Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Birthday to Boris Karloff

On this day in 1887, the great Boris Karloff was born. To mark his birthday, here's a review of one of his many films that deserve more attention than it gets.

The Man Who Changed His Mind (aka "Body Switch", "Doctor Maniac", and "The Man Who Lived Again") (1936)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, John Loder, Donald Calthorp, and Frank Cellier
Director: Robert Stevenson
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Dr. Laurence (Karloff) devises a method to switch the intangible elements that makes up a being's mind from one body to another, but snaps when he is mocked by the scientific establishment and a rich newspaper publisher (Cellier) pulls his patronage for the doctor's research. He decides to use his method for his own gain, up to and including switching bodies with the son of his former patron (Loder) so he can marry the beautiful and intelligent Dr. Clare Wyatt (Lee).

"The Man Who Changed His Mind" is perhaps one of the most intense horror films from the 1930s that I've come across. From the first time Boris Karloff's chain-smoking mad scientist crosses paths with Anna Lee's brilliant and independent-minded surgeon, you know things are going to end badly for more than one of the film's characters. But even with that knowledge, you're not going to guess how badly and for whom until the story is all but done unfolding. Even after nearly 75 years, this is a horror film that countless modern-day filmmakers need to study and emulate' their films would be far better for it.

The film is driven by a tight, expertly paced script that presents just the right mixture of horror and humor to make both aspects as effective as possible, especially given that most of the humor is of a pitch-black variety. The cast is also excellent and everyone is perfect for their parts and talented enough to bring depth to even the thinnest of characters. Dr. Laurence's assistant Clayton could easily have been just an obnoxious and unpleasant jerk, but Donald Calthorp brings enough humanity to the role that the viewer had a little empathy for him. The same is true even of John Loder's character who belongs to that most loathsome of 1930s comic relief characters--the wise-cracking, corner-cutting reporter; the superior script and dialogue makes even that character type bearable, and the viewer will actually fear for him when he becomes a target of Laurence instead of cheering the villain onward to success just to shut him up.

But the film's coolest--and most chillingly unexpected-- scenes is the one where Dr. Wyatt takes on the mantle of "mad scientist". The lighting, editing, and superior acting talent of Anna Lee all add up to the character going to a dark place that few heroic characters go even in the nihilistic modern horror movies.

There is a hard coldness on her face and in her eyes that would have made even the mad Dr. Laurence shiver in fear, as she works switches and buttons on the mind-switching contraption. It's a performance that puts to shame even the one that I until now considered Lee's best--her turn as another strong-willed woman in Bedlam (review here, at the Boris Karloff Collection). It truly is one of the greatest moments in horror films, and I don't understand why more critics who fancy themselves experts in Great Cinema don't include it on their lists of "Top Fifty Horror Moments." Heck, it might even belong in the Top Ten!

"The Man Who Changed His Mind" is one of the many under-appreciated films from the early days of the horror genre. It is superior to a number of the more famous movies--including some of the ones from Universal that everyone has seen--and I encourage anyone who hasn't seen it to give it a try.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas with Karloff
(and that theiving Grinch!)

With Christmas almost here, there is no better time than now for this review.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Based on a book by Dr. Seuss
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

In "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", a darkhearted, creepy old coot who lives on a mountain high above the happy village of Whoville gets so annoyed with the cheerful Christmas preparations of the villagers that he sneaks into town disguised as Santa Claus and steals all the Christmas trees and presents. However, as the Whovians remain just as full of the Christmas spirit, even the Mean Mr. Grinch starts sucumbing to Christmas joy and fellowship.

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is one of Dr. Suess' most famous children's books, and the "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is one of the very best Christmas cartoons ever made... perhaps THE very best. From creative (if somewhat minimalistic) animation and cute characters, to the fabulous narration by Boris Karloff, to the great songs (who reading these words has never caught themselves humming "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch"?), to a well-delivered message about what should be the real source of the Christmas spirit, this half-hour cartoon is every bit the Ten I am rating it.

I think "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" should be viewed at least once a year by every family out there, ideally in the week before Christmas when the commercialism is at its worst and we can all do with a reminder about what Christmas SHOULD be about.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Karloff is at his best (and most evil) in 'Bedlam'

Welcome to the Boris Karloff Blogathon, a week-long celebration that spans over 100 blogs. To experience its full scope, click here.

* * *

During the 1940s, producer Val Lewton created a series of hit low-budget horror and suspense films that not only saved the studio from financial ruin (a situation created by a series of big-budget box office disasters, mostly under the guidance of Orson Welles) but introduced a range of horror movie stylistic techniques that remain in the filmmaker bag-o-tricks to this very day.

The final of these films was the 1947 film "Bedlam," which was also his third and final appearance Boris Karloff would make in a Val Lewton picture. The film is some of the very best work either man would ever be involved with.

Bedlam (1947)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House, Richard Fraser, Ian Wolfe and Leyland Hodgson
Director: Mark Robson
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When Nell Bowen (Lee), an actress turned live-in companion and jester for one of London's leading citizens (House) makes it a personal crusade to improve conditions at the Bedlam institution for the insane, she makes a personal enemy of its Apothecary General, Master Sims. She soon discovers that those who Sims feels threatened by end up as inmates at Bedlam, whether they are insane or not.

In "Bedlam," we see Boris Karloff playing the most despicable and evil character he ever portrayed during his career. Master George Sims is a self-centered little man who has achieved some small degree of social standing through toadying and by abusing his position by turning the government-operated asylum and its inmates into a sideshow attraction, complete with admission fees. Although he talks about compassion, it is clear that he has has none, both from his attitude and deeds. Everything within the walls of his asylum are there to boost his fragile ego, and anyone who threatens it from the outside, he brings under his control by having them committed by a board of governors that he has under his sway.

If played by a lesser actor, Master Sims would probably have been a boring character consisting of pure evil covered by a thin veneer of hypocrisy and oily charm. However, Karloff manages to infuse humanity into this monstrous figure, giving Sims a dimension that makes him just sympathetic enough that viewers can appreciate where he's coming from even while recognizing that he is an absolute villain.

One of the key moments for Sims' is when he falls into the hands of the inmates and they put him on trial to determine if insanity drove him to commit all the cruel acts he is responsible for. Without ruining the film, I can say that Sims gives a speech that convinces the inmates that he is indeed sane, because his actions were driven by a hunger for recognition from his betters and a sad hope to be accepted as their equal. But, although Sims seems to be soul-searching and understanding that his behavior is misguided and wrong, it quickly becomes apparent that he will fall back into his old ways, because the only way for him to overcome what is ultimately an unsurmountable degree of self-loathing is for Sims to feel himself bathed in what he considers the reflected light from his "betters."

And it is this reflected light that starts the conflict between Master Sims and Nell Bowen. She not only shows Sims up in front of one of the nobles whose approval he so desperately wants, but she shows herself to be more favored than he when she isn't punished for displaying repeated and open contempt for him. Worse, Bowen doesn't need the approval that Sims devotes his entire life to gaining, so he has no real weapons to weild against her except his ability to force her into his charge and break her spirit and mind.

It is plain to viewers early on that Nell will ultimately end up at Sims mercy, because she refuses to back down, and as the film unfolds, much of the suspense comes from the fact that there seems to be no way out for Nell and that her strong spirit will get her killed. The confrontations between Sims and Nell, which never rise above verbal sparring, are really the heart of the film... and they are scenes that would not work half as well if it wasn't because the lines are being delivered by two great actors whose performances are bringing dimensions to the characters far beyond what would usually be expected from a low-budget drama.

These great performances also lift the film to the point where you're not quite sure what's going to happen... and not just because Val Lewton has delivered films with genuinely suprising endings before (is there anyone who can honestly say they saw the ending of "Cat People" or "I Walked With a Zombie" coming before it hit?), but because the characters have a degree of life to them that doesn't let us assume that the script will follow the pat ending where the heroine is rescued and the dastardly villain gets his just rewards. (And, to some degree, Lewton once again delivers a powerful and unexpected ending, perhaps the creepiest of any of his RKO films.)

Of course, I also need to give some credit to Mark Robson, the film's director. He was an editor at RKO whom Lewton wanted to give a chance to direct, and for whom Lewton passed up the opportunity to work on films with bigger budgets.

After his early hits, RKO execs wanted to give Lewton more money to work with, but it meant that Robson would not have a chance to direct. Lewton chose to stay with the smaller budgets and the B-pictures, showing personal character and a degree of loyalty to his fellow creators that one wishes more people possessed.

And Lewton's faith in Robson was obviously well-placed. While most of Lewton's RKO pictures are lean efforts without a second of filler to be found, "Bedlam" is even tighter than the rest. There is not a single scene that doesn't start or end at just the right moment, and there is not a single shot that isn't perfectly timed or lit.

With the excellent performances from its stars, able assistance from a talented supporting cast, and great direction, camera-work and editing, "Bedlam" is a fine thriller that fans of classic movies should seek out.

"Cat People," "I Walked With a Zombie" and "The 7th Victim" may get most of the commentaries when it comes to Lewton films, while "The Mummy," "Frankenstein" and "Targets" get the accolades in the Karloff canon, but "Bedlam" is a film that deserves more attention from fans and reviewers alike.

And it's on DVD now, part of a five DVD set that contains all nine of the films Lewton produced for RKO, each of them worth seeing and each of them worth the asking price for the set by itself.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Karloff is driven by mysterious forces
when he becomes 'The Walking Dead'

Welcome to the Boris Karloff Blogathon, a week-long celebration that spans over 100 blogs. To experience the full scope of this blogathon, click here.


"The Walking Dead" is an early genre-bending effort from Warner Bros., a film that mixed the gangster/crime drama genre the studio so excelled at with the fright/supernatural thriller genre that Universal and a growing number of small studios have been making tons of cash with. It's an unusual film that sees Boris Karloff playing a "monster" that is even more sympathetic than the ones he played in "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein."

The Walking Dead (1936)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Edmund Gwenn, Marguerite Churchill and Ricardo Cortez
Director: Michael Curtiz
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Ex-con and all-around sad sack John Ellman (Karloff) is framed for murder by racketeers, he is unjustily executed in the electric chair, dying even as the governor is trying to reach the prison to stay the execution when a witness (Churchill) comes forward with evidence that clears him. The innocent man is given a second chance at life when Dr. Beaumont (Gwenn) brings him back to life with an experimental technique, but death has changed Ellman. Initially, he seems to be mentally disabled, but an encounter with the racketeer-allied attorney who helped frame him (Cortez) reveals that Ellman has changed in ways no mortal will ever be able to comprehend.

"The Walking Dead" mixes mad science, horror, and crime drama with a deftness that I wouldn't have thought possible. It's a far better than the similar cross of genres than Universal would offer in 1940, with Boris Karloff in the role of the scientist meddling with forces beyond mortal ken (review here), with an intelligent and multi-layered script full of unpredictable twists and turns; excellent pacing and beautiful, moody photography; sympathetic heroes you will be rooting for, and villains that you have no problem hating and won't mind seeing come to bad ends.

One of the most important factors making this film such compelling viewing is the excellent performances by its cast.

Edmund Gwynn plays a doctor who is more interested in first proving that he can bring the dead back to life and later interested in learning what happens to the soul after death than he is in John Ellman's health or sanity, He portrays the character with such likability that its impossible not to like him despite it all.

On the flipside, there is Ricardo Cortez, who plays an absolutely destible mob attorney who through the picture pretends to be looking out for Ellway's interests but who is really trying to see him put to death so he and his fellow criminals remain untouchable by the law. It's a character so slimy that we can't wait to see him get his just rewards, mostly because Cortez plays him with such a cool and detached grace.

And then there's Boris Karloff as John Ellway. Just like Karloff brought humanity to Frankenstein's Monster with a few gestures and body language, so does he convey the deep pain and confusion suffered by Ellway once he is restored to life. It's a confusion that's doubly fascinating, because as the film unfolds, it becomes apparent to the viewer that Ellway has returned from the Other Side with a limited sort of omnicience that allows him to know who the conspirators were that framed him for murder, but not why.

Without spoiling too much of the movie while discussing the aspect that I found the most interesting about it, I will reveal that Ellway spends the second half of the movie looking for the answer to his fate, but never receiving it, as there are other forces that are swirling around him, forces that are making the "untouchables" pay for their crime. And with each denied attempt at discovering why he was marked for death, his pain grows, and it's a pain that Karloff conveys with absolute perfection.

But Ellway's search for answers raises an interesting question about whatever forces govern life, death, and whatever comes after. Whatever they are in this film's world, they seem to have the ability to observe everything that happens with absolute clarity, but have no understanding of why something happens. Ellway recognizes the men who conspired to kill him when he sees them, but their motivation eludes him. Further, whatever the forces are, they also seem not to care about the whys of events... or at least they don't care whether Ellway gets his answers or not.

In the end, the film leaves all the characters wondering about life and death and fate (well, the ones who are still alive at the end of the film), and it will also give the audience members a little food for thought. The final scene is a bit maudelin, but it maintains the mysterious air that surrounded Ellway from the moment he was brought back to life and it really couldn't be more perfect.

"The Walking Dead" is an overlooked classic that every fan of Boris Karloff should see. He gives a performance that is on par with whatever of his more celebrated roles you care to mention. The film has recently once again become easily accessible to the public as part of the "Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics" four-movie DVD pack. "The Walking Dead" is the only real classic in the bunch, but the price for the set is worth it for this film alone, so you can view the other included pictures as "bonus features." (None of them are outright bad, but they're not exactly great either.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Karloff is present, barely,
in 'The Old Dark House'

Welcome to the Boris Karloff Blogathon, a week-long celebration that spans over 100 blogs. To experience the full scope of this blogathon, click here.


Many great masterpieces started out as commercial product, made by all involved as part of the everyday grind of making a living, just like a carpenter makes a table. They were also rarely seen as little different than the carpenter making the table. It therefore is not surprising that no matter how good the end product, if it doesn't catch on in the marketplace, it will be tossed aside for items that will bring in more money and pay those ever-voracious creditors.

One such product is "The Old Dark House," one of a number of nearly forgotten early horror films from Universal. Like other obscure films, it didn't do well at the box office... in fact, this one bombed so badly both on its initial release and re-release that it left craters. (While it broke box-office records in the UK, the film was a financial disaster in the US. It was also slammed by most American film critics when it was first released, with only the New York City critics seeming to like it.)

It's only natural that Universal Pictures and all those involved with the film tossed it aside and instead focused on things that put helped them keep up with the bills. The film was considered so worthless that it was believed to have been destroyed until it was rediscovered and restored in the late 1960s. At that time, Boris Karloff is reported to have seemed bemused when the man who saved the film from oblivion told him of the restoration effort; I imagine Karloff couldn't conceive of why anyone would spend money and time to preserve a failed movie.

Truth is, "The Dark Old House" was only a failure in a commercial sense. Anyone with a taste for classic movies who watches it now will recognize it as a film that should be held in equal regard to the other landmark Karloff features like "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy." Like those, it's a true classic that is exciting to watch even today.

It was, ironically, the invoking of Karloff that probably helped doom this movie during both its initial 1932 release and its 1939 re-released in the United States. Universal's marketing material so emphasized the fact that Karloff of "Frankenstein" fame was in it that one is left with the impression that he is not only the star but that this is another monster-driven fright fest.

Both of those impressions are false, so it's no surprise that negative word-of-mouth killed the box office even in New York where the papers were praising the film.

Truth is, "The Dark Old House" is more of a mystery/comedy film than a horror movie. It's also a far more "British" film than "American" as far as the humor and characters go, so it's no surprise it was better received in the UK.

I assume most of you reading this have already seen "The Dark Old House," so you know what a treasure it is--as for me, the DVD was in my "To Watch" pile for about a year, until this Blogaton gave me the perfect opportunity to watch and write about it. Now I wish I'd seen it the very moment it arrived in the post!

If you haven't seen "The Old Dark House," you absolutely must check it out. It's available on an excellent DVD from Kino Video. Read on for my review of the film, and then use the Amazon.com link to get yourself a copy; it'll cost you about the same as a movie ticket these days, but it's a film far superior to most of the garbage polluting the cinema now.

The Old Dark House (1932)
Starring: Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Lilian Bond, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Bremer Wills and Boris Karloff
Director: James Whale
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A violent storm forces five travelers to take shelter in an isolated house in the Welsh mountains. Before the night is over, love will come to some of the inhabitants of the house while death will come for others.

Gloria Stuart and Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House
"The Old Dark House" is a quirky horror film from the days when the genre was still taking shape. It features an even mix of romance, dark comedy and melodramatic horror action in a household so riddled with insanity that even the House of Usher looks like the Cleavers by comparison. It's a tone and mixture of elements that has only rarely been achieved, with films like "Drag Me to Hell" and "Dead Alive" coming closest in the past decade.

When it was first released, it failed to appeal to the public nor to most critics, due in a large part to a marketing campaign that centered on Boris Karloff, who had just been featured in the mega-hit "Frankenstein." Karloff's role in this film is actually very minor, and he is more red herring than monster. He was also, strangely, more easy to recognize in the monster make-up than he is under the beard and facial scars of Morgan, the alcoholic and mute butler he portrays in this film.

The true star of the film is actually Gloria Stuart. Although it is a definite ensemble piece, Stuart appears in all the key scenes and hers is the character that is threatened in turn by each of the menacing figures in the old dark house. She gives an excellent performance throughout the film, It's a shame that this would be the only truly good part she would play in her film career, and the only decent role the casting directors at Universal chose to give her. (Interestingly, Universal executives wanted Stuart for the part of a "female Tarzan," and it was possibly her adamant refusal to even consider it that doomed her chances of ever playing a decent role at the studio again.)

Aside from Stuart, the two other standout performers are Melvyn Douglas, whose roguish war veteran character is the heroic and romantic center of the film; and Bremer Wills, whose character arrives late in the picture, but whose chilling performance is nonetheless one of the most memorable things about the film.

Also of particular note are Lillian Bond, who is perhaps better here than in any other film she would make; Charles Laughton, who actually sympathetic for once; and Ernest Thesiger, who manages to be funny and scary at the same time.

The staging of each shot is also remarkable, as is the attention paid both to the visual composition of each scene, as well as the careful deployment of sound throughout. There is no music score for the film, but the sounds generated by the storm raging outside the house provide far more drama than any orchestra could do.

Because the film was a commercial disaster both in 1932 and during its re-release in 1939, Universal Pictures considered it a worthless property. They eventually let all rights revert to estate of the novelist whose work the film had been based on and the negatives were left to rot in storage in New York City. If not for a concerted effort on the part of filmmaker Curtis Harrington--a fan of the film and friend of director James Whale--it might have been lost forever by the late 1960s. Even the best available print shows some damage, despite the restoration efforts.

"The Old Dark House" is a film worth seeing again and again for the excellent performances and careful staging; you are guaranteed to notice something new each time you watch it. It's particularly worth watching for Gloria Stuart's performance. Karloff is, as usual, excellent, doing what he can with a part that doesn't give him very much to do.

Please come back here Wednesday for a review of "The Walking Dead," one of Karloff's most unusual genre-bending pictures.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Preview of the Boris Karloff Blogathon...

During the week of Thanksgiving, some 100 blogs will participate in the Karloff Blogathon in celebration of the great actor's birthday, November 23. The effort has been organized by Pierre Fournier of the very excellent Frankensteinia blog.

My contribution to the effort will be reviews of three Karloff films that sees him playing three very different parts. I've no doubt that there will be much historical knowledge and critical insights to be gained from the hundreds of other posts that will be appearing elsewhere, but here I will do what I do--review movies! Karloff was a foundation stone of the horror movie genre, and he continues to have an impact more than 30 years after his passing, and it will be fascinating to read what all those writers have to say.

Here are stills from the three films I will be covering. Check back on 11/23, 11/26 and 11/29 for the reviews.

Gloria Stuart is menaced by Karloff in "The Old Dark House"...

Marguerite Churchill and Edmund Gwenn try to get Karloff to reveal what he saw on the other side of death's gate in "The Walking Dead"...

Anna Lee becomes trapped behind the walls of an insane asylum
run by Karloff in "Bedlam"...

For more information, visit Frankensteinia by clicking here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Karloff is top-billed bit-player in this disposable comedy

You'll Find Out (aka "Wild Wild Spookhouse") (1940)
Starring: Kay Kyser and His Orchestra, Dennis O'Keefe, Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, M.A. Bogue, Helen Parrish and Ginny Simms
Director: David Butler
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Kay Kyser (Kyser) and the wacky musicians and singers that make up his orchestra are booked to play at the 21st birthday party of their manager's heiress girlfriend (Parrish). Swing music, high-jinx, and attempted murder follow as Keyser must team with a renowned debunker of psychics also invited to the party (Lorre) who has also been invited to the event in order to reveal the true nature of a phoney spiritualist (Lugosi), who has been bleeding money from the young lady's gullable guardian.

"You'll Find Out" is interesting viewing for two reasons.

First of all, it's the only film where Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre appear together. The three actors don't have alot of screen time, but their parts are meaty and they get to show their best sides; even Lugosi has a decent part, something that was becoming increasingly rare for him at this point. (In a meta-critical sense, their appearance is an almost Three Fates and/or The Stages of Man sort of affair--Lorre is on the verge of acheiving super-stardom, Karloff is at the pinnacle of his career, and Lugosi is slipping from twilight and into darkness.)

Second, it's an example of the fleeting nature of fame. While Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre have some presence in the minds of virtually every movie fan--even if their names might be a bit vague--how many know who Kay Kyser is? And this despite the fact that Kay Kyser was every bit as big a star as Karloff and Lugosi in his time, the leader of a very popular novelty band that had numerous Billboard-charting hit records, was the centerpiece of their own weekly network radio show, and starred in seven movies, including this one. Some 65 years after retiring from show business during World War II, Kyser and his band are completely forgotten by all. You can watch this movie to see what place Slim Shadey will hold in the public conciousness in sixty years... not to mention what "8 Miles" will look and sound like.

As for the film itself, it's more corny than suspenseful, which is fitting given that it was not a vehicle for the three horror actors but for Kyser's orchestra. Some viewers might be dissapointed at this, but I've always enjoyed Bela Lugosi's comedic turns. Lorre also has some very funny scenes with Kyser, sometimes being the straight man, sometimes being the deliverer of the jokes... and doing an equally good job in either role. (You may notice by now that I've not said much about Karloff. That's because there isn't much to say. He plays a dignified, slightly sinister lawyer and he delivers his lines on cue. It's a decent part and it's key to the story, but there's not much else to say other than, "Look... Boris Karloff!"

Is "You'll Find Out" a classic? No, "Ghostbreakers" this is not. However, it holds up a little better than many other pieces of disposable cinema made for no purpose other than to cash in on a cross-marketing opportunity of a musician.