Back to Life: ‘Karloff At Columbia’ reviewed

❉ A must for any Boris Karloff fan and Eureka should be commended for taking these films on, writes Johnny Mains.

Eureka tackles Boris Karloff’s work at Columbia from 1935-1942 in this entertaining boxset of six films. All six films are worldwide debuts on Blu-ray and the results are magnificent.


The Black Room (1935)

Directed by: Roy William Neill
Starring: Boris Karloff, Marian Marsh, Robert Allen

For me this was undeniably the best film in the set and possibly one of the best films Karloff has ever starred in (alongside his turns as the Monster and his end of career films The Sorcerers and Targets). Karloff plays dual roles, brothers Anton and Gregor who live with the curse that one will kill the other in the ‘Black Room’. The film is entertaining through and through, a tight script, humorous and you can see that Karloff is clearly having fun in a film he can truly get his acting chops into. The transfer (to my untrained eye) is beautiful and this is a film that I had never seen before, but will come back to from now on. An utter triumph.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Directed by: Nick Grinde
Starring: Boris Karloff, Lorna Gray, Robert Wilcox

Mad Doctor films are the best, aren’t they? Would love to see a new era of films made in this vein, but my suspicion is that they’ll never be able to make them like they used to. Karloff is Dr Henryk Savaard, a doctor who believes he has found the key to prolonging life and manages to entice a student to being his guinea pig. The procedure is interrupted by the student’s girlfriend, the student dies and Savaard is sentenced to death. We all know what happens next, and if you want to read about a real-life ‘man they couldn’t hang’ – Google John “Babbacombe” Lee, a man who somehow survived three hanging attempts.

The Man with Nine Lives (1940)

Directed by: Nick Grinde
Starring: Boris Karloff, Roger Pryor, Jo Ann Sayers

This time Karloff plays Dr. Leon Kravaal, a ‘frozen therapy’ doctor who is discovered frozen under his house by Dr Tim Mason who is also interested in the therapy. Kravaal is revived and tells his tale. The film ends with the usual redemptive arc, but isn’t anywhere near as exciting as the previous film. This and The Man They Could Not Hang is loosely based on the life of Robert E. Cornish, who in 1932 said he could restore life to the dead. He managed to restore life to two dogs who were put to death – they were called Lazarus IV and V.

Before I Hang (1940)

Directed by: Nick Grinde
Starring: Boris Karloff, Evelyn Keyes, Bruce Bennett

Directed under the working title The Wizard of Death (and to be fair, I prefer this title more!) Karloff plays Dr. John Garth who has been sentenced to hang for the mercy killing of his elderly friend. He is allowed to continue with his research while waiting for the hangman’s noose and devises a serum that will reverse the effects of aging on Garth. He tries it before he is hanged and as he is being led to the gallows he is told that his sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment. Garth realises the serum works, but he’s now turned into a homicidal maniac. The rest of the film plays at breakneck speed, the bodies pile up like firewood and it’s a good end to the ‘mad doctor’ cycle of films.

The Devil Commands (1941)

Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Starring: Boris Karloff, Robert Fiske, Amanda Duff

I prefer this film to the ‘mad doctor’ ones because this is about a someone who is genuinely trying to get in touch with his dead wife and is hoodwinked by a charlatan medium. Karloff plays Dr. Julian Blair with the right amount of grief and obsession and the dive into the spiritual makes this film (for me) another stand-out in the set.

The Boogieman Will Get You (1942)

Directed by: Lew Landers
Starring: Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Max Rosenbloom

The set ends with a farce, the rather tiring The Boogieman Will Get You – the final film of Karloff’s Columbia contract and a lacklustre swansong it is too. Karloff plays Professor Nathaniel Billings in a send-up of his previous ‘mad doctors’ – using electricity to create a race of superhumans. Throw in Dr. Arthur Lorentz played by the always wonderful Peter Lorre, this is the only film in hindsight I wish I hadn’t watched – not even Peter Lorre pulling cats out from his jacket could alleviate the pain.

VERDICT

Five good films out of six is a great hit rate and Eureka should be commended for taking these films on. A must for any Karloff fan and fans of films made during WWII – showing that people still needed entertaining, if only to take their minds off of what was happening to family members fighting in foreign lands. I’ve not had a chance to listen to the commentaries – but will do on my next watch.

SPECIAL FEATURES

❉ Limited Edition O-Card slipcase [3000 copies]

❉ All six films presented in 1080p across two Blu-ray discs

❉ Optional English SDH subtitles

❉ Brand new audio commentaries on The Black Room, Before I Hang, and The Boogie Man Will Get You with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby

❉ Brand new audio commentaries on The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man With Nine Lives, and The Devil Commands with author Stephen Jones and author / critic Kim Newman

❉ A LIMITED EDITION collector’s booklet featuring writing on all six films by Karloff expert Stephen Jacobs (author of Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster); film critic and author Jon Towlson; and film scholar Craig Ian Mann [3000 copies]


❉ ‘Karloff At Columbia’ (Eureka Classics) Limited Edition 2-Disc Blu-ray released 3 May 2021. Certificate U (TBC). Available to order from Eureka Store, RRP £39.99.

❉ Johnny Mains is the editor of numerous horror anthologies, including Best British Horror, the British Fantasy Award winning Back From the Dead and Dead Funny: Horror Stories by Comedians, co-edited with Robin Ince.

Images © Eureka Entertainment. All rights reserved.

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