Monday, June 29, 2009

'The Ghoul' is an obscure Karloff classic

The Ghoul (1933)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Dorothy Hyson, Anthony Bushell, Ernest Thesiger, Cedric Hardwicke, Kathleen Harrison, Harold Hugh and Ralph Richardson
Director: T. Hayes Hunter
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An eccentric Egyptologist, Professor Morlent (Karloff), insists that he is buried with the ancient artifact he spent his fortune on acquiring, in an Egyptian-style tomb on his estate so that Anubis may come and bring him to eternity in the afterlife. He vows to return from the grave and kill anyone who doesn't follow his wishes or who steals from him tomb. Naturally, his manservant (Thesiger) keeps the priceless artifact. Naturally, Morlent emerges from his tomb to punish the thief, and anyone else he happens across, on the very night his young cousins (Bushell and Hyson) are meeting in the main house with a solicitor (Hardwicke) about their inheritance.

"The Ghoul" is a rarely seen early horror talkie that features a fast-moving, finely tuned script, an appealing and talented cast, a number of truly unnerving scenes, but also manages to deliver comic relief that will still be funny to modern audiences.

While Boris Karloff receives top billing--and gives an excellent performance as a fanatic neo-worshipper of the Egyptian pantheon returned from the grave and now rushing about strangling people in best mummy fashion--the real stars of the film are actually Dorothy Hyson and Anthony Bushell. They protray a pair of distant relatives who start the film disliking each other due to an old family feude but who eventually bury the hatchet. Hyson is very attractive and a good actress and Bushell manages to transform a character who is an unsympathetic jerk at the beginning of the film into a likable hero figure by the end.

Another remarkable performance is given by the film's comic relief, which are made up of a Lucy Arnez/Carol Burnett-type character played by Kathleen Harrison, and a mysterious Egyptian played by Harold Hugh. The Egyptian is actually the films main heavy (aside from the monstrous Dr. Morlent), but he becomes drawn into the comic relief when he becomes th object of fantasy of a woman whose read too many romance novels and seen too many silent movies about the dashing beduine princes of Arabia and their white stallions, abducted maidens, and vast harems.

Often in these old movies, the comic aspects have not stood the passage of time, but that is not the case here. The genre being lampooned may have fallen out of favor, but the basic situation remains funny and the bubble-headed woman who lives vicariously through trashy romance novels remains a constant through the ages. The action is funny, the characters are funny, and the jokes are hilarious.

The only midly annoying thing about the film is the Scooby-Doo like ending where everything with an apparent supernatural cause is explained away either by some weird circumstance or by someone wearing a cleaver disguise and using elaborate tricks. However, the ending is very dramatic--with the climax reaching its thrilling heights with our young heroic couple on the verge of being burned alive and the comic relief character about to shot by the villains--and so action-packed that you will hardly notice the "oh, there was never any spooky Egyptian gods and curses going on here" line when it's delivered.

"The Ghoul" is a great film from the formative days of the horror genre. It's both an example of the "dark old house" mystery movies that gave way to it, as well as a clear evolutionary step toward what we think of as horror movies today. It's definately worth seeing by anyone who enjoys films from that time. Even better, the DVD release was made from such a prestine print that you'll be watching the film looking almost like it did when audiences sat shivering in their seats in 1933.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Karloff and Lorre carry this mild comedy

The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Jeff Donnell, Larry Parks and Max Rosenbloom
Director: Lew Landers
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

With true never-say-die spirit, Dr. Billings (Karloff) continues to work on creating super-soldiers that will help win the war against the Axis. However, the never-say-die spirit doesn't extend to his test subjects who are stacking up like cordwood in the basement. But will the new influx of visitors to his home--that is being converted to a bed-and-breakfast by an adventurous divorcee (Donnell)--bring more test subjects or the revelation of his failures?

"The Boogie Man Will Get You" is a dark comedy with screwball overtones. The script is so-so, and it unfolds along predictable lines until a series of amusing twists at the end. However, the comic antics of Boris Karloff--as a senile mad doctor--and Peter Lorre--as a corrupt small town mayor/doctor/animal control officer/sheriff/whathaveyou--are entertaining enough to carry viewers through.

If you've only seen Karloff do drama or horror, this film is well worth checking out. In it, he shows himself more than capable of doing comedy... and he and Lorre make a great comedic duo. The film isn't the best, but Karloff excels, with he and Lorre making a fabulous comedic duo.

The film is one of four included in the Boris Karloff entry for Columbia's "Icons of Horror" DVD multipack series. As such, it serves as harmless filler, supplementing the three far better films in the set.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Karloff's final appearance in the Frankenstein series is as the mad scientist

House of Frankenstein (1944)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr, J. Carroll Naish, and John Carradine
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After escaping from prison, mad scientist Gustav Niemann (Karloff) sets out to gain revenge on those who helped imprison him, and to find the notes of the legendary Dr. Frankenstein so he can perfect his research. Along the way, he accidentially awakens Dracula (Carradine) and recruits him to his cause, as well as uncovers the frozen bodies of Frankenstein's Monster and Larry Talbot, the unfortunate wolfman (Chaney) and and revives them. Cue the torch-wielding peasant mob.

"House of Frankenstein" is one of three movies released in the 1940s that featured the latest addition to Universal's monster pantheon, the Wolf Man, teaming up with/battling the studio's two monster greats, Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster. As such, it is a sequel not only to "Ghost of Frankenstein," but also to "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man."

So, if you're confused about how the Monster from the fiery pit at the end of "Ghost of Frankenstein" to the ice floe here, you didn't skip a movie--events transpired that aren't found in this set. (I'll have more to say about the editorial choices made by Universal in compling the packages that make up the Legacy Collection when I post about "The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection," but the bottom line is that I think "House of Frankenstein" should not have been included in this set as it's more of a Wolf Man movie than part of the Frankenstein's Monster series.)

"House of Frankenstein" unfolds in a very episodic way, with the part of the film involving Dracula feeling very disconnected from what comes before and what comes after. The main storyline sees Karloff's mad doctor questing for revenge while preparing to prove himself a better master of brain-transplanting techniques than Frankenstein, and the growing threat to his cause by his repeated snubbing of his murderous assistant (Naish). The whole bit with Dracula could easily be left out, and the film may have been stronger for it.

This is a very silly movie that is basically a parade of gothic horror cliches--I thought maybe I was having some sort of hallucinatory flashback to my days writing for the "Ravenloft" line--but it moves at a quick pace, and it features a great collection of actors, has a nifty musical score, and features great sets once the story moves to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein.

"House of Dracula" is one of the lesser Universal Monster movies--it's not rock-bottom like the mummy films with Lon Chaney, but it's almost there. The film is, to a large degree, elevated by the top-notch performers and it's almost too good for what they give it. (But it is interesting in a breaking-the-third-wall sort of way to see the actor who started the series as Frankentein's Monster come back to it in the role of a mad scientist.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Karloff plays dual role in 'The Black Room'

The Black Room (1935)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Thurston Hall, Marian Marsh, and Robert Allen
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The much-hated, psychopathic Baron Gregor de Bergmann (Karloff) summons his respected, kindhearted twin brother Anton (also Karloff) back to their ancenstral lands following Anton's ten-year absence. Gregor announces that he intends to step down and elevate Anton to the position of Baron, thus restoring faith in the noble family... and hopefully avoiding a prophecy that stated Anton would someday murder Gregor. However, the evil twin has ulterior motives, including designs on the innocent noble-woman Thea (Marsh).

A period melodrama that has some fairly shocking twists and turns for a film made in 1935, "The Black Room" is a stylish, well-acted and well-filmed movie with impressive sets and costumes. Karloff in particular shines in the dual role of twin brothers--one good and one evil--and his performance is particularly impressive when one takes to impersonating the other, and he switches back and forth between the two characters.

If you enjoy the Roger Corman-produced/directed Poe adapations from the 1960s, you'll love "The Black Room." Although rarely mentioned, it's definately one of the best films Boris Karloff appeared in, and it features one of his best performances, so it's a Must See for Karloff fans.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Karloff gives a strong performance in 'The Raven'

The Raven (1934)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Irene Ware
Director: Lew Landers
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After saving young dancer Jean Thatcher (Ware) from certain death through a miraculous feat of neurosurgery, the mentally unstable Dr. Vollin (Lugosi) becomes obsessed with her. When her powerful father makes it clear that Vollin is to stay away from her, Vollin forces a wanted murderer (Karloff) into assisting him in eliminating Jean, her fiance, and her father in hideous death-traps modeled after gruesome scenes from the writing of Edgar Allan Poe.

"The Raven" isn't really an adaptation of the Poe work by that name, but is instead the tale of a thoroughly evil and utterly insane man so rich and so obssessed that he's built a house full of secret doors, secret basements, and entire rooms that serve as elevators... all so he can reinact scenes from Poe's writings.

There is plenty of potential in this B-movie, but tepid direction and mostly uninspired lighting and set design leave most of it unrealized. Lugosi is completely over the top in this film, taking center stage as the perfect image of a raving madman. He is ably supported by co-star Karloff who plays the role of the tortured, remorse-filled murderer trapped into serving Vollin with the promise of a new life in the exact opposite direction of Lugosi--remaining subdued as he slinks through each scene he's in. Ware is very attractive in the scenes she's in, but that's about all she is. In fact, the only actors in the film who aren't just so much set decoration are Lugosi and Karloff.

The "torture room" is nifty, and the climax where Dr. Vollin has houseguests trapped in a Poe-world of his making is excellent. All in all, an entertaining film, but it would have been much better with a more inspired supporting cast and more creativity on the technical side of the camera.

Karloff and Lugosi are miscast in 'Black Friday'

Black Friday (1940)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Stanley Ridges, Bela Lugosi and Anne Gwynne
Director: Arthur Lubin
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When brilliant brain surgeon Dr. Sovac (Karloff) is the attending physician for dying mad-dog gangster Red Cannon and his best friend Professor Kingsley (Ridges), a man who is already dead from brain damage due to Cannon's actions, Sovac decides to conduct an extreme eperiment: He transplants part of Cannon's brain in the hopes of saving Kingsley... as well as proving his theory that a person's personality and memories is preserved in the brain cells. To Sovac's initial delight, his surgery is a success and his theory is proven true, but when he causes Cannon's personality to become the dominant one, the gangster-in-the-professor's body starts taking gruesome revenge on those who killed him, including rival gangster Marney (Lugosi).

"Black Friday" is an interesting horror flick that crosses Frankensteinian mad science with the hardboiled gangster genre. It has its interesting points, but it is a bit overburdened by too many plot complications, and it has an ending that comes too suddenly and too easily. Another run at the script to streamline the plot and expand the ending a bit would have improved this film immensely.

The acting is excellent all around, with Stanley Ridges doing a great job in the dual role of Cannon and Kingsley. (Never mind where the brill cream comes from when he turns into the gangster... it's a great bit of acting, contrasting the mild-mannered professor with the homicidal gangster.)

The oddest thing about the movie is the casting choicies. It seems like Karloff would have been perfect in the dual-role of Kingsley/Cannon, and that Lugosi would have been great as Sovac--heck, some of the exchanges between characters seem to imply that Sovac hailed from some strange and foreign land--but instead we have Karloff as Sovac, Lugosi in a minor role as a gangster, and Ridges as the ambulatory mad science project. As mentioned above, Ridges does a great job, but I can't help but wonder how much better the film wold have been if Karloff had been in that role, and Lugosi as the doctor.

(I read an online rumor that Karloff didn't feel he could play an American gangster, so he refused to take the Kingsley/Cannon part... but given that he played a similar part in "The Black Cat" that's an explanation that doesn't make much sense. In fact, if Lugosi had played Sovac and Karloff Kingsley/Cannon, they would have been in similar roles as the ones they played in "The Black Cat", a film where they both gave great performances. Perhaps a concern was that Lugosi couldn't bring enough of a sympathetic air to the part of Sovac? If anyone knows the true story, let me know!)

Karloff refuses to hang around in this one.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)
Starring; Boris Karloff, Lorna Gray, Byron Foulger, Ann Doran, Robert Wilcox, and Joe De Stefani
Director: Nick Grinde
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Surgeon and brilliant research scientist Henryk Savaard (Karloff) invents a device that will revolutionize blood-transfusions and organ transplants, a device that is so effecient it can allow surgeons to perform impossible operations and literally be used to fully restore a dead person to life. However, when his final experiment is disrupted by the police and his volunteer dies, Savaard is tried, convicted, and hanged for murder. His loyal assistant Lang (Foulger), a brilliant surgeon in his own right, repairs Savaard's broken neck and uses the fantastic medical device to restore Savaard to life. Lang intends for Savaard to prove to the world that his device works and that if he had been allowed to continue his work, the volunteer wouldn't have died, but Savaard is more interested in taking his revenge against the jury, law enforcement officers, and medical people who scoffed at his work and condemned him to die.

"The Man They Could Not Hang" is a neat little B-movie that starts out as a sci-fi thriller and takes a hard left about halfway through and turns into a "what if Agatha Christie were to write a story about a mad scientist taking revenge on those who wronged him" about halfway through.

The film is its best after Savaard has lured all those who wronged him to his house, trapped them, and is killing them off, one by one. The murders are particularly clever and sadistic, and this is one of those rare films where a "diabolical genius" actually comes across as a the genius he's supposed to be. (In fact, Jigsaw from the "Saw" series of horror films is a sort of great-grandchild of Dr. Savaard; they both put who they consider well-deserving victims in death traps and taunt them.)

The actors In "The Man They Could Not Hang" all give great performances, and Karloff is particularly noteworthy. The transformation he brings to Savaard shows how great an actor he was, as within the space of a very brief movie and limited dialogue and screen-time, he presents a character who changes from a driven, optimistic visionary with a desire to make the world a better place, into a bitter, twisted man who is deaf and blind to everything but his hatred and desire for revenge against those who humilated and scorned him. The way Karloff slips back and forth between Savaard's two personalities at the end of the movie when he is confronted by his daughter (Gray) is a fantastic performance.

The only strike against this film is that the last quarter seems a bit rushed. It would have been well-served by an additional ten minutes of running time, with a bit more time spent with Savaard's trapped victims, or maybe even a little more interaction between his daughter and her reporter boyfriend (Wilcox). The ultimate end to the film is perfect, though... I just wish the journey there had been a little bit longer.

I recommend this film for Karloff fans... and for those who like the "Saw" movies not for their gore, but for their villian. I think Dr. Savaard is a character you'll enjoy.