Day 20 – The Black Castle (1952)

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The Films of Boris Karloff 2In 1952, Boris Karloff would star in the second film as part of his three picture deal with Universal. The Black Castle would see Karloff get second billing behind Richard Greene, who is perhaps best remembered for his 143 episodes of the television The Adventures of Robin Hood in which he had the starring role. Again, Karloff’s high billing was misleading as he really was only a supporting character. But, Karloff was happy for the lighter film schedule as he continued to also keep himself busy with radio and television appearances as well as traveling with his fifth wife Evelyn, whom he would be married to for nearly 23 years until his death in 1969.

In The Black Castle, Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene) travels to Austria hoping to find out what happened to his two friends while they were visiting the sinister Count Karl von Bruno (Stephen McNally, Winchester ’73). Von Bruno is actually seeking revenge against the men who are responsible for setting some wild natives upon him in Africa, costing him his right eye. Von Bruno is married to Countess Elga (Paula Corday, The Body Snatcher), a marriage she had forced upon her. Wild animals and death traps lurk at every corner as Sir Ronald seeks vengeance while also trying to escape with his life and that of the woman he has fallen in love with, Countess Elga.The Black Castle poster

Karloff stars as Dr. Meissen, personal physician to the Count. However, his loyalties are with Countess Elga as he ultimately sees what an evil man the Count really is. His medicinal knowledge plays a key role in the final plot twist which involves premature burial. The role of Dr. Meissen is actually smaller than that of Voltan in The Strange Door. He is once again playing the part of the hero, which is certainly against type considering what he had been doing for the previous 20 years or so in Hollywood.

The Black Castle would mark only the second time Karloff worked with Lon Chaney Jr. Their first film together, House of Frankenstein (1944), would see both actors in an equal role. However, by 1952, Lon Chaney’s star status had slipped dramatically due in large part to his alcoholism. Here, Lon Chaney plays the mute Gargon, a brute who meets a rather unfortunate end.The Black Castle 1

Sharps eyes will recognize Michael Pate, who stars here as Count Ernst von Melcher. He was also in The Strange Door as Talon. Sci-fi fans might also recognize John Hoyt as Count Steiken. He was the first doctor on the television series Star Trek, playing Dr. Philip Boyce in the pilot episode “The Cage.”

The Black Castle 2Visually, The Black Castle surpasses The Strange Door, due in large part to producer William Alland. He would find even greater success two years later with Creature from the Black Lagoon. I find both movies have a lot of similarities, mostly to the gothic settings and expansive sets. I would lean a little more towards The Strange Door because of Charles Laughton’s performance. Karloff’s roles in both films are mostly interchangeable but he fairs better in The Strange Door. Both films are part of the Boris Karloff Collection and well worth your time.

Karloff would complete his Universal contract with Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953). He would spend a lot of time over the next several years on television as well as some rather poor film appearances (The Island Monster, not a horror flick, and Sabaka) before returning to the horror genre. Tomorrow, we’ll see what’s happening on Voodoo Island (1957).

Day 19 – The Strange Door (1951)

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The Films of Boris Karloff 2Following his three films with Val Lewton, Boris Karloff spent the late 1940s and early 1950s fluctuating from stage to radio to TV and back to Hollywood. Cameo roles in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) and Lured (1947) saw him do his usual menacing role with a bit of humor. He entered the world of Dick Tracy and shared the laughs alongside Abbott and Costello twice. He also stepped into the new realm of television on such programs as Lights Out and Tales of Tomorrow. He also managed to bring his character of Jonathan Brewster to the visual medium in a 1949 television performance of Arsenic and Old Lace. However, in 1951, he found himself home once again at Universal Pictures with The Strange Door.

The film is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Sire de Maletroit’s Door, and is more gothic thriller than horror. The real star is Charles Laughton (The Old Dark House) as Alain, the Sire de Maletroit, an evil and sadistic man who is seeking revenge on his brother for stealing his childhood sweetheart. Now, with his brother imprisoned in a dungeon, he plots to marry off his niece Blanche de Maletroit (Sally Forest, Son of Sinbad) to the seemingly worthless Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley). He then plans to kill them both after they marry, all to hurt his brother but will his madness be his ultimate undoing?The Strange Door poster

Viewers were probably disappointed upon watching The Strange Door if they were expecting to see Boris Karloff in a big role. Posters made it seem like he had a starring role when, in reality, he was a mere supporting character. He plays Voltan, faithful servant to Alain’s brother Edmond. Having watched The Strange Door one day after Bedlam, I was a taken aback by how much older Karloff looked. Five years had passed and his back continued to plague him. It was also a little sad to see him in such a small role but this was part of his new deal with Universal as he wanted only smaller roles with less commitment. Karloff does everything he can to enhance the character of Voltan through his sympathetic performance. Not Karloff’s best work but he does ultimately play the part of hero as he battles Laughton on a bridge over a water wheel, which looks amazing thanks to a tremendous set.

The Strange Door 1Aside from Karloff’s small role, The Strange Door is actually a very good movie. The period setting enhances the story rather than limiting it. The sets are stunning as only Universal could do. By 1951, the horror era was over but Universal would continue to work their magic throughout the 1950s, occasionally producing a fun horror film while bringing in new elements of science fiction. The Strange Door is often overlooked but I recommend it as it’s entertaining and very well done. Watch the clip and be sure to add The Boris Karloff Collection to your must watch list.

Day 18 – Bedlam (1946)

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The Films of Boris Karloff 2The third and final film collaboration between Boris Karloff and producer Val Lewton came in 1946 with Bedlam.  It also was last horror film Val Lewton did for RKO Pictures. It was inspired by a series of painting by 18th-century English artist William Hogarth entitled A Rake’s Progress. The paintings chronicles the decline of Tom Rakewell, the son of a merchant who succumbed to the pleasures of gambling and prostitution before ending up in Bethlem Hospital or, it’s more notorious name, Bedlam.

In Bedlam, the hospital is referred to St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum. Karloff plays the sadistic apothecary general Master George Sims. He revels in the abuse of the inmates, even using them as entertainment for Lord Mortimer (Billy House, The Stranger, Touch of Evil), an excessively rich man who is far too easily swayed in support of the abuse. Only Lord Mortimer’s protégé, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), seems to care about the well-being of the inmates. However, when she becomes a liability, Sims arranges for her to be institutionalized, it’s a race for her to find a way out before he manages to break her spirit and her mind. Will showing kindness to the inmates turn the tables and put Master Sims at their mercy?Bedlam poster

Bedlam suffers from being a period piece and, as such, you really have to put up with a lot of proper English throughout the film. I can enjoy the authenticity to a point but you really have to be in the mood for it. The Quaker storyline gets real tedious at times but the scenes within Bedlam are entertaining. Karloff does a fantastic job as Master Sims, switching back and forth from trying to be a proper gentleman to being evil and sadistic when alone at Bedlam. I particularly enjoyed seeing his frustration when trying to make a lady out of one of his assistants in an effort to get her close to Lord Mortimer. And sharp eyes will recognize actor Ian Wolfe as the attorney/judge Sidney Long. He appeared twice in episodes of Star Trek (“Bread and Circuses” and “All Our Yesterdays”) as well as other genre films such as The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944) and Mad Love (1935).

Bedlam 1I enjoyed Bedlam better than Isle of the Dead but not nearly as much as The Body Snatcher. Karloff clearly enjoyed these films as they gave him opportunities to do something different than he had been doing for quite some time. All three are well worth tracking down in The Val Lewton Collection. Be sure to watch this clip and plan a triple feature for some rainy fall afternoon.

Day 17 – Isle of the Dead (1945)

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The Films of Boris Karloff 2The second of the three films Boris Karloff would do with producer Val Lewton was actually going to be the first. Isle of the Dead (1945) started its’ troubled production in July 1944 but was halted when Boris Karloff suffered a back injury. Karloff’s back problems date back to the original Frankenstein (1931) when he was forced to carry Colin Clive for hours while also wearing those heavy boots. This was the first real sign of the serious problems that would plague him throughout his career and would eventually leave him wheelchair bound.

The film was inspired by a painting entitled Isle of the Dead by Arnold Bocklin. It appears behind the opening credits and would be a strong influence in the script written by Ardel Wray with the usual contributions from Val Lewton, who remains uncredited this time. The film is set during the Greek wars of 1912. This was an important part of Greek history and one of the very few attempts on film to recognize it.Isle of the Dead poster

Karloff plays General Pherides, a stern commander who orders one of his men to commit suicide in his very first scene. Along with an American reporter named Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer), he travels to the Isle of the Dead to pay their respects to the general’s wife who had died many years earlier. Upon their arrival, they discover the graves have been robbed. They soon meet a group of individuals all displaced from the savages of war, waiting for a lull in the fighting so that they may return home. But they are soon warned by an old housekeeper that vorvolaka is there as well, an evil creature who sucks the life out of human beings. When a fear arises that septicemic plague is on the island after one of the guests dies, they are all quarantined until it runs its course. Is the vorvolaka real and will they survive until they can leave the island?

Isle of the Dead 1I first discovered this film on a summer afternoon in 1991. A local television station was airing movies in the late afternoon and many of them were from RKO Pictures. I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere that is so typical of Lewton films but I must admit, it’s not one of my favorites. Perhaps it’s because the movie suffered an odd production and appears disjointed at times. After it was suspended to allow Karloff to have back surgery, Lewton went on to film The Body Snatcher while waiting with Karloff while waiting for the rest of the cast to reunite. The film was one of the most expensive Lewton ever made and, subsequently, barely turned a profit. I think Karloff gives a good performance here but not up to the level he did in The Body Snatcher nor his next film with Lewton, Bedlam (1946).

That said, Isle of the Dead is still entertaining and well worth a viewing. Catch the trailer and, if you’ve been smart and purchased the Val Lewton Collection, you already own the film.

Day 16 – The Body Snatcher (1945)

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The Films of Boris Karloff 2After a rather uninspiring performance in The Climax (1944), Karloff went to work on another film for Universal, House of Frankenstein (1944). It was another mad doctor role but it was exciting to see him alongside the monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man. However, it was his next film that allowed him to leave the laboratory behind and take on a very different role. Under the production of the legendary Val Lewton, The Body Snatcher (1945) is easily one of Karloff’s best films that showed us he was much more than a man in a lab coat.

The Body Snatcher is based on the classic Robert Louis Stevenson short story with a screenplay written by Philip MacDonald and Val Lewton (credited as Carlos Keith). It is set in Edinburgh in 1831 and tells the tale of Dr. Wolf MacFarlane (Henry Daniell, Professor Moriarty in the 1945 Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film Woman in Green). Dr. MacFarlane runs a medical school where one of his students, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade, The Ghost Ship), has befriended a young paralyzed girl in need of surgery. While Fettes inspires the doctor to perform surgery and reignite his medical passions, there looms a mysterious presence in the background…cabman John Gray (Boris Karloff). It seems Gray “acquires” bodies for the good doctor by any means necessary. Gray and Dr. MacFarlane go back to the time of the infamous Burke and Hare trial as Gray holds a secret that could destroy the doctor.The Body Snatcher poster

Karloff is absolutely amazing in this picture. He greatly appreciated the opportunity to play such a well-written and developed character. It was refreshing for him to play something different than the countless mad scientist roles he had been playing. The relationship between Gray and MacFarlane allowed Karloff to display his acting abilities not always possible in some of his other films. When we first see him, he befriends the little girl and seems utterly charming. Seconds later, he shoots an evil look towards the doctor’s housekeeper that tells us all it not as it appears. In every scene, Karloff emits an evil charm that is frightening.

The Body Snatcher would be the eighth and final time Karloff and Bela Lugosi would work together. RKO Pictures insisted Lugosi be added to help with box office appeal and Lewton reluctantly wrote a role for Lugosi. His role is a very small one as Joseph, an assistant to Dr. MacFarlane. However, the scene between Karloff and Lugosi is amazing and a fitting way for the two to end their on screen performances together.

The Body Snatcher 2For anyone who has seen a Val Lewton film before, you know exactly what to expect. A tale with some truly scary moments wrapped up in a movie where the horror elements are downplayed in a world full of shadows and mystery. The final scene is horrific and legendary director Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) walked away from the picture with a great deal of respect and a new opinion on the acting talents of Karloff.

The Body Snatcher was the first of three consecutive films Karloff did for producer Val Lewton. While Lewton only worked on 14 films, his 9 horror films stand out as not only his best but true classics of the genre. Karloff is amazing in this film and I highly recommend it. Watch the trailer and seek out the film in the now out-of-print Val Lewton Horror Collection.The Body Snatcher 1

Day 15 – The Climax (1944)

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The Films of Boris Karloff 2In 1943, Universal had released the remake of Phantom of the Opera. It was a huge hit, one of Universal’s biggest, and by August 1943, plans were already in the mix to produce a sequel. However, those plans were scrapped early on and the decision was made to adapt a 1909 Edward Locke play into a new theatrical sensation called The Climax. Many revisions were made to the script, now placing it in 1870s Vienna. Despite plans to bring Phantom star Claude Rains onto the production, Universal chose instead to cast Boris Karloff, fresh off his impressive run in Arsenic and Old Lace. Only actress Susanna Foster would return in a new role.

Karloff is Dr. Fredrick Hohner, physician at the Vienna Royal Theatre. It’s clear early on that Dr. Hohner is obsessed and the resident bad guy of the film, as if we could expect anything else from Karloff at this point in his career. He has murdered his fiancée, a young opera star, out of jealousy of her success and having to share her with others. She refused to leave the opera so he obviously had no choice but to kill her. Now, ten years later, he hears another young singer, Angela Klatt (Susanna Foster), whose voice immediately captures his heart. She is singing music from the same opera as his dead fiancée and he is determined that no one should hear her sing but himself. Through hypnotism, Dr. Hohner hopes to control the girl but how long can he keep her away from singing in front of the audience? And what other extremes will the mad doctor go to in making sure her voice is only for him forever?The Climax poster

I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of The Climax. In fact, the movie wasn’t even originally part of this tribute. However, being that it was Karloff’s first time in Technicolor and its strong ties to the legendary Phantom of the Opera, I opted to include it. The movie suffers from a poor script and meandering storyline. The musical numbers will either bring joy to opera lovers or leave the rest of us praying for a reprieve. Now, I love a great variety of music but, admittedly, opera is not high on my list. I guess I’m not cultured in that regard. If done well, I can appreciate it to a point. Here, however, it detracts from a story that, admittedly, isn’t very original.

The Climax 1The character of Franz Munzer is played by actor Turhan Bey. Bey had stumbled into acting through an English class he was taking after he and his mother came to the United States from Austria. He would appear in other horror films including The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mad Ghoul (1943) and The Amazing Dr. X (1948). Luise is played by Gale Sondergaard who some of you may recognize from her starring roles in the Sherlock Holmes adventure The Spider Woman (1944) and The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946), which is not a sequel despite its title.

The Climax is beautiful to look at if for no other reason than it used the same and legendary lavish sets from the original Phantom of the Opera (1925). However, Karloff’s performance here is uninspired and the plot is bogged down with musical numbers. There is very little horror or suspense here. At nearly 90 minutes long, it really isn’t recommended viewing except for die-hard Karloff fans. It is available as part of the out-of-print Boris Karloff Collection, a set well-worth tracking down. Catch the trailer and view at your own risk.

Day 14 – The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

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The Films of Boris Karloff 2“Amelia, this riffraff, as you call him, is really the salt of the earth. All he needs is to be iodized.”

- Professor Billings (Boris Karloff), The Boogie Man Will Get You

In 1941, Boris Karloff became a Broadway sensation in the hit play Arsenic and Old Lace. He played the gangster Jonathan Brewster, a man who keeps getting mistaken for the actor Boris Karloff. After 18 months on the stage, Karloff would return to Hollywood for his only film role during the more than three year period he was in New York. During the summer break in 1942, Karloff hoped to capitalize on his success with a comedic role in The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942).

Karloff and Peter Lorre had become friends in the 1930s and nearly worked together in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Lorre was Universal’s first choice to play Frankenstein’s son but the role eventually went to Basil Rathbone on the insistence of director Rowland V. Lee. Karloff and Lorre did work together in the musical comedy You’ll Find Out but, in my opinion, their best on-screen performance together came in this 1942 flick. While Karloff is playing another mad scientist in what would be his last film for Columbia Pictures under his contract at the time, the character of Professor Nathanial Billings is played for laughs in this horror comedy. The writers were clearly trying to capitalize on the success of Arsenic and Old Lace by mixing comedy and horror with dead bodies and eccentric characters.The Boogie Man Will Get You poster

Professor Billings is attempting to create a race of supermen for the war effort in the basement of his run-down tavern. Unsuspecting door-to-door salesmen find themselves easy victims in the odd contraption. Along with the eccentric professor there is his housekeeper Amelia Jones (Maude Eburne), who acts like a chicken late at night, and caretaker Ebenezer (George McKay), who is overprotective of his pigs. The professor sells the tavern to the young and eager Winnie Layden (Miss Jeff Donnell, her real name was Jean Marie with “Jeff” being a rather odd nickname based on the Mutt and Jeff comic strip). Despite her ex-husband Bill (Larry Parks) being against the sale, it goes through courtesy of Dr. Lorentz (Peter Lorre), the local sheriff, justice of the peace and real estate agent, amongst other duties. Add in some odd supporting characters and a random screaming ghost, you have all the ingredients for a fun little comedy.

TBoogie Man Will Get You 1he Boogie Man Will Get You received mixed reactions and often gets overlooked. I have very fond memories of discovering the movie one random Sunday afternoon sometime in the late 70s/early 80s. Then, it would be many years before I would be able to revisit the film again. It was never commercially released on VHS and, while I never saw it, it was occasionally aired on television but had become a very rare film. Finally, Sony Pictures released it on DVD in 2006 as part of the Icons of Horror Collection: Boris Karloff box set. It’s also currently available on YouTube.

I highly recommend The Boogie Man Will Get You. It’s guaranteed to make you laugh and gives you a great opportunity to see Karloff and Lorre doing what they do so well. After the production wrapped, Karloff rejoined Arsenic and Old Lace for a 66-week national tour. Sadly, he never brought the Jonathan Brewster character to life on the big screen. In early 1944, he would return to Hollywood as a prestigious Technicolor production was awaiting him in The Climax (1944).