Maniacal Mayhem is a set of Boris Karloff films from the vault of Universal Pictures, with three features made between 1936 and 1951. It certainly isn’t a collection of his best work, but The Invisible Ray finds Karloff together with Bela Lugosi, as does Black Friday. The third film is The Strange Door.
The Invisible Ray features Karloff and Lugosi as scientists. Karloff has been exposed to these radioactive rays that make you glow in the dark—and then whatever you touch dies. He’s also supposed to be “crazy” after his encounter with the rays, but he was already acting strange beforehand so that plot point doesn’t work. He’s also supposed to be Hungarian, while Lugosi, who actually was Hungarian, plays a French scientist who is trying to find the antidote so that’s pretty funny!
Lugosi and Karloff were both great actors, so they’re fine, but the story is really cheesy—a bargain-basement Universal (despite coming a year after The Bride of Frankenstein and The Raven). There’s some pretty difficult-to-watch depictions of Africans that definitely date the film, which probably would not have sat well with either of these left-wing actors. It’s fun, but after a great movie like The Black Cat, what was the point of doing a film like this?
Black Friday is probably the most interesting film of the set. Here Karloff again plays a crazy scientist (this time a brain surgeon) who transplants part of an injured gangster’s brain into the brain of his friend, who is at death’s door. Lugosi appears as another gangster. The result is a very early brain-transplant plot with a slightly noir-ish feel, which makes it unique. Of course, Karloff had made his name playing gangsters in the years before Frankenstein, but it must have been nice for Lugosi to do something a little different.
Black Friday screenwriter Curt Siodmak was the brother of the world-renowned film noir director Robert Soidmak. Curt Soidmak also wrote The Wolfman, as well as a novelisation of this film, and the script and novel for Donovan’s Brain, which has pretty much the same set-up. So it’s a theme he would keep going back to throughout his career. However, probably his best film was Invisible Agent, in which someone becomes invisible and goes off to fight Nazis, a really cool movie kind of like a proto-Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The Strange Door was based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story. It was made around the time that Universal decided to get back into the horror-movie business after a post-war break. The Universal horror films from the earlier era had played TV by this point, bringing a new fanbase. This was an early return for Universal, pre-Creature From the Black Lagoon. It’s actually not quite a horror movie—The Strange Door feels very much like what Roger Corman would do ten years later with his Edgar Allen Poe films: a supernatural chiller wrapped up in a costume melodrama.
Charles Laughton’s character wants to get revenge on his younger brother, Edmond, because he can’t get over the fact that his girlfriend married his brother instead, and then died. He contrives to lock Edmond up for 20 years. Karloff has a smaller part here as Voltan, a minion of Laughton’s evil madman, who lurks in the dungeon and otherwise does his bidding. It’s a fairly thankless role for Karloff, but he probably needed the work. Laughton is great at playing this vindictive aristocrat, of course, but the story is a little convoluted for its own good.
Extras include new commentary tracks with author Stephen Jones and author/film critic Kim Newman for The Invisible Ray and The Strange Door, a new audio commentary for Black Friday with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby, radio adaptations of the Stevenson short story “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door,” stills galleries and trailers. A limited edition collector’s booklet features new writing on all three films by Andrew Graves, Rich Johnson and Craig Ian Mann.