Few names are as recognizable as that of Boris Karloff. The gentle English actor who brought us the sweet Christmas tale “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” also brought us some of the most terrifyingly wonderful performances in the history of the business. Cursed with a harsh enough look, Karloff was denied the mainstream success his ability so obviously warranted. He was one of the founders of the Screen Actor’s Guild and was extremely active in charity work throughout his lengthy career. Still, mainstream Hollywoo…’s loss was horrordom’s gain. From his first guttural grunts and hand gestures that brought alive the mute monster in Frankenstein, Karloff exhibited extraordinary brilliance in each performance. Even when forced to take unflattering parts in B productions, Karloff was the consummate professional. He always brought his A game. That dedication took what were originally throwaway parts and molded them like the craftsman he was into magnificent works of art. Here in the Boris Karloff Collection are five of those lesser known parts. No real monsters to speak of; Karloff shines in each film. Certainly these films can be described as diamonds in the rough, but leave it to Boris to teach us that there are no small films, at least not when the credits began with the name Karloff.
“Night Key” Karloff plays an inventor of a wireless alarm system. As often happens with Karloff’s characters, he’s ripped off by his partner who turns his system into a wealthy business for himself cutting Mallory (Karloff) out. But unlike other Karloff characters in this situation, Mallory seeks a non-violent revenge. What Mallory creates, he can also destroy as “Night Key”. Using his own device, Mallory, along with a small time crook, breaks into shops protected by his old partner’s firm, but not to steal. He’s only trying to make a point, until the local head hood comes calling to use the device to line his pockets. Of course, this really isn’t a horror film at all, but Karloff will make it worth your while.
“Tower Of London” Political intrigue marks this film set in England in 1471. The infamous Tower Of London is the prison from which deposed King Henry VI whiles away his years. Coming to rescue England is Richard, played by Basil Rathbone, most notable from his Sherlock Holmes films. Richard’s useless brother provides us with an early appearance by Vincent Price, who would rise as a perennial horror great himself. Betrayal and love triangles overpopulate the story, but the real value is this great cast. Karloff is in great form as Mord, an executioner who also has a horse in this race. The glaring flaw is that Karloff is greatly underused in this one.
“The Climax” Here we find the only color film in the collection. It’s oddly out of place atmospherically here, and is surprisingly the weakest film in the collection. This is really just a bad retelling of The Phantom Of The Opera filmed in the same standing sets used for the original silent classic.
“The Strange Door” is perhaps the strongest of these films. Like the Karloff/Lugosi vehicle “The Body Snatcher”, The Strange Door is adapted from another Robert Louis Stevenson story. Karloff plays Voltan, a mild servant who alone knows the mad prisoner in the dungeon is not quite so feebleminded as he appears. Charles Laughton is the lead as Sire de Maletroit, mad from losing his own lover 20 years ago. He tricks Denis de Beaulieu to his castle in an attempt to marry his enemy’s niece to him in revenge. A rather complicated story and still a bit light on Karloff, but what a well done atmospheric tale it is.
“The Black Castle” The final film in the collection treats us to a nice performance by not only Karloff, but Lon Chaney, Jr. as well. Richard Beckett (Greene) goes undercover to the castle of Count Karl van Bruno (McNally) where he believes his associates disappeared. In flashbacks we learn there is a feud between the families stemming from the African Wars. Karloff is again underused, but makes each moment shine.
Each film is presented in its original full frame format. Universal did a good job of finding clean prints for the most part. All but The Climax are black and white with sweet contrast levels and considerably impressive black levels. The prints are clean for the most part. The color on The Climax is rich and quite stunning, much like the later color found in Hammer’s films. The less than stunning film provides at least a very nice presentation.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is up to the task. These films are all dialogue for the most part. Musical cues are usually reproduced faithfully. While not a powerful sound field, there is no distortion or hiss to take away from the simple but effective tracks.
Only two trailers. I guess you can’t have everything, but how about something?
It’s likely you can discern I am a huge fan of Boris Karloff. I’ve known his daughter Sarah for years, and I’m glad to see she’s made it her life’s work to make sure Boris is remembered. As I keep telling her, it must be a sweet gig, as I’m sure there’s no danger of us forgetting. Still, Karloff should be remembered as much for these minor roles as he is for his leading ones. Hats off to Universal for doing a good job in bringing these nearly forgotten gems to DVD. My old VHS copies were starting to wear. I should simply put these discs on the shelf where they’ll be safe, but of course, “You know I won’t”.
Special Features List