Posts Tagged ‘Boris Karloff’

Black Sabbath (1963)

black-sabbath-1963

Mario Bava, where have you been all my life? The Italian horror maestro really is just worming his way into my heart, especially after Black Sabbath, his 1963 horror anthology film. When you put Boris Karloff, vampires, and floating corpses in the same film, you’re guaranteed to get my attention.

Black Sabbath comprises three stories of about a half hour each, making up three different subgenres of horror. The first is “The Telephone,” about a young woman who keeps receiving threatening phone calls from a stalker late one night. The second, starring Karloff, is “The Wurdulak,” a vampire story about Gurca (Karloff), the patriarch of a family who has successfully killed a vampire that’s been terrorizing the countryside, only to become a victim of the creature himself. Finally, “The Drop of Water” is a ghost story about a woman who steals a ring from a corpse and is subsequently haunted in the weirdest and creepiest way.

All three stories take fairly standard horror narratives and give them a creepy spin. “The Wurdulak” in particular introduces some interesting elements to the vampire story, with the vampire longing for the blood of those he loved the most during life. Unfortunately, it’s also the dullest of the three episodes, drawing out the narrative to an unnatural length and introducing a mild love story into the mix that fails to summon any heat. “The Telephone” is a precursor to what would become the more prevalent giallo style – deeply stylized with perverse psycho-sexual undertones, it’s a delicious little aperitif before the meat of the other two episodes.

But the best of the three is undoubtedly “The Drop of Water,” a tight, intense piece of horror filmmaking that makes the most out of its short runtime. It’s actually quite a scary episode, showcasing a grotesque narrative quite similar to Corman’s Poe adaptations. And while the conclusion is extreme – even a bit silly by today’s standards – most of the episode is remarkably subdued, relying more on pulsing lights and eerie noises than on cheap jump scares. It’s an excellent piece of horror filmmaking, and could stand on its own as a short without the support of the other two.

Black Sabbath has forced me to appreciate Bava’s work, and to actively seek out more of it. And I’m a bit excited to indulge in the oeuvre of a new director.

Black Sabbath is available to stream via Shudder.

Corridors of Blood (1958)

corridors-of-blood

There’s a bit of a misnomer in the title of this film: while there are many corridors, there’s very little blood featured in what amounts to an effective thriller from 1958.

Corridors of Blood stars Boris Karloff in rare non-monstrous mode as Dr. Thomas Bolton, an expert surgeon in the Victorian period searching for the key to painless surgery. Bolton’s humanitarian efforts to discover anesthesia have him experimenting on himself with a mixture of gases until he finally finds the mixture that works. Unfortunately, the mixture also causes blackouts that have Bolton wandering London, getting into mischief and eventually being exploited by underworld criminal Black Ben (Francis de Wolff) and his associate Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee) to sign false death certificates for murder victims.

Corridors of Blood is a surprisingly slow-moving film for its run time (it comes in at less than an hour and a half), taking awhile to build the character of Bolton and the world of barbarous surgery that he’s trying to reform. The most intense scenes are also the earliest, as Bolton performs amputations without the benefit of anesthesia. That in itself is horrific enough and Bolton’s colleagues seem to be immune to the suffering of their patients, relying on the refrain that you cannot separate pain and the knife. Bolton disagrees, but as he gradually becomes addicted to the anesthetic gases with which he experiments his own surgical skill suffers.

While far from a horror film, Corridors of Blood is actually quite effective at creating a sympathetic protagonist whose gradual downfall is entirely due to his humanism (in contrast to your usual mad scientist). Christopher Lee puts in a strong but underused performance as the sepulchral Resurrection Joe, a character who looms out of dark corridors dressed in a funeral coat and top hat. The other characters are fairly stock, from the earnest young doctor who wants to make a difference to the sweet Victorian maiden (Bolton’s niece) confused by what’s going with her uncle. Still, though you can predict the ending of this film, that doesn’t make it any less poignant.

comedy_of_terrors_poster

I’ll just leave the cast list right here: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone, in a film directed by Jacques Tourneur (Cat People).

Do you need that repeated? No? Just read it a few more times.  Now inform me of how this movie can possibly go wrong.

The fact is that it can’t.  Price is Waldo Trumbull, an obnoxious and drunken undertaker on the verge of being cast into the street by his landlord John Black (Rathbone).  He has a crazy opera-singing wife he despises (Joyce Jameson), an incompetent assistant named Felix Gillie (Lorre) and a father-in-law who has seen better days (Karloff).  In an effort to buoy his failing business, Trumbull undertakes (HA!) to murder rich elderly men so that he can give them a funeral.

This is a Laurel and Hardy film with four of the finest horror movie actors to step onto a screen.  Price and Lorre bully, shove and tear into each other constantly, Karloff chews the scenery whole and Rathbone … Rathbone has to be seen to be believed.  The plot hinges on Trumbull’s idea to simply knock off his landlord, thus making some ready cash and getting rid of a man he hates into the bargain.  But Rathbone proves (hilariously) hard to kill, prompting the funniest funeral ever.

Comedy of Terrors

The Comedy Of Terrors could not have been performed with any other cast – each actor brings their own inimitable star personas to theirparts, and proves once and for all that they were all capable of playing comedy.  I knew that already about Price and Lorre, but Karloff! Now Karloff was a revelation, giving Rathbone one hell of a eulogy.  The comedy depends on an audience’s awareness of the roles the four men have played in the past – it’s one of the first and finest of the self-referential horror-comedies that Price would cash in on so brilliantly later in his career.

There are things that could be better about The Comedy Of Terrors.  A little less time dwelling on Price and Lorre breaking into houses and a little more time on the plot to kill Rathbone.  Less of Jameson warbling, more of Karloff wandering about looking befuddled.  Price is incredibly unlikable, yet you want him to get away with it just to keep everything moving.  The running jokes get a little wearing after the fourth or fifth repeat, and Price’s vicious hatred of his wife becomes off-putting – however obnoxious she is.  The film really picks up in the second half, once Rathbone has fully committed himself to spouting Macbeth at regular intervals and Karloff begins indulging in histrionics.

I don’t know what else to say about The Comedy Of Terrors, except that I enjoyed just about every minute of it.  Price and Lorre are a great comic team, their differing physicality working very much to their advantage.  Despite some plot holes big enough to fit a horse-drawn hearse, by the end of the film I was laughing so hard I did not care.

black cat bottom

I’m back! I know you’ve been waiting with bated breath, but I had … important … things to … stuff.

The Black Cat! How can you go wrong with Karloff and Lugosi? The answer is that you cannot, but there are times when filmmakers do try.   The Black Cat is supposedly based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same title, but the only resemblance is just that: the title. There is a black cat that shows up at regular intervals – supposedly a representative of undying evil – but that piece of the plot drifts away and never comes back.  So the only thing going for it are the presences of Karloff and Lugosi, and the might of Universal horror in the early 1930s.

Which, let’s face it, is all this film really needs. Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast, recently released from a prison he languished in for 15 years as a prisoner or war and returning home to find out what has become of the wife and daughter he left behind.  He’s joined by sweet honeymooning couple the Alisons (David Manners and Julie Bishop), the two most boring and useless people on the planet.  The fun starts, though, when circumstances land them all at the high modern home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), Werdegast’s sworn enemy, a murderer, sadist and Satanist.  Let the games begin!

boris-karloff

This film is simply delicious.  From the instant that Lugosi asks to share the Alisons’ train compartment, you want to start screaming “Holy God, no!”  But for once, Bela is not the one we need to be worried about.  He actually plays Werdegast with great subtlety, as a man possessed by revenge but likewise desperate to pick up his life where he left off.  All he really wants are his wife and daughter back.  One has the impression that he would leave vengeance behind.

The film exploits horror’s roots in German Expressionism, particularly through Poelzig, a villain made up of sinister angles.  Karloff imbues The Black Cat with its menace.  His costuming and style match the high modern house that has become a tomb for past horrors.  He’s a war criminal who escaped judgement, causing the deaths of thousands, and then returning to build his home on their graveyard.  But of course he has not stopped there – the ground below the house is the site of Satanist rituals, and the place where Poelzig keeps his female victims preserved for all eternity; including, of course, Werdegast’s wife.  If all that wasn’t enough to convince you that this guy is seriously fucked up, try this: after marrying Werdegast’s wife, Poelzig went on to marry her daughter too.  Ew.

I will avoid spoiling the ending, except to say that it’s shockingly violent for the time period.  It’s also rushed, which is the biggest problem with The Black Cat.  The film sets up a number of plot threads and conflicts, then speeds through resolving them.  Blink and you’ll miss salient plot points.  Let your attention wander for an instant and characters are suddenly dead.  If it were not for Lugosi and Karloff anchoring the film, it would float off into space.

Both Karloff and Lugosi made better films, but perhaps none pitted them so marvelously against each other as The Black Cat.  Despite dropping some of the more interesting elements – the backdrop of World War I, Satanism and possession – the film succeeds in what it sets out to do.  It wants to give us an hour of two of cinema’s greatest monsters glaring at each other across a chess board, framed in a doorway, or cackling in each other’s faces.  Lugosi and Karloff are possessed of two of the most wonderful voices in early cinema and they dwell on every word of their dialogue, vying for screen-time.  Pleasure in cinema can be found in the weirdest places, and The Black Cat remains one of the more pleasurable experiences for this horror fan.