And More Karloff Appreciation, Please!
By Kristin Battestella
Let’s also pay tribute to the February long late actor, shall we? The man just made that much great horror, what can I say, people?
The Ape – Big Boris gets in touch with his inner primate for this hour-long 1940 mad murder fest. We believe Karloff as a radical doctor seeking a polio cure to avenge the loss of his family just as much as we fear the lengths to which he will go to achieve his medical breakthroughs. He’s tall and strong and menacing, but also old, pitiful and tragic, even tender- except when he’s testing his serum on those poor pups! Again, the ideology is so twisted because Doctor B thinks he is doing right in his villainy- and parallels can be drawn to our own contemporary debates over spinal fluids and stem cell research, too. Is he so wrong in what he’s doing? Does the science trump the humanity? Yes, it looks simple and the kid cast is so no- I confess it is appropriate to see Karloff run them down with his bicycle! Though the mad scientist décor fits the bill, the black and white filmmaking is bare, and it’s tough to see the poor effects. Granted, the ape angle is hokey, but the science gone awry premise and the weight of Boris’ portrayal is worth a look.
Bedlam – There’s great black and white colonial style in this 80-minute lunacy thriller from 1946. The lace, frocks, and powdered wigs add a bizarre layer of class to the obviously totally inappropriate mocking of Quaker ideology and 1761portrayals of asylums as near circus-like- houses for loonies in cages and entertainment rather than hospitals for the mentally ill. Of course, Our Man Karloff is so suave in his slick speech and uncaring in the lecherous use of people both high and low. He commits his enemies to the titular institution regardless of sanity. It’s not outright scary as we might expect, but modern audiences can certainly imagine all the prison naughty and hysteria that could go on in such a place. We do, after all, still use the titular term in regards to assorted mayhem. The very young Anna Lee (General Hospital) is quite the aristocratic snot to start, but she learns of the institutional injustices fortunately- with religious help- and unfortunately – with a bit of kink thanks to what the tubby old men really want from her. The talk of Tories and Whigs might confuse folks not up on their history, but the dramatic disturbia works more than enough wonders here.
The Black Room – A fun premise, solid plotting, and unfortunate prophecy create the opportunity for Karloff to play the ever-popular good twin versus bad twin! Big K is exceptional as both the dark and juicy, salacious ne’er do well Baron Gregor and his crippled, but upscale and prodigal brother Anton. We shouldn’t be surprised in the height of Borisness- it’s not that he can’t do both, just that we are delightfully treated to it all at the same time. Karloff looks great in capes, top hats, and naughtiness alike. However, I do think I like the twisted and obviously insane but totally cold calculating Baron more! The 1935 design looks peaches; the black and white is fresh and crisp with fun split screens. These dual cheats are nicely hidden or at the very least not distracting thanks to the creepy atmosphere, 18th century castle stylings, and lovely costumes. Marian Marsh (Svengali) looks period fine as well, creating sympathy and juice for our two for the price of one Karloff.
The Body Snatcher – Bela Lugosi (Dracula) co-stars in this 1945 Robert Louis Stevenson tale from director Robert Wise (The Haunting, The Sound of Music) and writer/producer Val Lewton (also of Bedlam, Cat People). While it’s great to see the elder Lugosi and the Karloff pinnacle go head to head; the unfortunately typecasted Lugosi is playing a humble, dimwitted servant, and it’s a complete waste of his talent. Big Boris, however, is perfectly twisted as a grubby grave robber who thinks his business means he can pester high society- and he’s just too dang happy about what he does! Some of the supporting cast is a little weak, and there’s some off color early 19th century insults. The frocks are again looking good, even if the music is a little dated. Thankfully, the murderous action and creepy notions of medicine being synonymous with butchery and barbarism will still give some modern viewers the heebee geebees.
Isle of the Dead – OMK teams with producer Val Lewton again! Ellen Drew (That’s My Baby!) and Alan Napier (Batman) are trapped on a Greek island in fear of the plague thanks to BK’s deranged General Pherides in this 1945 thriller. Man, he looks so crazy, such eyes, and sinister insistence! Pherides is just so certain that his way is the right way in saving those in his care from death- but the vrykolakas vampire scares still get the best of them and us. The moaning sounds and up close, tight suspense photography work perfectly along with excellent uses of shadow and light. Oh, that wispy white flowing gown is just lovely! Fast-paced viewers may find the slow brewing build is perhaps a little too slow, but at 75 minutes; Karloff fans can easily enjoy this one again thanks to several Lewton horror collections.
Son of Frankenstein – Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff reunited for the fourth time in this 1939 second sequel. This time around, Basil Rathbone (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes) continues a very credible plot as the suave titular returnee who becomes caught up in his blasphemous legacy. Karloff is stepped down from the sympathetic monster in Bride of Frankenstein, made to be an angrier, scary pawn- but it’s still dang good if you want scares over sentiment. Lugosi, however, is unrecognizably wonderful as the scene stealing and deceptive Ygor who uses the creation for his own vengeance. Of course, anyone making a study will find plenty of internal troubles with this franchise, and the timeline is always iffy- this is a thirties contemporary after two Victorian predecessors? Thankfully, the sets are big and ominous with plenty of creepy décor, thunderclaps, and lightning. Though slow to start and an unusual for the time full-length feature, the exciting finale and spooky atmosphere are perfect for a late night viewing. If only there wasn’t another kid due for a Karloff bicycle encounter!
Just in case you still can’t get enough of Big Boris, here’s a complete list of our previous Karloff commentaries.
Isle of the Dead
The Strange Door
The Strange Door