Film Reviews

Karloff at Columbia – Limited Edition Blu-ray Review

Boris Karloff is one of the true giants of Classical Hollywood horror. If your average modern film viewer knows him at all, it’s probably for his portrayal of one of cinema’s most recognisable characters of all time: Frankenstein’s monster. This was with Universal Pictures. But here Eureka Entertainment give us the six movies he made with Columbia Pictures, the literally titled two disc set Karloff at Columbia.

As far as special features go, this release is noticeably lacking. There is a Limited Edition booklet and O-card slip case. The four essays in the booklet are a really good read, giving a deep level of insight into the context and depth of the movies, especially The Black Room. The slip case does boast a great looking portrait of Karloff.

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Then we have the digital features. A nice little surprise were four radio plays featuring Karloff. These aren’t listed on the contents, which is a real shame as it feels as though the producers of this set don’t think they are worth mentioning. If that’s true, they would be wrong. Though you can find these radio productions online without too much trouble, here the sound quality is noticeably better, and they are a lovely extra for fans of Karloff’s films who may not have yet enjoyed his radio work.

There are also the usual production stills and other images you usually find with older films. However, the only special features that are original to these releases are the commentaries for each of the films and that’s it. As that is the case, what are the six films they’re talking about?

The Black Room is a gothic horror fairytale, a story of twin brothers, one evil, the other good. Karloff plays both characters, a feat he carries off magnificently, although it’s hard to ignore that he appears more comfortable in the role of villainous schemer than dashing do-gooder. Particularly striking are the scenes where the two characters appear on screen together. The effects used to create this illusion are carried off remarkably well, not just for 1935 but even now they stand up to scrutiny. Karloff is clearly loving every moment, delivering one good and one great performance, and successfully helming what ends up being a truly thrilling film.

Director Roy William Neill has a flair for capturing really good, gothic melodrama, eschewing the campness that came to mark much of the genre and managing to produce some truly skin-crawling moments on the screen. There is also some striking cinematography from Allen G. Siegler, squeezing every piece of grandeur and scale he can when filming on the back lot, aided by gorgeously detailed sets. Indeed, the production values here verge on the remarkable

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Then we have The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man With Nine Lives, Before I Hang, and The Devil Commands. It may seem unfair to summarise four separate films together in one section but, bluntly, they’re all variations on a theme. More science fiction than horror, in each of them Karloff plays a mad scientist meddling with things man was not meant to meddle with. Obviously, things go badly wrong, and death and tragedy ensue.

These four films are hugely enjoyable and are genuinely good, pulp horror science fiction, often inspired by real events and presenting ideas that science did end up realising. Alhough they might follow the same arching plot of a search for knowledge leading to inevitable tragedy, each one is different in its own right. And of course, in each of them Karloff carries the film. The final film presented is The Boogie Man Will Get You. To give you some idea of the success of the previous four films, this is a parody of them, yet still stars Karloff. Even better, he’s joined by that great character actor Peter Lorre, which we hope will be a real treat.

Each of the characters is so over the top that it’s hard to truly connect. Worse, for a lot of them, it feels like a ‘safe’ over-the-topness, a box ticking zaniness that feels studied and forced. It’s mostly for this reason that The Boogie Man Will Get You doesn’t exactly work. However, there are moments of real humour here that will be enjoyed but, stylistically, it does feel very different to the other movies presented.

The clean up of the transfers isn’t perfect, and in some cases seems almost non-existent, as though they’ve simply used the DVD versions. There are still blemishes and flickers on the screen. If you like your black and white pulp films to still feel like black and white pulp films, whilst having some cleaner, clearer lines, then this sympathetic approach will appeal. However, others may resent these pops and marks flickering away as they watch.

In addition, there are, of course, the commentaries. Varying in style, three of them feature Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby, with the other three presented by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. With Lyons and Rigby is feel as though they are talking for their own amusement, rather than for our interest. Serious film buffs and trivia nuts will enjoy what’s being said, allowing themselves a knowing smile as they catch the oblique reference, but everyone else might very well feel excluded. This is a shame, as at times the commentaries are deeply informative, giving real insight into ideas and themes presented by the various movies, yet they are surrounded so densely with dates and references that a casual viewer, or even one who wants to learn more, might end up giving up.

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It’s as though the pair are trying to impress each other, not inform us. The other three commentaries are far more welcoming. Instead of listening in to two men listing trivia, facts and figures related to whichever actor might be on screen at the time as quickly as they can, we’re drawn into a broader conversation about the films, the history behind them, and Karloff himself. It’s a style of commentary far easier to engage with. Instead of simply contrasting what’s happening with another film and expecting the audience to know what they are talking about, here they also explain why that reference is relevant to their point.

There is no question that Boris Karloff is one of the greatest horror movie actors of all time, and that here we have six films showcasing his talents, five of which are superb example of their genre – with The Black Room being outstanding – and the sixth one still being plenty of fun. However, this release is let down by its lack of special features. With a RRP of £39.99, that’s a fair investment for films that were first released at least 80 years ago, especially given the quality of the transfer. If truth be told, it feels like something of a snub to Karloff himself not to have done more with it. Instead, with Karloff at Columbia, it looks like Eureka! are relying on the fact that these movies have never been released on Blu-ray to ensure fans will buy it. The problem is the movies themselves are so good, they’re probably right.

Karloff at Columbia is out now on Limited Edition Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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