic dancer in a really cool outfit who got lost on her way to a gig--(Tongolele) and a mysterious masked man (who can't possibly be the wealthy, eccentric plantation owner Van Molder (Karloff))?

"The Isle of the Snake People" is to Karloff films that "Bride of the Monster" is to Lugosi movies. Both films were made at the very end of long careers, and both films saw that those careers ended on very low notes.

This movie is boring to the point where you must have a book to read, or someone to make out with, while watching if you are to have any hope of getting through it. There are some scenes that could have been disturbing if they didn't go on forever--like the opening vooodoo ritual with that creepy dwarf--but the only truly creepy scenes are limited to those featuring flesh-eating zombie women. Mostly, the film just trudges along, from badly filmed scene to a badly acted one, and onward into infinity. (Actually, if one took a hatchet to this film, cut it down to maybe 40 minutes in length and retitled it "Night of the Flesh-Eating Zombie Sluts", it might end up as entertaining. It might even end up coherent.)

Boris Karloff is the only good thing about this film. The scantily clad belly-dancing voodoo priestess might have been a plus as well... if she'd had a bag over her head. She's got one of those "I've been in the sex industry entierly too long" hard faces and it sort of ruins the fantasty aspect. But Karloff, like Lugosi in "Bride of the Monster" gives his part his all, and watching him--even if he seems old and tired--is as much fun as always. (His interplay with his puritanical neice (Julissa) who has come to the island to save the natives from the evils of alcohol shows he had magic up to the very end.

If you're a Karloff fan, pretend "Targets" was his last film and that "Isle of the Snake People" doesn't exist. You won't be missing anything... except a freaky dwarf and a belly-dancer that should have been wearing the mask instead of the cult leader.

If you're a completist who feels you must see and/or own every Karloff movie, I can't recommend that you get any of the stand-alone versions of this film. If you must have it, pick up one of the DVD multi-packs it's included in to get value for your money. (There's a particularly good one that includes "Night of the Living Dead" and two other films.)

Friday, May 1, 2009

'The Mummy' from 1932 remains best mummy move ever

The Mummy (1932)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, and Edward Van Sloan
Director: Karl Freund
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

After an archeologist accidentally restores him to life, a cursed ancient Egyptian high priest Imhotep (Karloff) sets about likewise reviving Princess Anckesen-Amon for whom he gave up everything so they can resume their forbidden love. Unfortunately, she has been reincarnated, and her spirit is currently residing within Helen Grosvenor (Johann), the daughter of a British diplomat. Imhotep hasn't let the natural order of things stop him in the past, and he's not about to let it get in his way now.

"The Mummy" is perhaps the best, most intelligent mummy movie ever made. It's more of a gothic romance story set in Egyptian surroundings than a monster movie, with Imphotep trying to recapture a love that he lost 3,700 years ago.

The actors in this film are all perfectly cast, and they are all at the top of their game.

Karloff is spectacular, conveying evil, alieness, majesty, and even a little bit of tragedy in his character with a minimum of movement. (Unlike most mummy movies, Imhotep isn't a bandage-wrapped, shambling creature, but instead appears like a normal human being; he is still dried-out and somewhat fragile physically, though, and Karloff does a fantastic job at conveying this.)

Johann likewise gives a spectacular performance, particularly toward the end of the movie as Imhotep is preparing to make her his eternal bride and she has regained much of her memories from when she Anckesen-Amon. Johann is also just great to look at.

The two remaining stars, Manners and Van Sloan, are better here than anything else I've seen them in. Manners in particular gives a fine performance, rising well above the usual milquetoast, Generic Handsome Hero he usually seems to be. (Even in "Dracula" he comes across as dull. Not so here.)

The cinematography is excellent and the lighting is masterfully done in each scene. Karloff's character is twice as spooky in several scenes due to some almost subliminal effects caused by lighting changes from a medium shot of Manners to a close-up of Karloff... and the scene where Imhotep is going to forcibly turn Helen Grosvener into an undead like himself is made even more dramatic by the shadows playing on the wall behind the two characters.

There are some parts of the film that are muddled, partly due to scenes that were cut from the final release verson, or never filmed. Worst of these is when Imhotep is interrupted during his first attempt at reviving Anckesen-Amon, and he kills a security guard with magic during his escape. However, he leaves behind the spell scroll that he needs for the ritual. Why did he do that? It's a jarring, nonsensical part of the movie that seems to serve no purpose other than to bring Imhotep into direct confrontation with the heroes. (The commentary track on the version of "The Mummy" featured in Universal's "The Mummy Legacy Collection" sheds light on what the INTENTION was with that devolpment, but it just seems sloppy and badly conceived when watching the movie.)

While "The Mummy" may seem a bit slow to people who are used to Brandon Fraser dodging monsters--or even the Hammer mummy movies--it is a film that every cinema buff should see and even add to their personal movie collection. (There are at least three different DVD editions of the film available for sale as of this writing. However, the best value for your dollar is to pick up Universal's "The Mummy: The Legacy Collection". You'll get "The Mummy" with an excellent and very informative commentary track, as well as a bonus disk with the four mummy movies that Universal released in the 1940s. You can read more about the set at by clicking on the link below.)