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Monday, November 12, 2018

Were Karloff Labs Altogether Mad?

We Should Have Listened To This Man!

It's not news that crackpot science Boris Karloff practiced in his quartet of late 30's/early 40's would be absorbed into real life treatment later on. What was then way-out melodrama plays for me like legitimate tragedy now. I always longed for just one of BK's  experiments to work out. Alas, they never did, and so he marched grimly to one death chamber after another, put there by cruel authority that never understood. This seemed a confirmation that no good deed goes unpunished. If lesson of life being unfair needed teaching, these pictures taught it. In fact, the group as a whole, mostly for Columbia release, has me satisfied that any miracle cures I develop must be kept resolutely to myself, sharing with mankind too near flirtation with a hangman's rope. That last was shadow hung (yes, hung) over several Karloffs in the lot: The Man They Could Not Hang and Before I Hang, these and others of a prolific lot hosted at present by Amazon Prime and adorned as not before with HD clarity we dared not dream of in Shock Theatre days.

Of course I take it all too much to heart, possibly more now than at ten years old, for issues of justice and fairness that nag a mature mind (how mature if I still look at such stuff?). For the record, here is a pair in addition to the aforementioned two: The Man With Nine Lives and The Devil Commands. The quartet plus The Black Room are playing Amazon. Latter is period-set fun with robust BK in dual role capacity and well above the law so far as mayhem he commits. Trouble with the science group is Karloff under thumbs of judge, jury, wardens, every sort of law/order representation all of us dread at some time or other. He is also older in these, made up to look still older, so vulnerability gets factored in much as would be case in late-career mishaps that saw BK immersed in chill water (The Terror) or catching pneumonia on Euro locations (Black Sabbath). We fans are protective of Karloff as we would be for any Granddad put to hardship, so when he invents something useful, even epoch-making, how dare they drag him off by a rope? The guy who cured polio wasn't treated so harsh, as I recall. Drat Columbia and horror mechanisms they had to apply, but how else to satisfy thrill shoppers?

These films raise specter of a possibly wasted life. Should I have been developing serums rather than watching monster movies? What of youngsters who embraced science for seeing Karloff perform even misguided experiments? Where he went wrong, they may go right. One or more might have introduced whatever antibiotic I took last. Never underestimate influence horror movies have. Again to those mechanisms, which I've learned to dread: A first reel of The Man They Could Not Hang and Before I Hang go swimmingly for benign and brilliant Boris, his efforts at a seeming cusp of triumph. Why must there be wrinkles to this? Some snoop or ding-dong assistant will inevitably wreck the craft, BK's tube-fed substitute for a human heart, or chugging cleanser of damaged cells shot to pieces before he gets the death verdict. You have to swallow food for thought quick in these Columbias, as they only last an hour plus mere minutes. Their not being worthy of Karloff is a given, but that is part of nobility in such ignoble enterprise. Folks came to be scared in 1939, 1940, whenever, so formula must be served, no matter larger issues the films address, then trivialize.

To which I'll raise one more: Could human cells regenerate themselves and give us immortality if not for ordinary wear-and-tear on the human body and mind? Boris thought so in Before I Hang, and sure sold the concept to me. I wanted him to make it work, but no such satisfaction is had, BK transfused by a thrice-murdering donor, a clear contrivance to make him the bogey-man for a second half not so satisfying (let alone hopeful) as the first. I saw these as a kid and hoped Karloff ideas might be embraced by a presumably enlightened 60's community and that I would enjoy longer (if not forever) life for their being put in play by modern medicine. We could all benefit from such forward-thinking research, best of all BK's seeming arrest of the aging process. How many have dreamed that a key to immortality might be discovered before we age and die? Boris Karloff held out promise of this, even against rules of "B" narrative and forgone disaster they impose. His experiments achieve a state of grace, even if fleetingly within six or so reels.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

As it happens I just re-looked at my dvds of these from Columbia's Karloff collection. They are fun films right enough but as with so much with Karloff and Lugosi they fail to deliver these "masters of menace" as "masters of menace." Too often, especially with Bela, they are red herrings behind whom the real villains hide. I am sure audiences of the day felt cheated as I do today when I watch them. Some real smart people thought, "Let's get Bela or Boris (or both) but we'll be original. We'll make them good guys." You're right about these Columbia Pictures, the science that seemed far fetched when they were released is not so far fetched today.

6:01 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Since he was a middle-aged actor when he broke through with FRANKENSTEIN, Karloff seemed (to me, at least) to age rather too quickly for his new prominence as a horror star. Thus, all-too-rapidly he became the grandfatherly good guy who took a wrong turn late in life and ended up doing more harm than good. You wanted to give him a nice chair beside the fire, a dog at his feet, and a cup of hot chocolate in his hand.
The Wolf, man.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

I recently pulled my copy of The Karloff Collection off my shelf, and started with "The Boogeyman Will Get You!" Billed as a horror-comedy, it's really just comedy, and a shallow pastiche of Arsenic and Old Lace at that. But I thoroughly enjoyed it (so much so that I rewatched it with my kids a week later). How I long for a lab with all those arc lights, Jacob's ladders and van der Graff generators! I have many friends and colleagues who work in legitimate science labs, but none of them have any equipment as cool as what Karloff had cobbled together down in his basement in that film.

1:02 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The thing I enjoy the most about these Columbia programmers is the fact that they are programmers and don't go beyond that. The stories are basically repetitive, but they are well delivered with enough polish applied. It is also funny to read the names of the crew in the credits as well as the name of the supporting cast: most of those actors also appeared in the studio's two reel comedies at the same time.

1:21 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

in Universal's "Night Key", lovable old Karloff invents a revolutionary lock that banks and such immediately embrace, but baddies take control and go on a crime spree. Wonder if any of the kids who watched that (even after realizing it wasn't a horror film) went into cyber security. In view of frequent massive data breaches, maybe not.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Glenn Erickson said...

I love Karloff's incensed protest in THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES: "You think everything is murder, don't you?" Sigh, the squares just don't understand.

7:12 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Stinky loves Karloff, and would watch him in almost anything.

After seeing these stills of Karloff, Stinky now knows where Fred Astaire appropriated his last hair style.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Love, LOVE these films. Cinematic comfort food since I was twelve! Lugosi, Atwill and Zucco played mad docs a little daffy from the get-go, all giddy about switching out brains with some guy in a gorilla suit. But the Karloff version was usually so reasonable, so sincere in his worthy goals. He'd start out begging his adversaries to see the boon to mankind his offered... and nobody could plead like Karloff, with that emotional, even musical higher register lilt. Then in a flash, his voice would drop to a menacing monotone and he'd do that thing, tilting his head down while raising his eyes up and letting you know, boy, you've just messed with the wrong cancer research scientist!

There's that famous story BK told about trying to get Columbia to expend a little more effort on these things, and being rebuffed. Sounds a lot like an old actor's stab at an excuse but I've heard of Karloff's surviving scripts to THE WALKING DEAD and some Lewton films marked up with the star's notations and suggestions, many followed up on so you know he did care about such things back in the day.

In any event, I wouldn't have changed the Columbias much. I'll probably be re-visting them forever. Just like the corkscrew ethics Boris concocts in THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES, treasuring these far from perfect oldies as timeless works of art just the way they are... almost... makes... sense!

4:41 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

There are certainly "better" Karloff pictures, but these go down very easily.

4:52 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Anything with Karloff, Lugosi, Lorre is great viewing. I first saw THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU on TV followed by YOU'LL FIND OUT. Had no idea (I was a kid) who Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre were but those films had me in stitches.

7:34 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon reflects on Boris Karloff as a 60's High Priest of Horror:

Hi John ---

So, your latest column 'starring' my favorite horror actor of all time (if one has to drop him in a labeled file), Boris Karloff, is not only very welcome per his personality which endures, but the calming distraction it provides. We've recently had one of the functions of movies very strongly reinforced, around here: escapism. Not that you don't have to confront reality, but it does help to take a break for an hour and a half once in awhile, as thousands would have agreed in the Depression, or its immediate successor World War Two, just to name two times of enormous and protracted daily stress and challenge (and, the decades in which my parents were kids.)

Nothing to add to your excellent remarks except some idle observations which might be amusing. One of these is my surmise that Karloff is sporting that extremely healthy head of white hair dressed almost in a pompadour, in one film (I think that would be "The Man They Could Not Hang"), and the oddball comb-over in another ("The Devil Commands"), possibly due to having been shaven BALD by Jack Pierce for "Tower of London" around that same time. He's also wearing a full wig in another one made at Universal at that time, "Black Friday". However, it's better known today that the beautiful Vera Miles (who's still with us on this troubled earth) definitely wore a complete wig in "Psycho" because she, too, had been quite closely shorn for her role in the immediately preceding "Five Branded Women".

That trifling observation, and the fact that I once got to visit the home of director Bill Malone, who at that time not only owned the original 'Robby the Robot' (which he recently auctioned, Robby going for $4M!!), as well as the land rover vehicle from "Forbidden Planet", but also possessed one of the original massive helmet contraptions used in "The Devil Commands"! As charming and impressive as the real, 'live' Robby was, I have to confess, seeing a prop actually handled by Boris Karloff was the topper, for me. How is it that one actor still "commands" this kind of awe and respect? I reckon it has something to do with the special time in which I was born and raised, the confluence of so many things presenting wee ones with reheated melodramas the elegant Karloff and his famous colleagues had elevated by their unique European charisma, coming at us in then-unique magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland and on TV programs designed to show these films exclusively, including the well-remembered (er, by aging baby boomers...!) Shock Theater and variants thereof. I don't believe I caught up with the great Boris in a movie theater until AIP's "The Raven", but I can tell you that seeing him appear on a giant screen in color, vs a tiny B&W TV at home, was a real moment, for me, aged 10! And how many actors aged 75 and with anything like his history in the movies are there around today who could possibly have that kind of impact upon any 10 year old? Not many, IF any!


6:08 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer explores the science behind some of Karloff's experiments (Part One):

“The Man with Nine Lives” and “The Man They Could Not Hang,” are formulaic, in that they follow the form of a, by now, commercially popular genre. The formula, however, is the one established by “Frankenstein,” of a Faustian man seeking god-like powers, even the power of life and death, but without divine wisdom or any constraints, save those of will and ambition. That tragedy ensues is not by mere chance, but is inevitable, given the lack of omniscience of the scientists involved. Men are not, after all, gods.

The particular motifs of each film are easily identified and not altogether mad. “The Man They Could Not Hang” exploits the popular interest in the perfusion pump invented around that time by the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh, in collaboration with the Nobel Prize-winning surgeon, Alexis Carrell. Lindbergh’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Morrow Morgan, had died of rheumatic heart disease. His pump was a first step towards keeping tissue alive outside the body, with he possibility that it might in time be developed into an artificial heart, sustaining those whose hearts were failing. In restoring life to a man dead by legal hanging, its use in the film was somewhat more sensational.

The arrangement of the reanimated dead in “The Man with Nine Lives” is that of the spiritual séance, especially as conducted by the British Society for Psychical Research, which sought to impose a scientifically valid protocol on such proceedings. What Karloff’s Dr. Leon Kravall sought was but the confirmation of the conclusions derived by F. W. H. Meyers, a founder and president of the Society, in his book, “Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death.” For all its overtures towards science, however, Meyers’ book was more an expression of faith than anything scientifically proven. Kravall would have gone beyond that, piercing the veil between the living and the dead through the séance plus electricity.

Meyer’s interest in life after death has a personal aspect. As a brilliant scholar and lecturer at Oxford in classical languages, he had fallen in love with a young woman called Annie Marshall, the wife of one of his cousins. So far as we know, it was a deeply passionate relationship, but a chaste one. When she died suddenly, Meyers was devastated. The intensity of his feelings, however, convinced him that the personality of the woman he loved must have survived. He became interested in psychic phenomena because he thought that it might be a key towards solving the mysteries of the universe, when other methods had failed. He also became one of the founders of the Society, in the hope that through a new science based on it, he might reach his beloved.

4:45 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Dan Mercer:

Many years later, Meyers died at the age of just 58, of nephritis. An attempt was made to communicate with him through a Mrs. Verall, a medium. A message was purportedly received: “I have long told you of the contents of the envelope [a sealed envelope had been left with his lodge]. You have not understood. It has in it the words from the 'Symposium'—about love bridging the chasm.” When the envelope was opened, however, the message he had left read: “If I can revisit any earthly scene, I should choose the Valley in the grounds of Hallsteads, Cumberland.”

It was reported then that the experiment had failed, though some came to believe that there was a definite connection, and a paranormal one at that, between the communication through the medium and the message left in the envelope. In 1893, Meyers had privately printed and circulated among his friends an essay entitled “Fragments of an Inner Life,” in which he referred to Plato’s “Symposium” and its doctrine of love bridging the chasm of death. The valley in Hallsteads, Cumberland was where he and Annie Marshall had often walked together, when the love that burned so passionately within them could be communicated only in words spoken of other things altogether.

His friends understood then that the concurrence of such allusions as were made through the medium—who would have had no knowledge of this private writing or of the message left in the envelope—and the reference to this place where he had spent so much of his life, both then, in his walks with her, and ever after, in memory, could have no explanation save for Meyers’ love for Annie Marshall.

In a way, there is also a parallel between Meyers’ love and that of Kravall, each seeking reunion with the dead beloved, each using science as a surrogate for their passion. I should to think that Meyers succeeded, finding that love can be justified only for a time, but all the more when time is no more. Kravall would have come to the very edge of this realization, hearing faintly the voice that he would only know for sure when he, too, crossed over the divide.

4:45 PM  

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