Sony // 1940 // 73 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // October 25th, 2005
Resurrected from a tomb of ice!
You know it's getting close to Halloween when the DVD shelves at your local store are suddenly lined with the faces of horror legends like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Chris Lee and Vincent Price, all creepily peering at you from their cellophane-wrapped amaray prisons. While this year has seen several classic horror box sets hit the shelves, a few straggling single releases have also popped up with considerably less fanfare, including this DVD of the 1940 B-science chiller The Man with Nine Lives. Making its home video debut courtesy of Sony, The Man with Nine Lives is a respectable little Karloff klassic from the sub-zero vaults that weaves a fantastic tale of "frozen therapy," a crude cryogenic procedure that entails putting a patient into a chilly coma to destroy cancerous cells.
Leading frozen therapy physician Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor, Scared Stiff) and his nurse, Judith (Jo Ann Sayers, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), visit the abandoned house of Dr. Kravaal (Boris Karloff, Frankenstein), a pioneer in the field who has been missing for ten years. In a secret underground lab far beneath the earth, Mason finds Kravaal's still-living body encased in solid ice. After he is thawed out, Kravaal reveals how he came to be frozen alive -- the sheriff, the District Attorney and three other skeptical gentleman were about to arrest him for his questionably ethical experiments, when he threw down a vial of fuming, poisonous liquid and locked them (and by accident, himself) in his ice chamber. Convinced that the toxic vapors he inadvertently inhaled somehow equipped his body for the decade-long deep freeze, he and Dr. Mason defrost the other men to try and replicate the concoction, which he happened to write down as he prepared it. On awakening, Kravaal's chilly victims aren't very forgiving, however, and one of them steals the formula and throws it in the fire seconds before Kravaal shoots him. In retaliation, the not-so-good Doctor forbids anyone to leave until he is able to replicate the poisonous experiment -- and for that, he needs test subjects: human guinea pigs!
One of seven B-grade films cranked out in 1940 by anonymous Columbia director/craftsman Nick Grinde, the illogically titled The Man with Nine Lives is a relatively competently made piece of fluff that remains a steadfast entry in Karloff's esteemed canon despite a slim budget and talentless supporting cast.
Although ostensibly a "mad doctor" film, and easily lumped in with a run of several similar Karloff-starring science thrillers made by Columbia in the late 1930s, those expecting the standard "science run amok" plot will be surprised to find that The Man with Nine Lives does not actually condemn limitless scientific research, but instead suggests that individual sacrifices are sometimes a necessary evil on the road to saving thousands. As a result, most of the egomaniacal "insanity" in the film is actually attributable to the disbelieving arresting officers, rather than the relatively altruistic Dr. Kravaal, who only wants to help everyone, after all. That Kravaal goes mad in the end trying to perfect a radical cancer-destroying procedure is true, but despite some appropriately ominous lighting techniques, he remains the only real sympathetic character in this film, having been pushed to murder and other dastardly deeds by the closed-minded citizens trying to unfairly jail the man for crimes he hasn't committed (at least, not yet).
Unfortunately, this slight twist on the formula isn't really enough to help the film stand out much, and The Man with Nine Lives drags a bit when it is caught up in the needless complexities of the story. While there is some impressive set design here that encompasses ice chambers, secret passages hidden behind clocks and several sinister laboratories, the only real notable bright spot is The Man with Nine Lives's laughably naïve science. Patients submit to "frozen therapy" after a couple of ice blocks are placed on their chest to gradually lower their body temperature, and they are later revived with a technique that seems to consist solely of funneling hot coffee down their still-icy gullets(!)
Ignoring the other actors involved (and rightfully so), this isn't one of the always-reliable Karloff's best performances, but it's still good, indicative of the roles he took on in the wake of the stardom he garnered after Frankenstein. In many ways, this transition throughout the 1940s from brutish monster to psychotic scientist seems to be Karloff's way of usurping the role that made him famous, to prove that his acting skill went far beyond lumbering around in heavy make-up and groaning. It's also worth noting that Grinde worked with Karloff on two other capital punishment obsessed "mad scientist" pictures at Columbia, the as-yet unreleased on DVD The Man They Could Not Hang and Before I Hang.
Sony has outfitted their less-than-essential release of The Man with Nine Lives with a generally impressive transfer, featuring an excellent level of detail punctuated by reasonably deep blacks. The first half of the last reel however, is marred by an immediately noticeable drop in quality, with some serious flickering that prevents me from giving the film otherwise deserved top marks. The mono soundtrack is also quite good considering the age of the film, with dialogue and the sparse musical score coming through just fine. There are no extras, of course, besides a few trailers for contemporary Sony films.
The Man with Nine Lives is a decent Karloff title at best. While I more or less enjoyed the film, there'd nothing really unique enough here that would inspire me to recommend it to more casual fans of classic horror. However, if Sony would have thrown this in a wallet-friendly box set with the previously released (and still overpriced) The Devil Commands and a few other Columbia-era Karloff potboilers, then they'd really have something on their cold, cold hands. Recommended for Karloff fans only.
The Man with Nine Lives is free to go, but only after it is renamed Dr. Timothy Mason and his Fantabulous Frost Monster.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 73 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated