|Boris Karloff had been an actor for some years before the nineteen-thirties happened along, but it was his big break offered him by director James Whale at Universal that boosted his career and made him a household name, this despite not being credited in that film that made him famous, 1931's Frankenstein. Thereafter, a selection of horror roles beckoned which he took on with gratitude, knowing which side his bread was buttered, and by the forties, when he was entering his fifties, he was as linked to the fright genre as Lon Chaney Sr had been a generation before. He did not stay at Universal, however, as Columbia drew up a selection of projects for him, and six of those are featured in Eureka's box set of Blu-rays Karloff at Columbia, all with the distinct shocker flavour of the day as the trends moved away from monsters and into mad scientists as antagonists.
But first in the set is 1935's The Black Room, a historical thriller with a macabre mood which saw Karloff garner some of his best reviews, here playing twins, one good and one evil. When they are born, the only way to distinguish them is that the goodie has a paralysed right arm, a disadvantage that appears to have softened his demeanour, hence making the well-known curse of the family of their father The Baron apparently powerless. That curse has stated that the good brother will kill the evil, but he's such a nice guy why would he? The evil makes that clear when he contrives to take his place, all the better to marry himself to the doll-like noblewoman's daughter Marian Marsh, who has promised herself to an army officer. With a climax involving the benefits of a well-trained and looked after dog, this was a romp to relish, wonderfully designed, well-played by everyone, especially Karloff, and at a neat hour and a bit long, did not outstay its welcome. A treat of a grim fable.
Next, we move forward to 1939, where Karloff really entered his mad scientist phase and the beginning of five such efforts for the studio, and the first of these to be directed by Nick Grinde, something of a journeyman but inspired by the possibilities these productions gave him. The Man They Could Not Hang was the movie, where Karloff was a doctor trying to stimulate the hearts of his patients to make sure they could be safely revived even some time after they have been put into suspended animation. What could go wrong? In a repeated pattern, the meddling of the authorities and the small-minded ensures his big experiment goers awry, and he is now on trial for murder, turning this into a courtroom drama. But it's not finished yet! Karloff is convicted and executed, but not before he makes plans to be revived himself and packing a whole lot in, the film becomes an old dark house horror, popular in the thirties, as he seeks his vengeance. A bit of a giggle now, but provocative.
After that, Karloff took the lead in another "Man" movie, The Man with Nine Lives, which adopted the same template as its predecessor in that he was another doctor driven to revenge after his experiments were thwarted by those darned meddlers. Here he didn't even show up for the first fifteen minutes or so of the story, and we find out why when the nice doctor who has been trying out his findings uncovers the ten years missing Karloff's body concealed in his island mansion's basement: frozen stiff! On thawing, he is as good as new, but he has a secret, the meddlers who tried to arrest him are in there too, and he has a lot of explaining to do - well, a guy's got to do something when he's falsely accused of murder. Like, er, committing actual murder (?), which you would think was drastic action, and so it transpires to be as the increasingly maniacal Karloff is determined to complete his research at all costs. This one was just as daft, but Karloff gave it integrity.
Before I Hang was the third of this star cycle to be directed by Nick Grinde, and as it would play out, the last, perhaps because they were settling too comfortably into their conventions, not that the audiences seemed to mind. In this one, Karloff was yet another scientist who wanted to cheat death, and as we catch up with him he has been sentenced to death for failing to revive a patient he was experimenting on - as you can see, the theory here was if the formula ain't broke, don't fix it. He has another devoted daughter (Evelyn Keyes) as well, all the better to sell the emotional side of a well-meaning old man who has bungled his research with disastrous results, but thanks to the faith of fellow boffin Edward Van Sloan (the screen's first Van Helsing) they try to complete his work before he is hanged. When the sentence is reduced to life, Boris already has the serum inside him, and it has taken years off him! It also gives him blackouts when he murders his ageing pals! Calamity!
Last of the serious mad scientists in this series was The Devil Commands, that despite the title involved no Satanism a la The Black Cat and was more keen on communicating with the dead. Karloff was a lot less sympathetic in this one, more consciously deranged as he has seen his wife die in a car accident and is obsessed with meeting her one last time - before they are in the afterlife, that is, where in classic séance fashion the film believes we all end up eventually. To this end, Karloff sets up a lab in an old dark house on a clifftop where in a striking visual that makes the film well worth catching, he has arranged a group of corpses around his apparatus which creates a whirlwind of psychic energy thanks to the special suits they wear, and voices from beyond are supposed to result. It's this creepy centrepiece that you'll remember, though Anne Revere as a crooked medium who does her best to contribute matched it for unease, and the whole thing seemed as influenced by Hitchcock's Rebecca adaptation as the previous entries in the Karloff run.
Lastly, as often happens with horror genres, there was the inevitable spoof as Karloff teamed up with fellow villain specialist Peter Lorre for The Boogie Man Will Get You, a film that featured no "boogie men" but rather was attempting to emulate the success of Arsenic and Old Lace, the Broadway smash Karloff had starred in. That had been filmed, but a contract meant it was not to be released until the theatre run was over, so this was effectively a cheeky cash-in, as Lorre had been in the play too (and was in the film, unlike Boris). While this was not exactly hilarious, more silly than anything else, it had a few laughs, funnily enough not thanks to the macabre humour, more thanks to Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, the big lug whose personality was surprisingly engaging here. The plot had Miss Jeff Donnell (think Olive Oyl) wanting to buy Karloff's colonial house and allowing him to continue to try and create supermen in the basement (for the war effort); the bodies mounted up accordingly.
Karloff moved on after these Columbia movies, reteaming with Universal to rejoin their horror franchise in House of Frankenstein, for example, then remained synonymous with the genre till the day he died, and forever after. He liked to work, and also liked to provide for his family, so was very prolific; at times the work was beneath his talents, but he was putting in sterling service right up to his last appearances in items like The Sorcerers and Targets. These mid-career treats give you an idea of where he was at near that first flush of success, and why he was so popular, for no matter how twisted, even evil, his characters, you always felt oddly safe with him, as if you were in a safe pair of hands.
[Eureka release the Karloff at Columbia Blu-ray box set with the following special features:
O-Card Slipcase | All six films presented in 1080p across two Blu-ray discs | Optional English SDH subtitles | Brand new audio commentaries on The Black Room, Before I Hang, and The Boogie Man Will Get You with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby | Brand new audio commentaries on The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man With Nine Lives, and The Devil Commands with author Stephen Jones and author / critic Kim Newman | PLUS: Collector's booklet featuring writing on all six films by Karloff expert Stephen Jacobs (author of Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster); film critic and author Jon Towlson; and film scholar Craig Ian Mann.]