Boris Karloff is a name that many film fans will know. Even if you’ve never seen one of his films, there’s a good change that you will know of him, due in large part to his iconic performance in Frankenstein. Karloff’s version of the creature was so iconic that the green skin, flat head, and bolts in the neck that was introduced in that version would go on to become better known than the original novel’s description. Karloff not only left a mark on cinema, but on pop culture as a whole, that will probably never go away. But Boris Karloff was more than just Frankenstein, and Eureka Entertainment has presented here three films from across Karloff’s career to show off some of his other work.
The first in this trio is 1937’s Night Key. Karloff plays the elderly inventor David Mallory, whose work was stolen from him decades before by the unscrupulous businessman Stephen Ranger (Samuel S. Hinds), who used the technology as the basis for his security company. When Mallory presents Ranger with a new technology that he’s hoping to sell, he gets swindled in a new contract, whereby the technology can’t be used and Mallory is left with nothing. Wanting revenge against Ranger, Mallory teams up with small-time crook Petty Louie (Hobart Cavanaugh), and they use Mallory’s technology to break into various businesses under Ranger’s protection in order to embarrass Ranger and lose him business. However, when a local gangster learns of Mallory’s tech he wants it for his own evil ends.
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Night Key is a fun and enjoyable movie, but one that doesn’t really fit with the title of Universal Terror. Less a horror film, and more of a crime comedy bordering on science fiction, it proves to be a rather entertaining tale of this elderly inventor. Having been swindled twice by the same man, he sets out to get revenge, yet never wants to cause any real harm or damage. He’s a sympathetic character throughout, and this is in large part to the way Karloff plays him. The film has some good comedic moments too, and manages to have some decent tension when the real gangsters get involved.
The second film in the collection is 1944’s The Climax. Originally conceived as a sequel to Universal’s hugely popular Phantom of the Opera, it tells the story of the Vienna Royal Theatre, and the dark deeds of their physician, Dr. Friedrich Hohner (Karloff). Right away we get a handy flashback that gives us the most important information: that ten years before Hohner was obsessed with the theatre’s prima donna, Marcellina (June Vincent), but killed her in a jealous rage. Hohner was able to cover up the crime, and secreted her body away. Now, when Hohner hears a young singer named Angella (Susanna Foster) singing it sounds exactly like Marcellina. Hohner’s obsession starts once again, and he sets his sinister, murderous sights on this young performer.
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It’s easy to see how The Climax was related to Phantom of the Opera, and a few viewers will make that connection even before finding out that there was a connection to that story. But, The Climax stands by itself as its own project, and does so surprisingly well. Karloff is perfect in the role of the sinister doctor, and many of the scenes with him in it are some of the best in the movie. The film also spends a decent amount of time with the rest of the cast, and has full musical numbers, lavish set and costume design, and character drama all separate from the main story, as we get to see the workings of this theatre house. This is the only film of the three here that’s in colour, and it really does help the bright costumes and huge sets pop on screen. It’s easy to see why it was nominated for an Academy Award for its art design.
The third and final film in the set is The Black Castle, a Gothic horror from 1953 that doesn’t actually feature much of Karloff at all. It tells the story of Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene), a powerful British gentleman who’s investigating the disappearance of two of his friends. Burton suspects that his friends were killed by Count Carl von Bruno (Stephen McNally), a evil Austrian lord who was driven out of Africa by Burton, his friends, and the native people. Having gone missing near Bruno’s castle, Burton takes on an alias, and heads there to investigate. Infiltrating the Count’s castle, he sets out to find proof of his friends’ murders, but begins to fall for the Count’s wife. Realising that the Count knows who he his, and that he’s in a trap, he has to find a way to save himself and the Countess before it’s too late.
Black Castle might be my favourite of the three films on offer here, and it feels like a Gothic swashbuckling horror story. There’s a large, foreboding castle, secret passages, a dungeon filled with traps and a pit of crocodiles, sword fights, and a villain with an eye-patch. It’s a bit arch, and a bit on the nose at times, but it manages to be thoroughly entertaining whilst doing it. It feels similar to a lot of the Edgar Allan Poe films of the 1940s and 50s. Karloff has a relatively small part in the film, playing the Count’s doctor; but still gives a decent performance as a man stuck in a tough position, but trying to do the right thing. The Black Castle has a lot about it to like, and is easily the one I’d most likely go back to of the three.
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Each of the three films comes with a feature length commentary track, with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby providing decent behind the scenes information and extra insight into Night Key and The Climax, and Stephen Jones and Kim Newman doing so for The Black Castle. The commentaries are pretty decent, and give a good insight into the Universal films of the era, the making of the movies, the careers of the stars, and the historical impact of the movies. If you’re interested in film history, these three commentaries make for some good, informative insight.
As someone who has heard a lot about Boris Karloff over the years, but watched relatively little of his films, this set provided a great opportunity to do so, and it gave a decent sampling of the different types of roles Karloff has played over the years. So whether you’re new to his work, or a long time fan, this set makes for a good experience.
Universal Terror is out on Blu-ray on 18th July from Eureka Entertainment.