It was a dark and stormy night… or, in point of fact, it was
a succession of dark and stormy nights, weeks of charcoal wet, with nothing quite
so black as the dark heart of man and there was one who strode through the wind
and rain, each time convincing his audience that evil not only existed but that
it could overwhelm even the most rational of minds. These three films may spread
from 1936 to 1951 and yet all have the trademark qualities not only of Boris
Karloff but also Universal Pictures, purveyors of the finest horror films at
As with the Hammer series and others, they key to these film’s success, in addition to tight fiscal control, was the ability of the leads to deliver convincingly, given tight production schedules and the most improbable of stories. As with Hammer they mostly succeed on some level and all three of these films are highly entertaining, with solid support in two from Béla Lugosi, a fine actor it turns out, even without the fangs, who was so also unfairly maligned for Plan Nine, and in one the deliciously over-playing Charles Laughton who is worth the price of admission alone! You might not run from the room screaming but you will be unsettled, shaken and stirred to find out more.
The films in Maniacal Mayhem are all on Blu-ray for the first time ever in the UK as a part of the Eureka Classics range, and all presented from 2K scans of the original film elements. Available from 17 October 2022, the first print-run of 2000 copies will feature a Limited-Edition O-card Slipcase & Collector’s Booklet and is not to be missed!
The Strange Door (1951)
My favourite of the three is The Strange Door (1951) directed by Joseph Pevney at the tale end of Universal’s classic horror period and very much a companion piece of sorts to the following year’s The Black Castle with Karloff having returned to horror after a few years in broader roles and, erm Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949). He had a lot more range than lazy history might recall and here he manages to convey those dark elements whilst also being loyal and emotionally fragile, sure he can kill if required but those he serves and those he loves, always come first. This is not so easy to pull off as witnessed by so many unsympathetic henchmen through the cinematic ages; Karloff knew the difference between man and monster.
Talking of which, so did the peerless Charles Laughton who genuinely was one of the finest actors of his generation and was here taking a lesser role than his overall career might suggest. Needless to say, Laughton gives it his all as the sadistic Sire Alain de Maletroit, a performance full of casually-revealed cruelties and pure arrogance. His brother deprived him of his one true love and so he has decided to imprison him and make sure that his daughter suffers the same heartache as he.
It was based on a short story The Sire de Maletroit's Door by Robert Louis Stevenson who had clearly been reading Edgar Allen Poe given this level of elaborate cruelty – brother Edmond (Paul Cavanagh) has been locked up for twenty years and his daughter Blanche (Sally Forrest) has been told he’s dead. As it is Edmond pretends to have gone mad so that Alain thinks he’s winning with his only friend the loyal Voltan (Karloff).
The final part of Alain’s evil plot is to marry off Blanche to a man who will be totally unsuited and who she will hate. He selects Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley) as the kind of amoral waster, out for himself and whatever cheap thrill alcohol and wenching can provide… he seems to have every angle covered but, not everyone is as bad as they seem, although some are worse!
Joseph Pevney directs very effectively and whilst things are mostly studio-bound the atmosphere is terrific and the actors rise to the challenge of being in company with Karloff and Laughton!
The Invisible Ray (1936)
It’s back to the future for the next film with Karloff playing Dr Janos Rukh, a scientist who develops a, for want of a better phrase, space-telescope that is so powerful it can see far out into space and into our own past. Using this machine, he is able to identify a meteorite composed of an element known as "Radium X" which crashed on Earth hundreds of thousands of years ago in Africa. I love the setup, the telescope is just a feint and allows a set-piece opening in which Rukh, nearing the end of his credibility, invites sceptical scientists to come and see his machine at work.
These include Dr Benet (Béla Lugosi) and Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford) with his wife Lady Arabella (Beulah Bondi) and their young friend, adventurer Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton). Janos lives with his mother (Violet Kemble Cooper) who was blinded by one of his experiments and his much younger wife, Diana (Frances Drake) who soon catches the eye of Ronald and vice-versa. Benet and Stevens are excited by the revelation and invite Janos to Africa on an expedition to find the meteorite which will be a great boon for civilisation.
As is always the case though, there’s a down-side to
mysterious unknown elements and the very unmysterious known elements of human
behaviour will also come into play. Janos, obsessional by nature but with a
good heart, duly finds his Radium X but he is irradiated and can kill anyone by
the merest touch. Dr Benet gives him a means of suppressing the affect but soon,
driven to distraction by jealousy of the rest of the team as they roll out his
discovery to the World as well as of his young wife, he begins to succumb to
the dark side…
Directed by Lambert Hillyer, it's another well-made film, and I was especially impressed with Lugosi who has a natural command as the well-intentioned good Doctor. Good turns also from Violet Kemble Cooper and the eye-catching Frances Drake who was not caught out playing bowls when the action heats up!
Black Friday (1940)
More dark science in this more straightforward horror film
with Karloff playing an amoral brain surgeon, Dr Ernest Sovac, who, to save the
life of his friend, Professor George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges) who has been
injured in a car accident, transplants part of the brain of the man driving the
car, a gangster called Red Cannon. The results in the well-known Man With Two
Brains scenario and thus begins a fight for dominance between Red and the Professor…
shades of another Robert Louis Stevenson tale…
Karloff is nuanced again as his Dr Sovac becomes intrigued by the half-million dollars the semi-ex-con has hidden in New York. With this the Professor could do so much good but the danger is he keeps on having to let so much of Red into his friend’s headspace. “Red” starts to revenge himself on his former comrades, including Eric Marnay (another excellent turn from Bela Lugosi) and the closer to the money he gets the more the risks move closer to home; the Professor’s life begins to merge with the criminal life and when his daughter, Jean (Anne Gwynne), is threatened he must decide on which side (of his friend’s brain) he’s on.
The New York Times wasn’t impressed "Lugosi's
terrifying talents are wasted... but Karloff is in exquisite artistic form...
good holiday fun." I’d say both are eminently watchable and that this is a
strong hattrick of engaging, fun horror.
The special features are also horrifically good:
- Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase
- 1080p presentation of all three films across two Blu-ray discs
- All films presented from 2K scans of the
original film elements
- Optional English SDH
- Brand new audio commentary tracks on The Invisible Ray and The Strange Door with author Stephen Jones and author / critic Kim Newman
- New audio commentary track on Black Friday with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby
- “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door” radio adaptations
- Stills Galleries
Plus A Limited Edition Collector’s Booklet* featuring new writing on all three films by film writers Andrew Graves, Rich Johnson, and Craig Ian Mann
*The booklet is available on the First Print Run of 2000 copies only so you’d be well-advised to head over to the Eureka site and pre-order as soon as you can!
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