Dr Friedrich Hohner (Boris Karloff) is a haunted man, who when he is not working will stalk the streets around the opera house and enter its halls to brood. Ever since the singer Marcellina (June Vincent) mysteriously disappeared ten years ago at the height of her fame, he has been like a ghost in the city, and the staff at the opera house pity him - but would they pity him so much if they knew the truth of his loss? What happened a decade ago is a secret he has kept all this time, and it is down to Marcellina's performance in The Magic Voice, a staging he didn't believe should have gone ahead. So what did he do to prevent it? How about strangling the object of his affection to death?
The Phantom of the Opera had been a big success for Universal, the Claude Rains remake that was, and they were keen to replicate it with its star Susanna Foster, so rehired actual horror celebrity Karloff to appear alongside her and concocted a tale that was kind of an anti-Svengali in that the bad guy was not hypnotising the heroine into becoming a hit on the stage, he was doing the opposite, hypnotising her to sabotage that career she was so promisingly forging. Quite what Hohner had against the particular operetta was something of a mystery, or at least why he had such a violent reaction to it, but that was the engine of the plot and they were stuck with it for the duration.
Also, Foster's career seemed to have been sabotaged in real life, for the year after this she retired from the screen and suffered some appalling setbacks to what should have seen her as one of the great stars of opera, considering her range and pitch was absolutely remarkable. This is demonstrated here in a few scenes, and even if you are not keen on the music you have to admit the girl could belt out a tune, though the parts where we see theatrical performances are so kitsch that it's difficult to take them seriously as the high art every character in the movie regards them as. There are points when The Climax comes across like a backstage musical rather than a horror movie.
A bitchy backstage musical at that, with Jane Farrar enjoying herself as Jarmila Vadek, the star whose status is threatened by Foster's understudy Angela Klatt who steps in when Jarmila starts making complaints about the production. But this is the film more recalled for its colour, for it was the first chance for audiences to see what Karloff looked like when not in black and white, though in effect he didn't look that much different, just more of a nut-brown complexion about the face. This has made The Climax a curio for his fans, but it is not very well thought of otherwise as the music is considered a drawback - not many operetta fans survived into the twenty-first century, and the form does not appear set for a comeback any time soon. Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy movies are hardly ever revived now, if at all.
Therefore any vintage horror aficionado will not have this effort high on their list of priorities, most of them watching it through a sense of duty or completism than securing much of a thrill from it, and it was accurate to say the horror elements were mild, mostly confined to Hohner's mania which sees him keep Marcellina's embalmed body in a locked attic room, where he appears to worship it like an arcane idol. Gale Sondergaard showed up as well, playing his housekeeper, but not otherwise given a tremendous amount to do; better served was Turhan Bey, that exotic star of the forties, here playing with disarmingly boyish enthusiasm (so enraptured of Angela that he devours his programme as she sings). Really, this went to show that The Phantom of the Opera was such a perfectly constructed concept any attempt to imitate it would forever be in its long shadow, and The Climax remained pretty, well, silly. Pretty and silly, really. Music by Edward Ward.