In 1968 after having recovered from pneumonia that he contracted while filming Curse of the Crimson Altar, Boris Karloff shockingly signed yet another film contract. Filmica Azteca was a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures in Mexico. While Boris’ daughter Sarah Jane wanted him to stop acting because she knew the toll is was taking on him, Boris’ wife Evie reportedly continued to encourage him to act. It was quickly determined that Boris would not be able to make the trip to film his scenes in Mexico. So, producer Luis Vergara agreed to pay Boris $100,000 per film in addition to arranging that he could film all of his scenes in Los Angeles. Thus began the final four films of Boris Karloff’s career.
It is no understatement to say that these final four films are bad. In fact, it is highly likely they wouldn’t even be remembered today were it not for Karloff’s appearances in them. He was in incredible pain by this point of his life. He was on oxygen and wheelchair bound on set waiting for his cue. When the cue came, off came the oxygen and off to the set he went. All four films allowed him to be seated with minimal action, delivering the lines of his various characters. Yet, here is where Karloff always excelled. He would do whatever he could to incorporate a different accent or a special characteristic to enhance the role. Luis Vergara would serve as the producer of all four films while American director Jack Hill would direct the scenes with Karloff. Once the scenes were finished in Los Angeles, Karloff would thank all of the crew and Vergara would return to Mexico to finish the films.
Only two of the films would be released prior to Karloff’s death. In The Fear Chamber (1968), Karloff would star as Dr. Carl Mandel, a scientist who discovers a living rock underneath a volcano. Of course, it feeds on the adrenaline of young women, so naturally young women are fed to the creature to keep it alive. Actress Julissa would appear for the first of three times, here starring as Corinne Mandel. Next to be released was House of Evil (1968) which has Karloff starring as Matthias Morteval, a rich old man who invites his relatives for a will reading only to die, leaving his relatives subject to his killer toys. Julissa is here again, this time as Lucy Durant. This is probably my favorite of the four films, which isn’t saying much.
The final two films would not be released until 1971 after Karloff had passed away. Another film, Blind Man’s Bluff, also known as Cauldron of Blood, was released in 1970. This is the film Karloff filmed in early 1967 after having agreed to fill in for his friend Claude Rains, who died in May 1967. While not a good film, it is decidedly better than the other four films from Vergara. Here, Karloff stars as a blind sculptor who is unwittingly using skeletons for his work. It turns out his wife is killing people for him to use and he may very well be the next victim. There are some crazy visuals here including a cauldron of acid that burns the flesh off the victims. There are plenty of pretty girls, which I think may have been a prerequisite for a 60s horror film. Not a great film by any means but it definitely shines above the other four films.
Vergara would unexpectedly die in 1969 of a heart attack. This would delay the release of the other two films. Finally, in 1971, The Incredible Invasion would be released and we see Karloff starring as Professor John Mayer, the inventor of a ray gun who accidently shoots the gun into space. This upsets some aliens passing by Earth and they decide the ray gun must be destroyed. No, seriously, that is the plot. No Julissa this time but she is back for the fourth and final film, Isle of the Snake People. This is a pretty standard voodoo flick with Karloff starring as Carl van Molder who is also the voodoo priest Damballah. You have the usual voodoo fare including zombies. Personally, I think that is why this is the weakest of the four films. It really suffered from being out-of-date by the time it was released due to a little film called Night of the Living Dead having been released three years earlier.
All of the four Vergara films are readily available on countless DVD sets and a variety of titles. None of the prints are truly better than the other. Honestly, save yourself the effort and watch them online unless you are a purist like me and want them in your collection. Cauldron of Blood was just released on Blu-ray and while I am not convinced it needs to be seen in HD you can never truly go wrong with Karloff.
While these would be the final films Karloff worked on, he did manage to work alongside Red Skeleton and Vincent Price for Red’s annual Halloween TV show. Karloff and Price played a father and son mad doctor team and it was very well received by all involved. He would appear on The Johnathan Winters Show and The Name of the Game in late 1968 before returning to England. Once there, he was rushed to the hospital due to his breathing difficulties. There, he was diagnosed with a weakened heart that was amplified by his severe arthritis and emphysema. Amazingly, he continued to record his Reader’s Digest radio show even while he was hospitalized. He never recovered and would pass away on February 2, 1969.
This past month has been amazing but there are still so many more Karloff films I never got to. Some are horror while others are spy thrillers, comedies or dramas. Therefore, I highly suspect you will continue to see Karloff pop up here at Monster Movie Kid in 2015. In fact, you might even see another review before the end of the year.
Come back tomorrow as we officially wrap up the 3rd Annual 31 Days of Halloween with a look at my personal favorites, a checklist of where we’ve been and what we can expect for the 4th Annual 31 Days of Halloween.