Following 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?
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.
Aside 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.