-Dr. John Garth (Boris Karloff), Before I Hang (1940)
In 1940, Karloff would play the mad doctor role four different times. Black Friday was good while The Man with Nine Lives was a little better. The fourth go around was disappointing (The Ape) but the third trip down mad scientist lane was another good entry. In Before I Hang, Karloff would throw a twist on the mad doctor role by playing a man growing younger due to the effects of a serum…with deadly results.
Karloff begins the movie as Dr. John Garth, an old man in the final stages of a trial. He had used a serum that inadvertently caused the death of a patient. He is sentenced to death and, upon entering the prison, he meets Dr. Ralph Howard (Edward Van Sloan, Dracula), the prison doctor who wants to continue Dr. Garth’s experiments in a youth serum. Using the blood of a criminal, Dr. Garth injects the serum into himself before he is to be hanged. However, a governor’s reprieve at the last moment changes the sentence to life imprisonment. Dr. Garth soon begins to notice changes, such as the darkening of his hair and no longer having to use glasses to read. But with renewed youth comes anger courtesy of the criminal’s blood coursing through his veins. He narrowly escapes getting caught after killing Dr. Howard and another inmate and, soon after, he is released from prison to continue his work. But at what cost and how long before the anger returns?
Director Nick Grinde was back working with Karloff for the third and final time. In all three films, Karloff would play a variation on the mad doctor role. He would play a doctor who cheats death and seeks revenge on those responsible, a doctor who cheats death and becomes obsessed with his research in icy catacombs underground and, finally, a doctor who cheats death but succumbs to murderous tendencies due to the criminal’s blood. It’s obvious to see the pattern in all three films but in each, Karloff has a different appearance and a different approach to the type of doctor he is playing. Although Karloff would be typecast in these roles, they also go to show what a great actor he truly was.
The supporting cast was overshadowed by Karloff, as usual, but a few familiar faces enhance the film. Edward Van Sloan years earlier had played Dr. Waldman in Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Mueller in The Mummy (1932) and, most notably Van Helsing in both Dracula (1931) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936). Although his role here is small, his talent stands out as usual. Bruce Bennett had started his career under the less appealing name of Herman Brix in a variety of roles including the lead role in The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935). As Bruce Bennett, he would often find himself in uncredited supporting roles, such as a state trooper in The Man with Nine Lives. Here, Bennett plays Dr. Paul Ames, the boyfriend of Dr. Garth’s doctor Martha (Evelyn Keyes).
While Before I Hang lacks the unique setting of The Man with Nine Lives or the crazy revenge scheme of The Man They Could Not Hang, it is still entertaining. Karloff wasn’t done with mad doctor roles but he would find other roles in the decade ahead that would still be chilling to watch. Before I Hang is available as part of the Icons of Horror Collection: Boris Karloff DVD set. Make it part of a double feature on a rainy afternoon and you won’t be disappointed.