119 Thanksgivings Ago, Boris Was Born! --- Part One
I don’t know if it’s by accident or design, but 2006 seems to have been the year of Boris Karloff on DVD. His name and image has been well marketed since 1993 when daughter Sarah took over licensing of same, and that’s been a good thing for the Karloff legacy, as he still commands enough fan following to be the star attraction in two box sets from major distributors. Pretty amazing for a man born 119 years ago today. Would kids notice Karloff on a Best Buy display rack? I’m in no position to say, being clearly prejudiced in favor of an icon I grew up with, but how much awareness do younger viewers have of these Universal horror films? Perhaps more than we think. Fans of middle-aged duration imagine them to have disappeared along with all those local Shock Theatres, but did they? The recent obituaries for VHS reminded me that home video’s been with us nearly thirty years, and the key Karloff titles have been available for most of these. Satellite television has delivered the Frankensteins and Mummys ongoing for nearly as long, but how wide an audience has AMC and TCM reached during these last decades? I keep wondering if there will be anyone behind my age group to carry the banner for these old horror films. Universal and Columbia must surely be counting on major boomer support for the Karloff obscurities they’ve recently released on DVD. Having plowed more fertile ground by repeated dips into the famous monsters of their respective filmlands, studios have exhumed all the Frankensteins, Draculas, and Invisible Men on hand. Now what’s left are runts from the litter we’ve awaited with even greater anticipation. Has anyone seen Night Key since the seventies? Not me. Columbias like Before I Hang and The Boogie Man Will Get You have gathered dust since the old Shock! package scattered in 1971. The only way you’d see these was on a collector’s 16mm screen or some bootlegged video off a monster-con dealer table. To have them so pristinely available is to realize a dream of years duration, for there’s no group of features so evocative of long ago late-nights as these.
Again, it’s not a question of whether they’re "good" pictures. I’d surely court viewer rejection and my own hurt feelings, were I to show The Climax to an uninitiated audience, for they’d be right in questioning my programming judgment. Both sets are for Karloff fans who understand. To enjoy these is to make allowances for them. They’re the ones you watch alone. Night Key was where I decided to start. No apologies or explanations necessary, for I enjoyed it by myself, thus spared the natterings of those who would remind me that it isn’t even a horror movie. So what’s wrong with a "B" crime melodrama, as long as Karloff’s in the lead? Doesn’t Night Key’s charter membership in the original Shock! group entitle it to respect? Never mind the misleading poster art shown here. It would suggest a vigorous Karloff up to old horrific tricks, not the frail inventor he actually portrays in the film, altogether immobilized by the mere removal of his eyeglasses. Topic A in this show is burglar alarms, so only hardcore Boris boosters need apply. I enjoyed Night Key because I’m happy to pan for gold in these sets. The visual splendor of this hitherto grayish and washed-out 1937 feature was enough to bear me upon wings of rapture throughout, as it never looked so good before. Columbia’s stoutest DVD offering is The Black Room. It’s a stand-alone gothic novelty as opposed to later off-the-rack thrillers. Karloff plays good/evil twin brothers and would show anyone here what a great actor he could be. This is where you'll quell scoffers and perhaps convert non-believers. I promise they’ll dig the scene where Boris has to sign a paper with his right hand (don’t ask, just watch it). You won’t have to set up your crowd for The Black Room. It’s plain satisfying (as well as satisfyingly brief) and itself worth the price of the set.
My aggravation with the Columbia science group lies in the fact that Boris Karloff’s laboratory findings are so sound, so obviously right, that to march him gallows-bound for advancing them seems churlish and altogether unreasonable. He’s constantly beset with small-minded functionaries determined to enforce the law, even when that means switching off his artificial heart moments prior to its revolutionizing medicine. Karloff’s informed arguments are never persuasive with these troglodytes. We’re always with him when he consequently seeks vengeance from beyond the grave. Last-reel endorsements of the status quo are insults not only to Karloff, but to our patience and intelligence as well. I wanted to see him pick off all those jurors one by one in The Man They Could Not Hang, and felt cheated when plot contrivances intervened. The science-gone-wrong quartet for Columbia was four strips from a single bolt of cloth. How maddening to see so many worthwhile experiments so utterly thwarted. As a child, I used to wish they’d just once let the poor man finish what he was doing. Maybe this was Karloff’s magic for boys growing up. Forever was he slapped down and persecuted despite reasoned explanations and pure motives, precisely those qualities brought to bear by ten-year olds during attempts to reason with misguided parents. Horror movie conventions decreed Karloff commit at least one murder, with a vigilant Production Code close behind to require the supreme penalty, always a harsh and punitive one to my mind. Be prepared to soothe the vexation of such injustice with perhaps a favored candied treat, or even stronger libation if indeed that’s what it takes to relieve your frustrated empathy on Karloff’s behalf.
Our birthday man takes greater command in Tower Of London, wherein he’s the one doling out executions and lobbing off innocent heads. Universal’s (though not necessarily other’s) idea of an "A" picture in 1939, this was really Basil Rathbone’s showcase, and though Boris walks tall (even with a clubfoot), he’s still playing in support to the bigger name. Tower Of London was never easy to see, as it wasn’t included in the initial Shock! packages, and tended to crop up (if rarely) among mainstream titles on programming schedules. Universal used shows like this to capture an audience beyond the horror niche. It could as easily be sold as historical drama, with even a nod toward Shakespeare’s Richard III. Cast members Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price were not then linked with horror films, and even Karloff’s association with the genre was deluded somewhat by his ongoing participation in tepid mysteries of a Mr. Wong sort. The double shot of Tower Of London and the preceding Son Of Frankenstein was his triumphant return to sinister parts, where Karloff’s own physical characteristics could again serve the characters he was playing. Mord The Executioner drags an arresting clubfoot in Tower Of London, but it’s those naturally bowed legs of Karloff’s that make it so effective. Chaney Senior could not have devised such a striking visual as Karloff manages here. His frightful countenance is further enhanced by tights he wears throughout, surely a first for this actor. Torture scenes are frequent and delightful, with Karloff gleefully presiding over varied sessions with assorted devices. I wondered if the Code police weren’t sleeping during much of this, but at least Boris fans were getting what they came for after what must have seemed a long drought. Tower Of London was the happy return of a physically active Karloff, as even his Frankenstein monster seemed excessively sedentary in the third round of that series he’d recently completed, and indeed, Tower's probably the best feature in Universal’s DVD box of five.