Boris Karloff’s ‘Mad Doctor’ Cycle: An Appreciation

Looking back at the short series of underrated and provocative films that Boris Karloff made for Columbia Pictures at the start of the 1940s.

There was, for a very long time, a perceived wisdom amongst the people who wrote about horror films. from Dennis Gifford and William K. Everson to Forrest J. Ackerman and everyone else who wrote for American monster magazines up until the end of the 1970s, this history of horror went something like this: Universal Pictures and their classic monsters were at the top of the pile, unassailable masterworks and genre trendsetters. Next came more or less any other studio’s output, almost always seen as B-Movies unless produced by Val Lewton, and at the bottom of the pile were poverty row studios like Monogram and Republic, which were considered to be embarrassments for both the horror fan and the likes of Bela Lugosi who were reduced to appearing in them. This was how things were until the end of the 1940s when the classic era of horror ended and everything that came afterwards was exploitative rubbish.

Among the B-Movies were a series of films that the remarkably prolific Boris Karloff made for Columbia Pictures between 1939 and 1941, automatically inferior productions in which he appeared as a mad scientist. Less keen-eyed viewers might not see the difference between these films and, say The Invisible Ray that Universal has made a few years earlier, but don’t be fooled – these were decidedly second division titles, according to the experts.

The Man They Could Not Hang

Well, I was never one for bowing to critical consensus. I first came across Karloff’s Columbia movies in the days when Channel 4 would still show such stuff at a weekend and was immediately fascinated by them – not only as entertaining titles but also as a strange series of films that seemed every bit as connected as the Universal monster movies. There’s a sense of continuity through these films in theme, and they work surprisingly well as a series. The four (or three, or five – but we’ll come to that in a bit) films in this collection are probably Karloff’s most underrated work, and reassessment is long overdue.

Karloff actually started his time at Columbia with a rather more generic gothic, The Black Room, which was made in 1956 by Sherlock Holmes director Roy William Neill. This is the sort of costume melodrama that might not even be considered a horror film without Karloff’s presence, but it’s an interesting version of a cliched tale that takes our expectations and twists them – here Karloff plays twins, born to a Baron who is obsessed with a prophecy which dictates that the younger son, driven by bitterness and jealousy over the inheritance that goes to the first-born, will kill his older brother; when it is revealed that the younger son also has a withered arm, well… we all know how that sort of thing works out in old horror films. But the film flips our expectations – younger brother Anton is a kindly, decent sort, while the older Gregor has become a lazy, slobbish despot and, as it turns out, serial killer. When the locals descend on the castle, Gregor agrees to renounce his title in favour of his younger brother and leave the country. You can probably guess what happens next – Gregor kills Anton, assumes his identity and carries on as before, until his bad habits eventually give him away.

The Black Room

The Black Room is a slight but enjoyable movie, Karloff clearly having fun in the dual role – but it’s the sort of thing you might expect Tod Slaughter to have made, albeit it with rather more visual style. It’s certainly the oddity in Karloff’s Columbia years, a foot in the water of the gothic before he headed in a somewhat different direction. It also comes a few years before his contract with the studio, when he would make a series of films that – while ostensibly stand-alone pieces with the actor playing different characters in each movie – feel entirely like a deliberate series, at least with the first three entries, all of which share a star, a director, identical opening credits, interchangeable titles and the same theme. At some point, you have to assume that repetition becomes intentional, even when dealing with films that even the critics who appreciate classic horror have tended to dismiss as B-movies with little value.

These films – The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man With Nine Lives, Before I Hang and The Devil Commands (the latter being the odd-one-out in the series for several reasons, which we’ll come to shortly) are usually referred to as Karloff’s ‘Mad Doctor’ series, but that’s not quite right. These are not Mad Doctors – they are doctors who are driven to madness, and there’s a big difference. None of the scientists in these films starts off with bad ideas – they are not fiendish characters like, say, Bela Lugosi’s Dr Vollin in The Raven or even obsessive fanatics like Dr Frankenstein. Their ideas are sound, if adventurous, and they are acting for the noblest of reasons, to help humanity and end suffering and pain. they are sent over the edge by the actions of narrow-minded, selfish, stupid people, and even then, they maintain that sense of nobility. While horror fans have often dismissed these films as substandard and inferior to the Universal movies that preceded them, I think that these might be Karloff’s best work in many ways – progressive, thoughtful, humanist attacks on superstition, ignorance and greed that show just what the self-centred and inflexible attitudes of the law and wider society can do.

The Man They Could Not Hang

In The Man They Could Not Hang, Karloff plays Dr Henryk Savaard, who is experimenting with an artificial heart and lung machine, designed to bring people back from the dead. When a medical student volunteers to be a guinea pig, his girlfriend – a nurse of the worst kind imaginable – runs to the police, and the experiment is interrupted. Even as Savaard begs for a brief time to complete the experiment and bring the dead boy back, the cops and a blissfully ignorant and arrogant police doctor refuse permission. The boy dies and Savaard is arrested for murder. This will be an ongoing theme throughout the films – Karloff’s characters are arrested for murder even though the authorities are the ones responsible for causing the experiment to fail. While we might question the ethics of human experiments, the fact is that in these narratives, the experiments would be successful if it wasn’t for the bloody-minded arrogance of small-minded men.

Savaard is hung, but his assistant – who escaped capture – claims the body and revives him, fixing the broken neck in the process. Success! But Savaard is understandably bitter about everything, and perhaps pushed over the edge by the whole trial and execution thing. Soon, jurors on the case – notably the hate-filled characters who were all too keen to convict him of murder – are dropping dead, and then all those involved in the case are invited to Savaard’s home, where they find themselves held captive, to be killed – by their own actions – one by one.

The Man They Could Not Hang

Interestingly – and daringly for a film that was still labouring under the Hayes Code rules that crime must not pay – the film still maintains a certain sympathy for Savaard even while he is playing a Saw-like game with those who wronged him. The film comes as close as it can to suggesting that they deserve everything they get, and while Savaard has to pay the price for his crimes in the end, the film still allows him a degree of dignity and vindication. This is something that runs through the first three films, the ones that most feel like a series. All directed by Nick Grindé, the films have a seriousness of tone that is impressive – no comic relief characters here – and go out of their way to show that the doctor is in the right, even if his methods sometimes go beyond medical ethics. After all, no great discoveries were made by people who toed the line and followed the rules. more interestingly, seeing these films in retrospect, is how their science fiction is now closer to reality, at least in some cases – artificial heart and lung machines really do keep people alive today.

The sympathies for the person who, in other horror and science fiction films, would be the undisputed villain continue even further in The Man With Nine Lives. Here, Karloff’s character of Dr Leon Kravaal doesn’t even appear until we’re getting towards the mid-point of the film. Instead, we follow Roger Pryor (who had played the cowardly District Attorney in the previous film) as Dr Tim Mason, who is experimenting with ‘frozen therapy’ – keeping people in a state of ice-induced suspended animation while performing complex operations. He visits the home of Kravaal, who was the pioneer of such treatments but who disappeared a decade earlier. A chance discovery of a secret basement reveals that Kravaal is himself frozen in ice. Revived, he explains how a treatment that he was carrying out on a rich business was interrupted by the authorities, egged on by the greedy heir to his patient’s fortune. A fight ensued and the five others had also been frozen, kept alive by a chance formula that he had created. They too are thawed out, but the fact that they were living proof of Kravaal’s theories makes no difference – they still want to arrest him for the murder of the man who would be alive if they hadn’t interrupted his treatment, and the heir belligerently snatches the formula – which Kravaal wants to be a gift to humanity – and throws it in the fire. Unsurprisingly, Kravaal snaps – I mean, wouldn’t you? – and decided to hold the men hostage as unwilling lab rats while he experiments on recreating the formula.

The Man With Nine Lives

While The Man They Could Not Hang is slightly ambiguous about how crazy its doctor becomes, this second film maintains the idea that he is simply a driven and frustrated man with a good heart and good intentions throughout – even when he is holding the other men hostage, it’s out of desperation rather than revenge. The real villains here are, clearly, the ignorant, selfish and petty people who – even after the theories have been shown to work – still won’t accept them.

The Man With Nine Lives is probably the high point of the series, and perhaps its sympathies were a little too much with the doctor for what is, after all, a horror film. In the next film, Before I Hang, our sympathies are fudged by that old chestnut, a man who is possessed by external forces and turned into a monster. It’s an idea that lets us have our cake and eat it – the doctor, like Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man films, remains a good-hearted sort, but he becomes a murderous villain against his will. In this case, it’s Dr John Garth, imprisoned for the mercy killing of an elderly man who he was trying to help with a new formula aimed at extending life. While in prison, both the warden and the prison doctor believe in Garth’s work, and he is allowed to continue his experiments in the month before he is due to hang. Unfortunately, he uses the blood of a convicted killer to make the serum that he tests on himself in what he believes will be his last hour alive. When his sentence is commuted to life in prison, he gets to see the results of the experiment and at first, they seem positive – he looks and feels years younger. But we’ve all seen enough horror movies to know that you never, ever, have a transplant from a homicidal killer, and soon he is being taken over by the urge to kill. This might not be so bad, but after he murders both the prison doctor and a passing prisoner, the authorities misunderstand the situation and hail him as a hero for trying to stop his colleague from being killed by the other man. He’s granted a full pardon, unaware of what he has actually done – but it won’t be long before the urge to kill emerges once again.

Garth remains a sympathetic character – once he realises that he is a psychotic killer, he flees back to the prison, to demand to be executed. As with the Wolf Man and other hapless characters who are infected and otherwise driven to kill against their will, he still has to die – there can be no happy ending for a murderer, even an unwilling one. But again, the doctor here is shown to be a decent person – indeed, while the mercy killing that has put him in prison to begin with might be ethically questionable, we are left in no doubt that it was morally the right thing to do, and here more than ever, the idea of the ‘mad doctor’ is a long way from what is shown – his experiment goes wrong, but only because of tainted blood; we always assume that Frankenstein’s creations were going to be a bad sort, damaged brain or not, but here it is simply a tragic mistake – and one that the doctor himself pays the price for.

After this trilogy of films, Karloff returned for a related movie that seems at once part of the series and a separate piece. This time directed by Edward Dmytryk, The Devil Commands removes itself stylistically from the others immediately – it has a very different, much more gothic title sequence. But it follows the theme of the doctor who is driven by an obsessive belief, this time in the powers of brain waves. Dr Julian Blair is immediately set up as a good-hearted, absent-minded professor who we first see introducing his theories to the press – the very opposite of the mad scientist, you might think. But when his wife is killed in a car accident, he starts to go over the edge, as he believes that he can make contact with the dead using his equipment. The real villain of the piece is the phoney medium – a gloriously malicious Anne Revere – who worms her way into his life and soon starts to manipulate him, believing that if his theories prove correct, there is financial and political power to be had.

The Devil Commands

The other monsters of this film are the local townsfolk, here a telling parody of the archetypal Universal horror villagers with pitchforks. The Universal villagers were all too often shown as sympathetic figures, but here they are shown for what they really are – a lynch mob, driven by a fear of the other and the eccentric, convinced of their own righteousness. Essentially, they are Twitter in the flesh. There is the suggestion that Karloff has been body snatching, but the film – though the bitter narration of his daughter (Amanda Duff) – makes it very clear that he has never hurt anyone. Of all the doctors in the series, Blair might be the most blameless and sympathetic, a desperate and manipulated man who is the film’s only victim. The connection with the other films is here – a doctor who is not shown as a monster, which is a rare thing in horror movies, or any movies for that matter. Science is something that movie makers have a myopic suspicion of, even now.

There is a sense of tragedy running through these four films – men of progress held back and persecuted by the sort of people who, in years earlier, might have burned them at the stake. While they play a certain lip service to the requirements of the genre, all four defiantly refuse to show their main characters as soulless monsters, and that’s impressive. of course, they are helped immensely by the presence of Boris Karloff. Had Karloff been making any other sort of film, he would probably be recognised as one of the greatest actors of all time. His ability to find the humanity in even the worst monsters is something that few other actors could do, and here he is able to make us understand the desperation and frustration of these four men, even when they are driven to do terrible things. I will argue forever that in these four films, we see some of his best performances, and that’s down to the quality of the narratives (interestingly, the four films have different screenwriters, so any sense of a writer labouring with the same sense of obsession as his protagonists is not the case) – and the strength of an actor who could bring more to a role than was necessarily on the page.

The Boogie Man Will Get You

There is a fifth film to consider here – the final movie in Karloff’s contract and another in which he plays a scientist tinkering on the edges of human knowledge. But perhaps fittingly, The Boogie Man Will Get You is a comedy, a bit of lightweight fluff to end this run of increasingly dark and tragic tales on. Here, he’s Professor Nathaniel Billings, aiming to create a race of Supermen to aid in the war effort. Unfortunately, his travelling salesmen test subjects keep dying. Along for the ride is Peter Lorre in what is an absurdist comedy, somewhat in debt to Arsenic and Old Lace (which Karloff was appearing in on stage at the time), played strictly for laughs and so lacking any sense of maliciousness. Billings’ experiments seem a satire of Captain America, and his ‘victims’ are rather less dead than is first implied, making this a wholly victimless romp. Karloff seems to be having fun with a comedy variation on his tragic characters, and the film is a slight but amusing coda to the whole series.

It’s an inescapable truth that, for all the perceived wisdom about the horror films of the 1930 and 1940s, many of the more interesting films emerged outside of the respectable but increasingly formulaic Universal cycle – from White Zombie to Isle of the Dead, some of the movies that hold up best today were those that the critics chose to dismiss for years. the same is true of this collection of Boris Karloff movies, a connected series of individual movies that take a more sympathetic and progressive approach to the idea of science and experimentation. These are films that have been unfairly overlooked for too long, and it’s time that they took their place amongst the classic titles of the genre.



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