Dr Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) has been working on pioneering a technique known as frozen therapy, where seriously ill patients will be placed under a form of suspended animation using ice and lowering of temperature, all the better to perform surgery upon them and cure their ailments. He demonstrates this to a group of academics, keeping one woman asleep for five days and reviving her with no ill effects, but there remains scepticism among his peers and elders, and they recommend until he can put this to practical use, his research is better off suspended. He and his head nurse Judith Blair (Jo Ann Sayers) are disappointed, but he is not really surprised, and decides to use the time off to investigate the mansion house of Dr Leon Kravaal (Boris Karloff), the real pioneer who vanished...
The Man with Nine Lives was the second in Karloff's run of mad scientist movies for Columbia studios, not much different from his contemporaries in the fright flicks stakes except there was one of the majors backing him - it should be noted he was still making the low budget programmers of the Mister Wong series when he started these, where he unconvincingly portrayed a Chinese detective patterned after Charlie Chan. But somehow he managed to escape the indignities of most Poverty Row productions, and these horror and science fiction items, while short enough to be B-movies, were never crass enough to be dismissed in the same way, and indeed managed to be very well regarded even at the time of release, rather than reassessed upwards many decades after the fact.
Actually, in this one he took his own sweet time in appearing, as for the first quarter hour it looked as if this was a Roger Pryor vehicle, which really would have relegated it to obscurity. However, once Mason and Blair have rowed out to the island mansion, they find a frozen basement which after some nifty axe work from Tim reveals the body of Kravaal, lost these ten years. Once he is revived, with the help of coffee which for some unexplained reason is hugely important to the process, he explains all: he had a wealthy patient who he had frozen, but the man's nephew had been convinced Kravaal had murdered him for his money under this scientific subterfuge and he had the authorities try to shut the experiment down. The doctor insisted they all go out to his lab where he placed them in a very difficult position: they were frozen too, entombed in that basement for ten years along with him.
We had been here before, thematically, but the idea that science could reach great, fresh heights if only the small minds that sought to hamper it were moved firmly out of the way was rarely as vehemently expressed as in this. Despite Kravaal being sent round the bend by these bureaucrats and meddlers, it appeared we were intended to consider he had a valid point to his research and given it all worked, after a fashion, should have been left alone to pursue his work. Though that might not have made for a tremendously exciting thriller, therefore there was a hitch when he is thawed out in that he obsessively experiments on the men he held captive to find the chemical formula that had instigated the success of the cases in the first place. Though more of a science fiction movie than a horror movie, with thriller elements, the mad science was present and correct: you can imagine the doc would be encouraging cryonics had he still been around in his later years, and this at least demonstrated the ideas were around in the nineteen-forties, some years before they became favourable and fell out of favour too. As it was, it got a bit over the top to put it mildly, but Karloff was a steady centre, even as his character was not.
[This is included on the six film Blu-ray box set Karloff at Columbia from Eureka, and has these 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.]