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

The Bride of Frankenstein

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(9/10) In a nutshell: With Bride of Frankenstein James Whale created the greatest of all Universal horror films. Superb acting, great casting, a script that balances between drama, horror and campy humour, all rounded up with fluid, expressionistic filmmaking and Soviet-styled montage editing. All this, plus the marvellous Elsa Lanchester as the Bride, Boris Karloff in high form, and a chilly, funny, scary Ernest Thesiger. Greatness abounds, but thematically the film is a bit sloppy. 

The Bride of Frankenstein. 1935, USA. Directed by James Whale. Written by John L. Balderston, Edmund Pearson, William Hurlbut. Based on the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Valerie Hobson, Elsa Lanchester, O.P. Heggie, Una O’Connor, Dwight Frye, John Carradine.  Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 7.9

The superb Elsa Lanchester in her most iconic role as the Bride of Frankenstein.

The superb Elsa Lanchester in her most iconic role as the Bride of Frankenstein.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is one of those films that has been analysed into shreds, so that the legacy of the film somehow overshadows the film itself, very much like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It is one of those rare horror films that even reviewers not generally infatuated with genre films like to promote to the same status as groundbreaking works like Battleship Potemkin (1925) or Citizen Kane (1941) – or at least that is the sense that one sometimes gets from people who are adamant that Bride is one of the most important films in American cinematic history (an interesting notion as most of the key personnel were British). Although it is true that along with Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls (1933, review) this Universal classic is the finest of the American horror films of the thirties, some of its reputation stems from the fact that people like to read topics between the lines that simply aren’t there. Continue reading

Frankenstein

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(8/10) In a nutshell: James Whale’s seminal Frankenstein (1931) is a far cry from Mary Shelley’s novel, and it is marred by some stiff acting and a low budget. But it is still a visual work of art, and a film that in many ways became the benchmark for American horror sfi-fi pictures for years to come, and the duo of Colin Clive and Boris Karloff as the mad scientist and his monster is part of our cultural legacy.

Frankenstein. 1931, USA. Directed by James Whale. Written by Francis Edward Farragoh, Garrett Fort, Robert Florey (uncredited), John Russell (uncredited), based on the play by Peggy Webling, John L. Balderston, in turn based on the play Presumption by Richard Brinsley Peake (uncredited), based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward van Sloan, Dwight Frye. Cinematography: Arthur Edeson. Make-up: Jack Pierce. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 8.0

The great Boris Karloff (William Henry Pratt) in chains as The Monster in Frankenstein from 1931.

The great Boris Karloff (William Henry Pratt) in chains as The Monster in Frankenstein from 1931.

Tod Browning’s Dracula, featuring a Bela Lugosi that would forever be ingrained in our minds as the dark count of the undead, was Universal’s first horror picture in sound. It was also the film that started the golden age of the studio’s horror franchise. But the ultimate film that would define the genre was Frankenstein. Both films were released in 1931, and gave birth to a torrent of horror – and science fiction – films, that has never fully ran dry. Frankenstein was the film that cemented the dark, expressionist gothic style of future American horror films, it was the film that defined the mad scientist, and of course introduced film history’s most recognizable monster in the form of the heavily made-up Boris Karloff. Today it is often overshadowed by director James Whale’s 1935 sequel Bride of Frankenstien (review), that is in many ways a superior film, and a true American classic. It is certainly true that Frankenstein is somewhat hampered by some wooden acting, an illogical and seemingly jumbled script and a fairly tight budget. But the beautiful, suspenseful and innovative visual style of Whale, and the multi-layered and ultimately sympathetic portrait that Whale and Karloff create for the Creature make up for the film’s shortcomings, and it is certainly well deserved of its place among the immortal pieces of art that make up the backbone of much of our cultural heritage. Continue reading