No, we aren’t actually selling any Karloff movies today. Rather, we are recognizing that Boris Karloff, like all great actors, starred in a number of films either not worthy of his talents, or films that were quite good but overlooked and discounted by critics and moviegoers alike. Coincidentally, many of these films are available for purchase at a bargain bin discount – often in a multi-movie set – through retailers such as Amazon.
I’ve personally decided to boycott Black Friday shopping in favor of revisiting these discounted Karloff films. It seems only appropriate to start this list with…
Black Friday (1940). Karloff plays a mad scientist who transplants the brain of a gangster into the body of a kindly professor. This is not done merely to see if it can be done, but because the gangster had access to a sizable sum of hidden cash which Karloff needs to fund his hospital and experiments. Where this film falls down for me is the fact that the brain recipient retains both the memories of the criminal and the professor, shuttling between the two in Jekyll and Hyde fashion. Even within the illogical nature of horror film logic, this was…illogical.
Frankenstein 1970 (1958). Karloff plays Dr. Frankenstein rather than the monster in this meta-ish 1950s reboot of the classic tale. Karloff’s character is working on a new Monster, which will be re-animated using atomic power. Things get complicated when he decides to allow a TV film crew to document his work. This film never breaks the 4th wall, but leans heavily against it. This movie isn’t as cool as it should have been, due to hammy performances and unintentionally funny moments in which Dr. Frankenstein bumbles and fumbles multiple sets of eyes intended for the Monster, necessitating the murder of multiple characters whose bodies get thrown into an oversized garbage disposal. The best part of this film is easily the commentary track on the DVD set Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics (The Walking Dead / Frankenstein 1970 / You’ll Find Out / Zombies on Broadway)
The Climax (1944). This film had a great concept, with Boris Karloff in his first color film portraying a mad scientist who stalks an opera singer and attempts mind control experiments against her. There’s also implied necrophilia as he keeps the body of his former love object preserved in his chambers. Karloff has some great moments in this film, but like many 1940s movies, the plot frequently grinds to a halt to introduce a series of musical numbers. Worse, the musical numbers are not even true opera pieces, but instead a series of dated and forgettable songs performed by the heroine in shrill, yodeling soprano vocalizations. This is fine if you like 1940’s musicals, and the upshot is this movie featured some fun costumes and choreography. If it’s not your thing, fast forward through the musical numbers and shave off 50% of the viewing time.This is available, along with other films, in The Boris Karloff Collection (Tower of London / The Black Castle / The Climax / The Strange Door / Night Key)
Son of Frankenstein (1939). The was last time Karloff donned the makeup to reprise his role as the Monster for Universal Studios. Fans of Mel Brooks’ spoof Young Frankenstein will recognize this as the source material for several funny scenes and characters. Son of Frankenstein is worth watching, even if lacks the weirdness and brilliance of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. My favorite thing about this film is actually the account of behind-the-scenes tickle wars between Karloff and other cast members, as described in Stephen Jacobs’ Karloff biography More Than a Monster.
You’ll Find Out (1940). Like stereotypical white girls everywhere, I can’t even. This movie wastes the talents of three great actors: Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Bela Lugosi. This is a painful haunted house slapstick comedy punctuated by even more painful and unnecessary musical numbers. This is a movie I reference to illustrate that the 1940’s, along with the 1990’s, committed more crimes against the horror genre than all other decades combined. Avoid this unless you are a masochist or sincerely love 1940’s slapstick musical horror-comedies.
Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949).As you can tell, 1940’s horror comedies are not my favorite, but there is some clever writing here, especially in the dialogue. For instance, the villain offers a character the choice of how he wants to die, and gets the response, “old age!” Despite the title, Karloff is actually not the killer. If you enjoy the comedy of Abbott and Costello, you will enjoy this.
Mr. Wong, Detective (1938). In this film and its sequels, Karloff dons “yellowface” to play the titular character. The upside is that, unlike his turn as Dr. Fu-Manchu, Karloff’s character is a positive, capable, and heroic character. This series is likely to be overlooked by horror fans, but is entirely worthwhile for those interested in crime dramas and murder mysteries.
The Night Key (1937). A solid crime drama in which Karloff plays a scientist who invents a cutting-edge security system and ends up being held hostage by criminals who want the key to crack his invention. Karloff’s character is a kind elderly man with failing eyesight, and it’s easy to empathize with his misfortune. This film is worth watching just to see the diversity of Karloff’s acting range apart from monsters and villains.
Given Karloff’s career in over 200 films and TV shows, this list barely scratches the surface of his overlooked and discounted films. Stay tuned for additional reviews of his work as November draws to a close.