APES ON FILM – More Than Just a Monster

Posted on: Aug 30th, 2022 By:

by John Michlig
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.


Apes on Film also appears on Nerd Alert News. Check them out HERE!



UNIVERSAL TERROR: Karloff in NIGHT KEY, THE CLIMAX, THE BLACK CASTLE Special Edition 2-Disc BluRay – 1937-1952
5 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Boris Karloff , Jean Rogers, Turhan Bey, Lon Chaney Jr., Richard Greene
Directors: Lloyd Corrigan, George Waggner, Nathan Juran
Rated: Not rated
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
Region: B (UK & Ireland) A, C untested
BRD Release Date: July 18, 2022
Audio Formats: LPCM 2.0 (48kHz, 24-bit)
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Run Time: 68 minutes, 86 minutes, 82 minutes


A confession straight out of the gate: When I first encountered Eureka Entertainment’s new Universal Terror collection featuring Boris Karloff in NIGHT KEY, THE CLIMAX, and THE BLACK CASTLE, my thoughts drifted to the childhood disappointments that invariably arose in a small television market. I grew up in the Midwest, where you were guaranteed good reception of two local channels: CBS WSAW-7 and ABC WAOW-9 (a fortunate few — owners of antennae or with houses perched atop hills — also got NBC WAEO-12). That meant that you consumed that which ABC (9) and CBS (7) provided and were aware of little else.

The CBS affiliate’s weekly creep show entry, 7 CEMETERY ROAD, featured a pretty effective (if low budget) opening featuring eerie music and a graveyard. If you were up that late for some reason, it was a terrific set-up that put visions of Frankenstein, Dracula, and even Kong Kong(!) in your head. These movies aired at 12:30 a.m., which was far, far beyond grade-school bedtime. For some reason the name of the film being shown would rarely appear in advance. The TV Guide listed “Movie,” and even the local newspaper schedule failed us. That meant if you negotiated the ability to stay up into the wee hours of the morning, you had no guarantee whatsoever that you’d be treated to some actual, classic monster-containing horror.


For a period of time, the Universal “horror” catalog that went to small markets did not include the “cornerstone classics” of the 30s and 40s. The package featured promising-titled flicks from the 50s like REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, CULT OF THE COBRA, THE PROJECTED MAN, and THE WASP WOMAN—the “close, but no cigar” class of films that caused my 12-year-old self to sigh deeply after negotiating late night viewing based upon reading or hearing a flimsy description that tossed out a reliably iconic horror-genre name in the cast. Occasionally, I would be treated to older films that “starred” familiar horror icons, which brings us to the new UNIVERSAL TERROR collection from Eureka Entertainment.

This collection consists of three films that do indeed feature Boris Karloff — a “trigger name” for young film geeks, to be sure — including two from the 30s and 40s. However, the package title and contents are highly reminiscent of the 7 CEMETERY ROAD formula in that, alas, there are no classic monsters to be seen. And, let’s face it, these are not horror films.  However, they are very, very entertaining. Bear in mind that this set is coded for UK and Ireland viewing, and you’ll need a region-free player to view it in the U.S.


NIGHT KEY (1937) features Karloff as the inventor of a high-tech security anti-theft system who is victimized by a nefarious businessman who wants to market his devices and rip off his patents and profits. Facing the onset of blindness, Karloff’s character is then kidnapped by bad guys who want to use his knowledge of the devices to pull off serial robberies. Yes, this does sound like an almost impossibly accurate allegory for, and prediction of, cybercrime, does it not? That being said, Karloff or not, it isn’t “terror.” Watching a late-thirties film predict hackers and viruses in the pre-transistor era is great fun, however.

THE CLIMAX (1944) comes at you in what can very honestly be described as stunning Technicolor (Karloff’s first color film). This is not studio hyperbole; it really is beautifully photographed, and the filmmakers take full advantage of the new visual tool to fill the screen with magic. Sets from 1925’s and 1943’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA are re-used, and revealed in all their glory, throughout the film. (THE CLIMAX was announced as a sequel to the 1943 Phantom, though the final product is only loosely related thematically.)

Again, the film is visually astounding. However, it must be said that motion picture depictions of opera in this era are a bit hard to take. Opera as seen and heard in films of this period did not represent an accurate reproduction of actual staged performances. Rest assured the shrill, “look how high this note is” noise you hear in is not what audiences experienced in live venues. Get used to vocal gymnastics, however; you are treated to four (!) musical numbers in the first 20 minutes.


Plot-wise, this is the closest we get to a horror film in the set. Karloff plays the Vienna Royal Theatre’s in-house physician, Dr. Hohner. He is an obsessed and jealous man; he wants his fiancée, a prima donna, to himself and therefor kills her, preserving her in his “chambers.” A decade later, another young singer, Angela, reminds him of his late diva, and he decides she too must sing only for him or die. Pretending to examine Angela’s throat following a performance, he hypnotizes her and commands her never to sing again.

THE BLACK CASTLE (1952) takes place in the 18th century (and all over the Universal Studios back lot, you will notice), so there’s a lot of swordplay, and mid-battle smart-ass comments fly freely from the mouth of our dashing hero, Sir Ronald Burton, a British gentleman played by Richard Greene (who went on to portray Robin Hood). He is investigating the disappearance of two of his friends at the Austrian estate of the sinister Count von Bruno, and nothing — be it sudden swordplay at an inn while trying to have dinner, or the appearance of an alligator pit (in Austria!) — breaks his cool. Sir Ronald, it could be said, was the proto-James Bond (“I can condone bad swordsmanship, but not bad manners…”).


In this film, Karloff plays a good guy(!), a doctor who helps the protagonist in his quest for justice. We also see Lon Chaney, Jr. in his last role at Universal (which is, unfortunately, pretty ragged). So, you have Chaney and Karloff, as well as a pretty creepy scene with our protagonists sealed alive in coffins, making this the closest to “horror” of the three. It’s a very entertaining ride, however. Director Nathan Juran went on to work with Ray Harryhausen (and also directed THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS, previously reviewed here).

The audio commentaries provided with these films are absolutely first rate, full of useful information and a solid sense of humor throughout. NIGHT KEY and THE CLIMAX are handled by Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby; THE BLACK CASTLE features author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman.

Are these horror movies? Not so much. However, they are solid entertainment — and, unlike childhood visits to 7 Cemetery Road, do not require negotiating with parents to stay up past midnight.



When he’s not hanging around the top of the Empire State Building, John Michlig spends his time writing books like It Came from Bob’s Basement, KONG: King Of Skull Island, and GI Joe: The Complete Story of America’s Favorite Man of Action. Read more at The Fully Articulated Newsletter and The Denham Restoration Project.


Ape caricature art by Richard Smith.

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