Once you’ve seen a handful of mad doctor movies, you get the feel for what the plot will usually involve. Mad doctor has lofty goals of a medical advancement, society rejects the doctor’s ideas, assistant tries to help the doctor but soon discovers the doctor has gone mad and there is usually a femme fatale thrown in for good measure. In most cases, the doctor started off meaning well but let his ambitions get the better of him. So, after a while, if you want your audience to become engaged in the story, you need to stir things up a little bit. That’s exactly what we get with The Man with Nine Lives (1940).
Karloff had the mad doctor role down to an art form. However, even he would grow weary of the same thing over and over again. By 1940, director Nick Grinde had already worked with mad doctor Karloff in The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) and would do so again later in the year with Before I Hang (1940). What helps The Man with Nine Lives stand out as different are the script and the set. The story takes place almost entirely underground in a sub-basement laboratory and ice chambers. Really, it’s a very minimal set but it works very well and helps elevate the movie above other standard fare.
Karloff plays Dr. Leon Kravaal, who at the beginning of the film has been missing for ten years. He was last known to be studying cryogenics, a “frozen therapy” to help freeze bodies yet keep them alive so the body can heal itself. Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) has been following the same path but has hit a stopping point and needs to cross the next medical bridge to ensure his work goes on in his hands rather than being passed off to another group of scientists. With his girlfriend/nurse in tow, he travels to the abandoned home of Dr. Kravaal on a deserted island. Ten years ago, Kravaal and four other men went missing never to be seen again. As it turns out, they have been frozen underground. Once thawed out, Dr. Kravaal resumes his studies at all costs, even if it means risking the lives of those around him in the name of science.
While the story is essentially the same as many other movies, the idea of cryogenics was a unique twist. Having the main setting take place underground also gave an eerie setting that helped build the feeling of isolation, not to mention ultimately saving on the budget. What really helps push this film above others is how Karloff played Dr. Kravaal. His character unfolds gradually and, while he eventually devolves into obsession and madness, his character isn’t demonized in the end. A nice epilogue actually praises his work despite his questionable tactics.
Karloff never seems to go over the top even though he looks much more menacing here. Sporting a goatee seems to bring out a sinister look, going hand-in-hand with his cunning. However, he is one of the more reserved mad doctors Karloff would play, which is why I think this movie stands out as one of his better entries. The script could have been a little tighter as we do seem to go in circles for a while. But with a brisk running time of 74 minutes, the movie runs along nicely and is well worth the effort.
The Man with Nine Lives may be a little harder to find but should cost you less than $10 once you track it down. Watch this clip from the film (sorry, no Karloff in this scene) and prepare yourself for some fun.