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Case Number 10701: Small Claims Court

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Icons Of Horror Collection: Boris Karloff

The Black Room
1935 // 70 Minutes // Not Rated
The Man They Could Not Hang
1939 // 64 Minutes // Not Rated
Before I Hang
1940 // 62 Minutes // Not Rated
The Boogie Man Will Get You
1942 // 66 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Sony
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // January 29th, 2007

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All Rise...

Judge Dennis Prince is simply amazed at how easily astronauts can make the trek through that purportedly rare bend in time. At this rate, billionaire tourists will be traveling to poke fun at those damned dirty apes.

The Charge

The King of Horror unleashes four tales of terror and treachery.

The Case

Ah, here's the stuff of classic crime-meets-horror, presented with a subtle seasoning of noir ambience. Boris Karloff, the household name for all things creepy in the 1930s and '40s, was busily employed by various studios, here showcasing his talents for terror over at Columbia Pictures. In this boxed set that celebrates some of his works outside of the big boots and neck bolts, we're offered some respectable remastering of four genuinely fun outings in this Icons of Horror Collection—Boris Karloff

The ghastly goings-on begin with 1935's The Black Room, a gothic tale of two brothers who live under the cloud of the de Bergmann family curse. As the dreaded prophecy goes, the younger of the twins, driven by envy and jealousy, is destined to murder the elder, he who shall be first to inherit the title of Baron. For Gregor (Karloff), this is a highly unlikely scenario given his partially crippled younger brother, Anton (Karloff in the dual role), has left the castle years prior. Free to reign in unfettered fashion, Gregor uses a heavy-handed style that raises the ire of the locals plus raises their suspicions as the town's young daughters, one by one, go missing. The immeasurably more pleasant Anton returns unexpectedly just as Gregor has been discovered in the midst of foul play with one of the nubile dames. Upon being threatened by the townsfolk, Gregor renounces the Baronship in deference to the preferred Anton, only to murder his younger brother and assume his role in an effort to retain control while also gain the hand of the pretty Thea (Marian Marsh). Will Gregor succeed in his murderous masquerade and have his devious deeds succeeded in severing the family prophecy?

This first film is rich with gothic setting including an expansive castle and a dreadful "black room." Actually, the black room is a bit less than dreadful, a too-sparse abode that cries out "low budget." It features a deliciously dank floor pit that features significantly in the tale. Karloff is excellent in his roles, a trio actually—the treacherous Gregor, the amenable Anton, and the perfectly blended Gregor-as-Anton. The film moves along quickly and unapologetically as it thrusts us headlong into the deceit and the manner in which Gregor's insidious indiscretion is revealed. The payoff is pleasing, albeit it easily anticipated, and its Poe-like sense of poetic justice works well.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) fast-forwards us to the advanced medical experimentations of Dr. Henryk Savaard (Karloff), who is attempting to devise a method by which patients in need of surgery can be temporarily put to death and revived again soon after. His ambitions of this being a breakthrough development for mankind are thwarted when his secretary, Betty (Ann Doran), notifies the police that Savaard is about to "kill" her boyfriend, the doctor's willing participant in a live experiment. When the police arrive and prevent Savaard's ability to revive his assistant, the young man dies and the doctor is tried and convicted of murder. However, prior to being hanged, Savaard conspires with another doctor to utilize the revival method following the execution. It works and Savaard is given second life, an opportunity the now bitter scientist uses to exact his revenge on those who betrayed him.

This excursion is a bit too hackneyed for its own good. While Karloff is fine as the well-intentioned yet ultimately unbalanced Dr. Savaard, he's practically hamstrung by some truly hammy co-stars. Ann Doran as Betty is downright obnoxious in her nasally delivered betrayals. Also on hand are a cast of detectives, jurors, and the stereotypical mock-heroics of a newspaper reporter, "Scoop" Foley (Robert Wilcox). Savaard's theater of revenge is fun and is reminiscent of a Dr. Phibes-type approach (less gruesome but just as devious). The film ends rather abruptly, but it is reasonable nonetheless.

In 1940's Before I Hang, Karloff is again donning the surgical gloves, this time as an incarcerated scientist, Dr. John Garth, convicted of a mercy killing. While in prison, he partners with another scientist, Dr. Howard (a brief role by none other than Edward Van Sloan) and manages to develop and test upon himself a serum that promises to restore youth. Pardoned for the achievement, trouble rears its head when Garth realizes the key component in his serum—the blood of a killer—has a Jekyll & Hyde effect, turning the doctor into an unwitting murderer.

Karloff seems to enjoy this role as he's given free reign to subtly contort his own features while transforming into the murderous alter ego (a la Spencer Tracy in his portrayal of the Jekyll/Hyde tandem). The picture is a bit rushed in its delivery and fails to divulge some salient details but it still works thanks to Karloff's unflappable commitment.

Finally, there's the delightful yet derivative horror-comedy, The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942). Here, Karloff is more of a bumbling scientist, Prof. Nathaniel Billings, who is intent upon conjuring a man-made race of supermen to assist in the war effort (!). After selling his run-down establishment to an eager entrepreneur, Billings stays on to continue his unorthodox experimentation in the shrouded basement. Ensnaring unsuspecting traveling salesmen, Billings' work gets out of hand and beckons the investigations of the local multi-authority, Dr. Lorencz (wonderfully delivered by the unbridled Peter Lorre). Discovering Billings' mad intentions, Lorencz ultimately lends a hand in the strange pursuit.

If you're thinking of Arsenic and Old Lace, then you're on the right track to the sensibility of this one, Karloff's last for Columbia Pictures. It doesn't exactly hit the beat it aspires to but is not to be missed thanks to the off-the-cuff attempts by Lorre to want to rattle the focused Karloff. The picture ultimately doesn't make a whole lot of sense but it's a romp, plain and simple, and should be enjoyed as such. Running a trim 66 minutes, you really won't mind the unevenness at work here.

On this two-disc boxed set, each of the features is presented in their original 4:3 Academy Ratio presentation. The image quality is genuinely impressive given the age of the pictures and the cleanliness of the source material. The black levels are managed well throughout as is the gray scale. The audio of each is presented in an expected Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix and it's more than suitable to each of the features. There are no extras included.

If you enjoy the works of Boris Karloff—and why shouldn't you?—then you find this collection to be a fun diversion for wiling away a cozy afternoon.

Case dismissed.

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Genres

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• Horror

Scales of Justice, The Black Room

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, The Black Room

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 70 Minutes
Release Year: 1935
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Black Room

• None

Scales of Justice, The Man They Could Not Hang

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, The Man They Could Not Hang

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 64 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Man They Could Not Hang

• None

Scales of Justice, Before I Hang

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, Before I Hang

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 62 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Before I Hang

• None

Scales of Justice, The Boogie Man Will Get You

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, The Boogie Man Will Get You

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 66 Minutes
Release Year: 1942
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Boogie Man Will Get You

• None








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