❉ Johnny Restall on a new two-disc set of vintage chillers starring horror legend Boris Karloff.
Eureka’s new Blu-ray set Maniacal Mayhem follows their previous Boris Karloff compilations Universal Terror and Karloff at Columbia, resurrecting three further vintage chillers featuring the horror legend. The selections unearthed for the new set cover a period of 15 years, from 1936 to 1951, beginning in Karloff’s ghoulish prime and ending in the twilight of his career as a mainstream star. Despite being billed as ‘tales of terror,’ the three films actually cover a fairly wide range of genres, with none fitting neatly into the expected horror boxes.
While The Invisible Ray (1936) begins in a distinctly gothic castle in the Carpathian mountains, it swiftly relocates to Africa (showcasing some less than enlightened attitudes to the natives and the wildlife) before a final act in Paris. Karloff plays the obsessive Doctor Janos Rukh, an astronomer and physicist whose search for a mysterious extra-terrestrial element known as Radium X leads him into madness and murder. The star gives a characteristically elegant and menacing performance as Rukh, adding a slight touch of unworldly melancholy that ensures his villainous scientist is never entirely unsympathetic.
Fellow icon Bela Lugosi has less to work with in a dull supporting role as rival expert Doctor Benet, and the remaining cast are saddled with equally drab roles, with female lead Frances Drake particularly wasted in a tedious love-triangle subplot. The film does feature some impressive science-fiction set design, particularly the scenes in Rukh’s observatory, and it is efficiently directed by Lambert Hillyer, best remembered today for the unusual horror sequel Dracula’s Daughter (1936). However, it moves fairly slowly despite its brisk 70 minute duration, and never satisfactorily develops its ambivalent attitude to scientific discoveries or fully commits to its more low-brow thrills.
Black Friday (1940) casts Karloff as the avuncular but wholly unscrupulous Doctor Sovac. A brilliant but neglected university surgeon, Sovac seizes a chance to make his name and fortune when a fellow academic is inadvertently injured in an accident involving an escaping mobster. Sovac secretly transplants the criminal’s brain into the dying scholar’s body, hoping not just for a scientific breakthrough but also for a share of the late gangster’s hidden loot. Naturally, his unethical experiment leads to disaster, with his tormented patient torn between two personalities: one doddering and bookish, the other violent and vengeful.
Surprisingly, given the involvement of both Karloff and Lugosi (sadly wasted again in a small part as an underworld kingpin), the central role of the unfortunate Professor Kingsley is played by Stanley Ridges, a prolific but relatively forgotten screen veteran of the 30s and 40s. He acquits himself well in the split-personality role, and it is his performance that really powers the narrative, with a restrained Karloff manipulating events from the side lines.
Although the film never explores its more metaphysical implications in depth, its brain-swapping theme clearly struck a chord with its co-screenwriter Curt Siodmak, who returned to similarly outlandish territory for his cult novel Donovan’s Brain, adapted for film in 1953. Black Friday generally emphasises its crime elements over science-fiction, creating a strange hybrid somewhere between a Universal horror and an old-fashioned Warner Bros. gangster feature. While the plot perhaps depends too much on far-fetched events and coincidences, it moves swiftly and its strange genre mash-up remains entertainingly odd.
The final film in the set, adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Sire de Maletroit’s Door, is arguably the strongest of the three selections. A ripe slice of gothic melodrama, The Strange Door (1951) is a tale of villainous uncles and imprisoned innocents, awash with foggy mansions, secret passages, swashbuckling swordfights, and dank dungeons. The aging Karloff takes second billing this time, playing the supporting role of the abused but kind-hearted servant Voltan. Despite the smaller part, the actor furthers his range with skill and charm, subverting his sinister image to play a humble but unexpectedly heroic character. The lead goes to Charles Laughton as the sadistic Alain de Maletroit, and he clearly relishes every second of his gleefully wicked role.
The story revolves around his vengeful scheme to force his niece Blanche (Sally Forrest) into a loveless marriage to aristocratic wastrel Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley). The plot twists come thick and fast, and director Joseph Pevney sensibly keeps things moving at such a pace that the viewer barely has time to think about how implausible the entire thing is. Laughton chews the scenery with glorious abandon, lolling across the furniture, savouring every sinister syllable of his lines, and dominating the screen despite the sterling efforts of the fine supporting cast. His deliciously evil performance is the icing on the cake of a lovably old-fashioned romp laden with gothic atmosphere and packed with pleasingly ludicrous intrigue.
As usual, the transfers used by Eureka are generally clear and sharp, considering their age. The package is rounded out with commentaries, a radio adaptation of Stevenson’s tale, and a limited edition collector’s booklet. The set offers a welcome chance for fans of Karloff to explore some of his lesser-known films and to admire his versatility in works outside of the standard horror classics.
SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
❉ Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase
❉ 1080p presentation of all three films across two Blu-ray discs
❉ All films presented from 2K scans of the original film elements
❉ Optional English SDH
❉ Brand new audio commentary tracks on The Invisible Ray and The Strange Door with author Stephen Jones and author / critic Kim Newman
❉ Brand new audio commentary track on Black Friday with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby
❉ “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door” radio adaptations
❉ Stills Galleries
❉ PLUS: A Limited Edition Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing on all three films by film writers Andrew Graves, Rich Johnson, and Craig Ian Mann
*All extras subject to change
❉ ‘Maniacal Mayhem: Three Films Starring Boris Karloff’ (The Invisible Ray, Black Friday, The Strange Door) Two-Disc Blu-Ray released via Eureka Entertainment from 17 October 2022, RRP £29.99. Available to order from Eureka Store: https://eurekavideo.co.uk/movie/maniacal-mayhem/
All images: © Eureka Entertainment 2022. All rights reserved.