Tales of Tomorrow

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Tales of Tomorrow aired on ABC in the US from 1951 to 1953 and was the first exclusive science fiction anthology series. Adult, intelligent and genuinly unsettling scripts are intermingled with more staple mystery and sci-fi fare. The live broadcast sets limits for direction, but genius camera work and editing sometimes surpass these limits. Leslie Nielsen dominates the cast, and watch out for the masterclass in method acting between Rod Steiger and James Dean.

Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953). Created by Mort Abrahams and Theodore Sturgeon. Directed by Don Medford, Charles Rubin, et. al. Written by Man Rubin, Mel Goldberg, Frank de Felitta, Alvin Sapinsley, David E. Durston, Max Ehrlich, Gail Ingram, Theodore Sturgeon, Fredric Brown, Henry Kuttner, et. al. Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Cameron Prud’Homme, Walter Abel, Edgar Stehli, Theo Goetz, Olive Deering, Edith Fellows, Bruce Cabot, Rod Steiger, Gene Lockhart, Una O’Connor, Boris Karloff, Eva Gabor, Veronica Lake, Joanne Woodward, James Dean, Lon Chaney Jr, James Doohan, Paul Newman, et. al.  Produced by George F. Foley Jr, Mort Abrahams, Richard Gordon for George F. Foley, distributed by ABC. IMDb score: 7.4

Opening credits for Tales of Tomorrow.

Opening credits for Tales of Tomorrow.

I’ve been reviewing a lot of television lately: there was the first televised sci-fi series, Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949, review), the first anthology series featuring science fiction, Lights Out (1949, review), but now we get to the third one, and the last one I’ll be reviewing in a while: Tales of Tomorrow, which ran on ABC from 1951 to 1953. This has the distinction of being the first television anthology series to feature exclusively science fiction, foreshadowing legendary TV shows like The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1963-1964). Continue reading

Lights Out

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(5/10) In a nutshell: Arguably the first anthology TV show to feature science fiction, Lights Out was adapted from a popular horror radio show in the US in 1949. Broadcast live with a varying degree of quality, very light on sci-fi and quite heavy on traditional ghost stories. Lights Out sported an impressive roster of actors, but the direction and originality never quite reached the same quality as rivalling shows that popped up in the early fifties, like Out There or Tales of Tomorrow.

Lights Out (1949-1952). Directed by William Corrigan, Laurence Schwab Jr, Kingman T. Moore, Grey Lockwood, Fred Coe, et. al. Written by: A.J. Russell, George Lefferts, Fred Coe, Ernest Kinoy, Douglas Parkhurst, Wyllis Cooper, Arch Oboler, et. al. Starring: Frank Gallop, Jack La Rue, Mercer McLeod, Leslie Nielsen, Gregory Morton, John Newland, Peter Capell, Alfreda Wallace, Richard Derr, Ross Martin, John Forsythe, Burgess Meredith, John Carradine, Vaughn Taylor, Grace Kelly, George Reeves, Veronica Lake, Basil Rathbone, Anne Bancroft, Anne Francis, Boris Karloff, Anthony Quinn, Melvyn Douglas, Vincent Price, Produced by Herbert B. Swope, Fred Coe for NBC. IMDb rating: 7.3

Frank Gallop as the eerie presenter of Lights Out.

Frank Gallop as the eerie presenter of Lights Out.

Not really a science fiction show per se, Lights Out can still be credited as the first anthology show to bring sci-fi to the small screen. You could debate whether it was in fact the first science fiction show or not, but I’m going with the latter, and I’ll explain why below. Continue reading

House of Frankenstein

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(4/10) In a nutshell: Universal’s horror stars gang together for the franchise’s second monster bash in a film that is a mix of good and mad. There’s too much going on in a too short period of time, Dracula is thrown by the wayside and the plot holes are big enough to fill a stadium. But there’s also a dash of originality and some first-class acting in this 1944 film.

House of Frankenstein. 1944, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Curt Siodmak, Edward T. Lowe Jr. Starring: Boris Karloff, J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney Jr, John Carradine, Anne Gwynne, Peter Coe, Elena Verdugo, George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, Glenn Strange, Sig Ruman. Produced by Paul Malvern for Universal. Tomatometer: 55 %. IMDb score: 6.2

Glenn Strange, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney in House of Frankenstein.

Glenn Strange, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney in House of Frankenstein.

Quick! Give me the five greatest mad scientists of the forties! Did you say Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill, George Zucco and J. Carroll Naish? Great, now you have them all in one film! This was the second monster mash movie after the success of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), starring Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. Lon Chaney also turns up in House, again as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. The film is sometimes referred to as ”The House of Frankenstein” and sometimes without the prefix. Continue reading

The Devil Commands

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(6/10) In a nutshell: The fourth of Columbia’s mad Boris Karloff films, this 1941 effort is probably the best in the lot, with some cool sci-fi designs, good atmosphere and splendid acting. Still, the formulaic mad scientist tropes remain and the lack of a decent budget is evident. Directed by Oscar winner Edward Dmytryk.

The Devil Commands. 1941, USA. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Written by Robert Hardy Andrews, Milton Gunzburg. Based on the novel The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane. Starring: Boris Karloff, Anne Revere, Amanda Duff, Cy Schindell. Produced by Wallace MacDonald for Columbia. IMDb score: 6.2

This is how you made contact with the dead in 1941.

This is how you made contact with the dead in 1941. You used a medium (Anne Revere) and stuck her in a brass fish bowl with lamps on the sides.

In the late thirties and early forties horror icon Boris Karloff churned out a staggering amount of mad scientist films, some slightly better than others. Many of of them, five in fact, were made by Columbia, one of the three so-called second tier studios in Hollywood at the time, along with Universal and United Artists. I have previously reviewed The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, review) and The Man With Nine Lives (1940, review), and Before I Hang (1940) I can’t seem to be able to find online. The last entry in the line was the horror comedy The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942) with Peter Lorre. Like that one, The Devil Commands is a welcome (if only slight) deviation from form in a genre that became increasingly repetitive. Continue reading

The Man With Nine Lives

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(5/10) In a nutshell: One of five films that Columbia made with Boris Karloff, more or less from one and the same script, this 1940 cryogenics film is competently made and quite enjoyable. At least you’ll get a few chuckles out of the utterly silly science, like doctors reviving patients from cryogenic stasis with pots of hot coffee.

The Man With Nine Lives. 1940, USA. Directed by Nick Grinde. Written by Karl Brown & Harold Shumate. Starring: Boris Karloff, Roger Pryor, Jo Ann Sayers. Produced by Irving Briskin & Wallace MacDonald for Columbia. IMDb score: 6.4

Boris Karloff and the stupid authorities arguing over a frozen man in a promo still.

Boris Karloff and the stupid authorities arguing over a frozen man in a promo still.

1940 saw a brief burst of science fiction/mad doctor films, before the genre started to wane in the forties. One reason was Boris Karloff, who appeared in four(!) such films that year: The Ape, Before I Hang, Black Friday and The Man With Nine Lives. The Man With Nine Lives was one of five mad scientist films that Karloff did for Columbia under a short period of time, and one of three directed by Nick Grinde. Continue reading

The Man They Could Not Hang

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(5/10) In a nutshell: Boris Karloff shines as the lone star in his first of five mad scientist films for Columbia Pictures B-movie unit in 1939. Made on a shoestring budget this medical sci-fi turned old dark house revenge thriller is entertaining but unimaginative.

The Man They Could Not Hang. 1939, USA. Directed by Nick Grinde. Written by Karl Brown, George Wallace Sayre, Leslie T. White, Starring: Boris Karloff, Lorna Gray, Robert Wilcox, Roger Pryor, Don Debboe, Ann Doran, Joe De Stefani, Charkes Trowbridge. Produced by Wallace MacDonald for Universal. IMDb score: 6.8

Karloff and his artificial heart in The Man They Could Not Hang.

Karloff and his artificial heart in The Man They Could Not Hang.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) was the first of five sci-fi horror/mystery films Boris Karloff did for Columbia Pictures, and maybe the best – although that isn’t saying too much. By now Karloff was already deeply mired in the mad scientist bog, and the films he did after signing a five-film contract with Columbia were formulaic. His stubborn refusal to stay dead and buried on screen were by now the butt of jokes. As the New York Times’ critic Frank S. Nugent wrote in 1939:

If you don’t know Mr. Karloff by this time, we will explain: He is the man whose funerals are never final. You lay a wreath on Boris in one corner and he is certain to appear in another, full of obscure, graveyard resentment, sworn to get you, if it’s the last thing he does.

/…/

If he didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him, if only to strengthen our faith in the essential indestructibility of the human breed. Continue reading

The Son of Frankenstein

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Bela Lugosi’s Ygor is the best thing to come out of the Universal horror stable since The Bride of Frankenstein, but unfortunately the rest of The Son of Frankenstein isn’t really up to the same standard as its predecessors. The expressionistic style is stunning and the acting good across the board, with team members Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill and Basil Rathbone joining forces with Lugosi. But we mourn the reduction of Frankenstein’s monster to a mute, brute prop.

The Son of Frankenstein. Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Wyllis Cooper, Rowland V. Lee (uncredited). Inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Donnie Dunagan. Produced for Universal. Tomatometer: 89 %. IMDb score: 7.2

Karloff in close-up in Son of Frankenstein.

Karloff in close-up in Son of Frankenstein.

Son of Frankenstein (1939) was the Universal smash hit that wasn’t supposed to be made. In fact, Universal didn’t release any horror films in 1937 or 1938, mainly because of pressure from the PCA, Production Code Administration, set up in 1934 to enforce the infamous Hays code on the US film industry. But happy coincidences and a new-found confidence in the genre made this semi-classic a reality, and once again kicked off a horror-fest in the States. Continue reading

The Man Who Changed His Mind

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(7/10) In a nutshell: This rare British sci-fi horror film from 1936 is a tad formulaic, as it rides on Boris Karloff’s mad scientist fame, but it is certainly better written, acted and directed than the abysmal Columbia films he would get stuck in later. Great actors and a very witty dialogue help Karloff do one of his best film appearances.

The Man Who Changed His Mind. 1936, UK. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Written by John L. Balderston, Sidney Gilliat, L. du Garde Peach. Starring: Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, John Loder, Frank Cellier, Donald Calthrop, Cecil Parker. Produced by Michael Balconfor Gainsborough Pictures. IMDb score: 6.7

Anna Lee and Boris Karloff are outstanding in the 1936 mad scientist film The Man Who Changed His Mind.

Anna Lee and Boris Karloff are outstanding in the 1936 mad scientist film The Man Who Changed His Mind.

As the American mad scientist films slowly waned in quality, and Universal shut down their horror film production for at few years, the Brits came to the rescue with The Man Who Changed His Mind (released as The Man Who Lived Again in the US). The filming saw Boris Karloff back home in Britain for the first time after his tremendous success with Frankenstein (1931, review), and the change of scenery seems to have done him good, as he delivers one of his best performances, surrounded by a superb co-cast and working from a fast-paced, funny and witty script. Continue reading

The Invisible Ray

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(5/10) In a nutshell: The last of Universal’s classic horror sci-fi films before the ousting of studio boss Carl Laemmle Jr. The Invisible Ray boasted both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in an uneven, but fairly well made and very entertaining death ray film. Lugosi is seen in a rare heroic role, and Karloff is typecast as a mad scientist. Oh, and human organisms are only part of astro-chemistry controlled by forces from the sun, you know.

The Invisible Ray (1936). Directed by Lambert Hillyer. Written by John Colton. Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi. Produced by Edmund S. Granger for Universal. Tomatometer: 89 %. IMDb score: 6.7

The not always very dynamic duo of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in The Invisible Ray from 1936 - along with the ray cannon.

The not always very dynamic duo of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in The Invisible Ray from 1936 – along with the ray cannon.

In 1936 we were reaching ”peak mad scientist”, inasmuch as the subgenre’s films in the United States were gradually diminshing in quality, and after flirting with A-films, were now deeply mired in the bad B-movie bog. About two thirds of the mad scientist films churned out by studios in the coming years would be held together simply by casting Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi as the villain. But The Invisible Ray still managed to cling to some originality, and can in retrospect be seen as one of the standard bearers for the death ray subgenre, not generally known for producing quality films. Continue reading

The Walking Dead

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(5/10) In a nutshell: No, this has nothing to do with the TV-series. This is a 1936 mashup of gangster films and sci-fi horror films by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, starring Boris Karloff in yet another Frankensteinean role. But despite the derivative scenes and the flimsy script, Curtiz and Karloff make this a surprisingly stylish and human effort.

The Walking Dead. 1936, USA. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Ewart Anderson, Peter Milne, Robert Hardy Andrews, Lillie Hayward, Joseph Fields. Starring: Boris Karloff, Ricardo Cortez, Edmund Gwenn, Marguerite Churchill, Warren Hull. Produced by Louis F. Edelman for Warner Bros. IMDb score: 6.7

Boris Karloff as the resurrected pianist John Ellman confronts his killers.

Boris Karloff as the resurrected pianist John Ellman confronts his killers.

There is little doubt that Boris Karloff is by a long shot the actor that has risen from the dead the most times in cinema history. By 1936 this was already a trademark. Although a highly regarded actor for most of his later life, the years bewteen 1931 and 1936 can perhaps be called something of a golden age for the British expat. It was in this time he helped define the American horror genre with films like Frankenstein (1931, review), The Old Dark House, The Mummy, The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), The Ghoul (1933), The Black Cat (1934), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review) and The Invisible Ray (1936, review). But by 1936 he was also – despite stops on gangster films like Scarface (1932) and period dramas like The House of Rothschild (1934) – deeply stuck as a typecast actor. And by 1936 everybody wanted a piece of the Karloff magic, including Warner, a that put out cheap gangster flicks at the same speed that Universal churned out horror films. Continue reading