This set features a string of movies that Boris Karloff did for Columbia in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. The majority of them—with the exception of The Black Room—were part of the “mad doctor” cycle of films he completed under contract with them. Karloff was already a big name after Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein for Universal, and although he was a genuinely great actor with a lot of range, none of these are really great films. Karloff was so closely linked with one character that when people think of Frankenstein they think of Karloff’s interpretation, not the actual Frankenstein Monster from Mary Shelley’s book. That says a lot about the strength of that performance, but of course he did many more movies.
The Black Room feels a bit like one of the Roger Corman movies of the early ‘60s. It’s about twin brothers who are faced with a prophecy that says that the younger brother will kill the older in the black room of a castle. It’s a fun movie, and probably the most gothic of the lot. It’s the earliest film in the set, and has the most in common with Karloff’s work for Universal. Karloff plays dual roles, and although a couple of the plot points don’t quite come together, it has some good set designs and stands out from the rest of the collection.
Half of the films are directed by Nick Grind, and are very samey as Karloff plays a mad scientist who keeps being killedor put in suspended animation in some way and brought back to life. My favourite is The Man They Could Not Hang, which sees Karloff as a mad scientist who has been convicted and executed, and is brought back to life by his trusted assistant. Next he is trying to find and kill all the people who had him killed. It’s similar in that way to Theatre of Blood, and it’s sort of an early slasher movie. The other two Grind movies, Before I Hang and The Man With Nine Lives, mesh together if you watch them one after the other since the plots are so similar. But Karloff is always good, and each one has a fun setpiece. The Man with Nine Lives has a frozen room where he freezes people, for example.
The Devil Commands is another perfectly fine mad scientist movie. What’s most notable about this film is that it’s an early work by director Edward Dmytryk, who would go on to helm The Caine Mutiny, The Young Lions and Raintree County, amongst many others. It has some nice noirish aspects to it, the influence of which you can see in Dmytryk’s later noirs like Murder, My Sweet and Crossfire.
The final film is The Boogie Man Will Get You, which is a sort of old dark house comedy with Karloff sending up the mad doctor roles he had been doing at that point. Peter Lorre also appears as a character who carries a Siamese cat in his pocket. The film outstays its welcome pretty quick, however, because despite having some quirky elements, it really doesn’t have any plot.
Almost all the films in the Eureka Classics set are about an hour long, as most movies were back then in this genre. Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby contribute new audio commentaries for The Black Room, Before I Hang and The Boogie Man Will Get You, while new audio commentaries from Stephen Jones and Kim Newman are provided for The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man With Nine Lives and The Devil Commands. The limited edition set comes with an O-card slipcase and a collector’s booklet with writing on the six films from noted Karloff expert Stephen Jacobs, critic Jon Towlson and film scholar Craig Ian Mann.