Boris Karloff. A distinctive moniker which brings to mind a myriad of evocative imagery, far more so than his birth name of William Henry Pratt.
The man is probably best known for giving us the archetypal, definitive portrayals of a pair of cinema’s greatest monsters: the creation of Baron Victor Frankenstein, and the Mummy. But Karloff was far more than just those iconic roles. Some of us might remember him for his narration of How The Grinch Stole Christmas!, others might associate him with his stints acting as host of the TV anthology programmes Thriller and Out Of This World.
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Karloff’s life and career were actually rather more rich and varied than the public might perceive to be the case, with a recent documentary shedding light on the man behind the monster make-up. However, he is still largely remembered as being associated with horror, and a new Blu-ray release from Eureka Entertainment brings together three of Boris Karloff’s appearances in cinematic tales of terror which have been dragged from the vaults of Universal.
The first, The Invisible Ray (1936), brings Karloff together with his fellow Universal horror stalwart Bela Lugosi. Here, Karloff plays scientist Dr Janos Rukh, who goes to Africa on an expedition in search of a meteorite which had crashed to Earth millions of years ago. When retrieving it, Rukh ends up exposed to a mysterious radiation known as ‘Radium X’, the effects of which make him luminescent, and sends him on a quest for revenge against those who he perceives as having wronged him.
The plot itself is pure sci-fi hokum, and although it precedes the explosion in ‘B-movies’ from the ‘50s, The Invisible Ray does feel as though it could quite comfortably sit alongside them all. Karloff is a suitably convincing irradiated vengeful maniac, playing well opposite a restrained Lugosi. There are a few sphincter-clenching moments of colonialism that are uncomfortable to watch, making the audience more restless than the ‘natives’. But overall, The Invisible Ray is quite fun to view, and an entertaining diversion.
In Black Friday (1940), Karloff is once again paired up with Lugosi by Universal, although Lugosi is in a relatively slight role here as a gangster. Karloff’s character, Dr. Ernest Sovac, performs vital surgery to save the life of an academic friend (Stanley Ridges) who was inadvertently involved in a deadly accident with a gangster, Red Cannon (also Ridges). Sovac transplants part of Cannon’s brain into his friend, who starts to take on the criminal’s personality.
What unfolds is a tale of Sovac attempting to manipulate the reincarnated Cannon for his own ends, by looking to find the location of the hood’s ill-gotten gains. The film does bring to mind other tales of medical science run amok, from the 1924 motion picture The Hands Of Orlac, to one of the ‘Treehouse Of Horror’ segments of The Simpsons, ‘Hell Toupée’, with all of them seeing a recipient taking on the traits of the original donors of various transplanted items. Ridges does a superb and convincing job, taking on the contrasting dual roles and making each distinct from the other.
Rounding things out, The Strange Door (1951) – which is an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Sire de Maletroit’s Door – features the sadistic Sire de Maletroit (Charles Laughton) taking vengeance on his brother, who he has locked away in captivity for two decades. His next phase is to persuade a disreputable blaggard to woo and marry his niece, whom de Maletroit has long since convinced that her father – his brother – is dead. The Sire de Maletroit is aided by his conflicted, abused manservant, Voltan (Karloff).
As well as such classic tales as The Man In The Iron Mask and The Prisoner Of Zenda, The Strange Door does also bring to mind Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, in which a man is captured and imprisoned for 15 years. Laughton proves to be quite the outrageously and deliciously camp villain of the piece, and it proves impossible to tear your eyes from him whenever he is on screen, gnawing away at the scenery. Karloff is very much an ancillary player here, although he does manage to give his character of Voltan a quiet dignity and pathos.
Special features across this Eureka Entertainment set are somewhat on the thin side, with the obligatory trailers making an appearance. The Strange Door does have three radio play versions of The Sire de Maletroit’s Door, providing an interesting contrast with the main feature. All three movies have commentary tracks, with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones taking up the reins on both The Invisible Ray and The Strange Door, leaving Kevin Lyons to share the commentary duties with Jonathan Rigby on Black Friday.
The commentaries actually make the set, proving to be fun and frothy, with plenty of trivia and backstage gossip, and Newman’s chats with Jones proving particularly engaging. All in all, Maniacal Mayhem is a snapshot of Karloff’s career which, although while not showcasing his most memorable or notable roles, does demonstrate his versatility as an actor, and shows him to be capable of delivering far more than he tends to be remembered for.
Maniacal Mayhem is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.