APES ON FILM: KARLOFF — The Quiet Maniac

Posted on: Jan 3rd, 2023 By:

By Lucas Hardwick
Contributing Writer

 

Welcome to Apes on Film! This column exists to scratch your retro-film-in-high-definition itch. We’ll be reviewing new releases of vintage cinema and television on disc of all genres, finding gems and letting you know the skinny on what to avoid. Here at Apes on Film, our aim is to uncover the best in retro film. As we dig for artifacts, we’ll do our best not to bury our reputation. What will we find out here? Our destiny.

 

 

 

MANIACAL MAYHEM: THE INVISIBLE RAY, BLACK FRIDAY, and THE STRANGE DOOR — 1936, 1940, 1951
4 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Stanley Ridges, Anne Nagel, Charles Laughton, Richard Stapley, Sally Forrest
Director: Lambert Hillyer, Arthur Lubin, Joseph Pevney
Rated: PG
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
Region: B
BRD Release Date: October 17, 2022
Audio Formats: English: LPCM 2.0 Mono (48kHz, 24-bit)
Video Codec: Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Run Time: 230 minutes total
CLICK HERE TO ORDER

 

Anytime the name Karloff is blasted across a film’s title card in big, scary letters, audiences can pretty much count on a degree of the macabre to grace their forthcoming entertainment.

“Karloff” is such a fitting name to correlate with horror, it seems strange that it was devised before the fame of Universal’s FRANKENSTEIN came to Boris Karloff. If it weren’t for the name belonging to the actor, “Karloff” could very well be its own title for a horror film; in fact, it is sometimes seen before or bigger than the titles of the films it’s featured in. The name evokes the exotic and mysterious, and is strange enough to warn viewers that they’re not in Kansas anymore. The name so easily rolls off the tongue that it seems a miracle of marketing; a perfect conceit designed to transmit its associations exactly.

William Henry Pratt chose the Boris Karloff pseudonym at the beginning of his acting career with the very intent to assert an exotic sensibility. The name Karloff is said to be derived from the Pratt family’s Slavic roots; however, this is just one of many theories regarding the moniker. At any rate, “Karloff” was good enough for Universal to bill the actor for several years so garishly. The final instance of Karloff’s singular label occurred in 1936 with the movie THE INVISIBLE RAY, which is the first of three Boris Karloff films in Eureka Entertainment’s new MANIACAL MAYHEM collection.

[Invisible Ray]

THE INVISIBLE RAY is the textbook mad scientist tale of Dr. Janos Rukh who is intent on harnessing the power of an ancient element known as Radium X. Rukh invites a group of colleagues to his gothic laboratory, and using a powerful telescope and the ancient light rays of the Andromeda galaxy, demonstrates that Radium X exists in the form of a meteorite that crashed in southern Africa millions of years ago. There are probably less convoluted ways to go about discovering an ancient radioactive element, but where’s the fun in that?

Once Rukh is able to exploit the power of Radium X, he’s not only melting rocks and scaring the local natives, but he’s also glowing in the dark and losing his temper. Rukh’s precarious condition becomes compounded by a little IP infringement and good-natured infidelity, sending him into a murderous mindset. Upon pursuing his colleagues to a conference in Paris, the maddened doctor becomes hellbent to use his rock-melting ray gun to dispatch the expedition team that did him so wrong.

As if “Karloff” alone wasn’t enough to get asses into seats, Universal doubles down in THE INVISIBLE RAY and casts Bela Lugosi as Rukh’s contemporary, Dr. Benet. Playing against type, Lugosi’s Benet is cool and collected and only wants to help his comrade. Benet is one of Lugosi’s most reserved and mature performance, demonstrating what he could be capable of aside from the usual demented heavies and crazed monsters. And despite being equipped with the kitschy traits of a Batman villain, Karloff never takes his performance over the top, but does convey an elevated sense of the maniacal. He’s frantic and harried, but never as nutty as rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the next step of his scheme. Rukh comes across more troubled than downright evil.

[The Invisible Ray]

With more plot than the story needs, THE INVISIBLE RAY is a brisk account of too much science in the hands of an emotionally driven individual, which is usually bad for characters but great for entertaining. And showcasing just the right amount of weirdness with impressive special effects, this Karloff vehicle is a thrilling entry in Eureka’s MANIACAL MAYHEM collection.

The title BLACK FRIDAY may evoke some sort of interstitial holiday-themed horror about a bloodthirsty mob of Christmas shoppers. Instead, the 1940 film is a switcheroo tale that has little to do with the penultimate weekday aside from an unfortunate accident involving a carload of gangsters and a literature professor occurring on a Friday the 13th.

Karloff is Dr. Ernest Sovac, seen at the very beginning of the movie being escorted to his execution. On his way to the chair, Sovac shares his final notes with a newspaper reporter, retrospectively permitting the audience to learn how the good doctor arrived at this mortal predicament.

Essentially told in flashback, BLACK FRIDAY is more a story about Sovac’s colleague than Sovac himself. The doctor’s journal reveals the tale of how his friend, literature professor George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges) suffers severe brain injuries after being on the business end of a carload of gangsters

in hot pursuit of rival thug Red Cannon (also Stanley Ridges). Cannon and Kingsley are both injured in the accident, and Sovac being the doctor on scene, tends to the two men.

Once Sovac learns that Cannon is privy to a hidden pile of cash to the tune of five-hundred thousand bucks, the doctor starts daydreaming about the kind of laboratory that amount of money could buy. This, of course, steers Sovac into concocting a little surgery, transplanting the good parts of Cannon’s brain into the dying parts of his friend Kingsley’s in hopes that the mixing of minds will reveal the location of the gangster’s secret stash.

Sovac’s procedure saves Kingsley’s life, but before long, the dweeby, good-natured professor begins to exhibit unsavory proclivities. Sovac gets more than he bargained for as Cannon’s personality sporadically takes over Kingsley and sets about exacting revenge on the group of gangsters that ran him down. From this point on, Sovac is not only desperate to achieve his original motives, but he’s at the mercy of a gangster gone wild. And much like Dr. Frankenstein, Sovac has created a monster.

[Black Friday]

Karloff basically plays second fiddle to Ridges for the rest of the film, which unfolds like a Jekyll and Hyde story. There’s hardly any redeemable characters, especially since Karloff’s motives are so misguided to begin with. He doesn’t perform crazy experimental brain surgery to save his friend, he does it in hopes to uncover a gangster’s ill-gotten gains. What’s more, is Sovac had to anticipate some degree of identity crisis in order to learn where Cannon hid his money. This puts Sovac in an even more diabolical role for risking his friend’s mental state. Yet, somehow, the film seems to want to audience to sympathize with Sovac. Sure, he’s in a mess, but it’s a mess of his own making under the guise of a really troubling rationale.

BLACK FRIDAY pairs Karloff with Bela Lugosi in the credits once again. This time, Lugosi is one of Cannon’s adversaries and never really engages Karloff in the sense audiences might expect. The role of Sovac was originally written for Lugosi, but Karloff showed interest, so the part went to him instead. Lugosi, however, may have been better suited as Sovac considering the scheming nature of the part. Lugosi’s Marnay is a pretty stale character, and doesn’t demonstrate the actor’s strengths. Lugosi is fine in the role, but any actor would have been just as suited for it.

BLACK FRIDAY is another example of science gone mad; however, the film doesn’t know quite know what it wants from its audience. It’s easy to sympathize with poor professor Kingsley who never asks for anything that happens to him. Meanwhile, Karloff’s reserved disposition doesn’t villainize him, yet his dubious motives are the driving force of conflict in the film. And while Karloff and Lugosi may be enough to get the audience’s attention, it’s Stanley Ridges’ cracking performance as he darts between the mild-mannered Kingsley and the disreputable Cannon that viewers won’t want to miss.

The third and final film in Eureka’s collection is the 1951 gothic period thriller THE STRANGE DOOR. Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door,” Universal’s adaptation stars Karloff in a supporting role next to the scene-devouring Charles Laughton who portrays the film’s heavy.

[The Strange Door]

In yet another story of elaborate revenge, Sire Alain de Maletroit (Laughton) entraps local high-born scoundrel Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley) in a barroom brawl that stages him as a murderer. Beaulieu makes a break for it, and in his escape from the pursuant mob, he happens across the de Maletroit estate secured by its “strange door.” Beaulieu finds more than the refuge he bargained for inside, falling right into de Maletroit’s trap.

In the spirit of big gestures, it’s revealed that Alain’s snare is part of a much larger, longer grudge against his brother Edmond (Paul Cavanaugh) who he’s secretly locked up in a dungeon for the past 20 years. The duplicitous Alain intends to force his niece Blanche (Sally Forrest) into marrying de Beaulieu as an insult to her father Edmond, with the underhanded arrangement of holding the couple prisoner on the de Maletroit estate. This is all part of Alain’s over-baked revenge directed at Edmond for marrying his unrequited love who died giving birth to Blanche. It’s a lot to process.

Karloff plays the family servant Voltan, who spends most of his time tending to Edmond and sneaking around the mansion peeping through holes in the walls. At one point, Edmond asks Voltan to kill de Beaulieu, but de Beaulieu isn’t quite the scum everyone thinks he is, and he and Blanche eventually fall in love causing big problems for Alain’s once air-tight plans for vengeance.

THE STRANGE DOOR is a wonderful show of excess on several fronts, with a scene-chewing Charles Laughton leading the way. Laughton picks this film up and runs away with it; it’s a shame he didn’t have a mustache to twirl to make him all the more devious. From sets and costumes to Laughton and his band of bloused bullies and their meticulous scheming, this movie is a delightful cartoony extravagance that will give viewers a heart-racing case of the wim-wams in its final anxiety-inducing moments.

Eureka Entertainment presents these three Universal horrors in high-definition as an exciting two-disc, Blu-ray set, packaged in a limited-edition slipcase. Special features include three chatty and insightful commentaries from film historians Stephen Jones, Kevin Lyons, Kim Newman, and Jonathan Rigby, along with three radio adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door.” A limited-edition booklet with new essays from film writers Andrew Graves, Rich Johnson, and Craig Ian Mann is also included in the first 2000 copies.

Invisible rays, a gangster with two brains, and a ruthless patriarch, MANIACAL MAYHEM never falls short of deranged individuals making everyone’s life a living hell, yet Karloff’s performances throughout evoke a quieter madness: something more troubling that greed or revenge. These films boast Karloff’s subtle abilities as a performer, oddly with roles that are seemingly more fit for an over-the-top talent. This Eureka collection offers a revelation of Karloff as he taps into the internal, tortured aspects of these disturbed characters, and conveys the unspoken human elements of maniacal movie monsters.

 

 

 

When he’s not working as a Sasquatch stand-in for sleazy European films, Lucas Hardwick spends time writing film essays and reviews for We Belong Dead and Screem magazines. Lucas also enjoys writing horror shorts and has earned Quarterfinalist status in the Killer Shorts and HorrOrigins screenwriting contests. You can find Lucas’ shorts on Coverfly.Related: slDxB, voPT, EeQV, mFVBRj, sfu, tBFB, wgoBd, xLyb, wOXiYk, tMsV, HTHQv, jdl, ZvmSP, RZm, fTiG,

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