Appropriately, it’s Hallowe’en when I watched this horror film, the last film in Criterion’s “Monsters and Madmen” boxset, which has been a trove of mediocre late-50s genre pieces but just for that has made it somewhat interesting by comparison to their usual fare. This I think is probably one of the best, but it’s also the only one that doesn’t take the horror much beyond the actual period into aliens and monsters, because the real monster here (as in a lot of the best horror) is a very human hubris. Boris Karloff plays a doctor in 1840s London experimenting with various chemicals to create a viable anaesthetic, which inevitably drives him to darker and more morally dubious alleys as he needs access to the drugs. There’s a small role for a young rakish Christopher Lee as a resurrection man and a cabal of shady criminals who are more or less at war with the police. The film is filled with dark shadows and atmospheric sets, and if it never really takes off, it’s more than creditable as a period piece, I think.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writer Jean Scott Rogers; Cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull; Starring Boris Karloff, Betta St. John, Christopher Lee, Adrienne Corri, Francis de Wolff; Length 86 minutes.
Seen in hotel room (DVD), Hastings, Saturday 31 October 2020.
This late-50s monster movie starts out pretty straight, as a Victorian-set police thriller (it appears the original British title was Grip of the Strangler, but it’s more famous under the American title). James Rankin, a private investigator played by Boris Karloff (the casting of whom already tips you off as to the future direction the film might take), looks into the case of the ‘Haymarket Strangler’ 20 years earlier, whom he believes to have been wrongly executed. It’s all fairly clunky in the way it’s put together, as Rankin quickly figures out the whereabouts of the missing murder weapon that’s the key to the case, but you realise when he finds it that this screenwriterly haste is because this is where the film properly starts. Once that happens, there’s plenty of fun in Karloff’s gurning performance, even if it all feels fairly unadventurous. Still, it’s silly fun.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writers John Croydon [as “John C. Cooper”] and Jan Read (based on Read’s story “Stranglehold”); Cinematographer Lionel Banes; Starring Boris Karloff, Jean Kent, Elizabeth Allan; Length 79 minutes.
Seen in hotel room (DVD), Auckland, Wednesday 28 October 2020.
A classic horror film which, some of the excesses of its acting aside, still holds up pretty well today. A lot of its power comes from the excellent photography and set design, with some masterful use of the black-and-white to evoke a lost Europe of creepy castles and demon monsters. Karloff’s monster also embodies a rather touching hint at a grand theme of what it means to be human, and the struggle for outsiders within society, though none of this is really forced. The director James Whale would go onto the somewhat more self-consciously campy Bride of Frankenstein, and it’s this tradition that later takes on the story (like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein) would play on. But James Whale’s original is the first and the best.
Director James Whale; Writers Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort (based on the play by Peggy Webling, itself based on the novel by Mary Shelley); Cinematographer Arthur Edeson; Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 3 June 2015.