Concluding our eclectic selection of Boris Karloff credits from the Bradley Video Library catalog…
The Devil Commands (1941): HUAC name-dropper Edward Dmytryk directed this misleadingly titled coda to Karloff’s “Mad Doctor” series (see The Ape in our previous installment). Based on William Sloane’s novel The Edge of Running Water, it concerns a scientist who establishes that human brain waves can be recorded, and are unique (like fingerprints), just before his wife is killed in a car crash. When Boris’s machinery picks up her distinctive waves after death, he launches an all-out effort to contact her spirit beyond the grave, and is immediately dismissed as a nut-job by his colleagues, daughter, and associate/future son-in-law. So he sets up shop in an isolated cliff-top mansion, joined by a shady spiritualist, a snooping housekeeper, and an employee whose brain was partially cooked by a previous experiment. Although strictly speaking science fiction, this programmer is filmed in a gothic-horror manner, complete with Dark Shadows-style narration by the daughter—who, alas, probably could not have known about some of the events she relates. Sadly, Boris’s habit of stealing corpses from the local boneyard (since for some odd reason he needs to have dead people hooked up to his gizmo in order to contact other ones) draws the attention of the sheriff, with predictable results.
Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947): An utterly routine (albeit mercifully brief) comic-strip programmer, notable only for the presence of Karloff as the titular villain.
Thriller (1960-62): Having already covered this series in some detail, I’ll merely enumerate a few highlights besides “The Return of Andrew Bentley,” adapted by Richard Matheson from the short story by H.P. Lovecraft protégé August Derleth and Mark Schorer. They include the atmospheric “Pigeons from Hell,” also directed by John Newland and based on a story by Conan creator Robert E. Howard; four other episodes based on stories by Derleth, written either with Schorer (“The Incredible Doktor Markeson,” an especially creepy episode in which Karloff stars as well as hosts) or without (“Mr. George,” “Trio for Terror,” “A Wig for Miss Devore”), sometimes using his Stephen Grendon pseudonym; an adaptation of Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” also with Boris; three based on works by Cornell Woolrich (“Guillotine” [adapted by Charles Beaumont], “Papa Benjamin,” “Late Date”); Beaumont’s other, inferior episode, “Girl With a Secret”; and a whopping ten written and/or based on works by Robert Bloch (“The Cheaters,” “The Grim Reaper” [starring William Shatner], “The Devil’s Ticket,” “The Weird Tailor,” “Waxworks,” “The Hungry Glass” [also with Shatner], “’Til Death Do Us Part,” “A Good Imagination,” “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” “Man of Mystery”), two of which were remade in his Amicus anthology films.
The Raven (1963): Extrapolating from “The Black Cat,” the successful comic segment of their Poe anthology film Tales of Terror, director Roger Corman and screenwriter Matheson went all-out in this comedy; Matheson left the series afterward, saying he couldn’t take the films seriously any more. Featuring Peter Lorre in the title role, Karloff (appearing in his second film allegedly based on Poe’s poem) bemused by Lorre’s ad-libs, the obligatory Vincent Price, the heavenly Hazel Court (who rejoined Corman and Price on Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death the next year), and a very young Jack Nicholson as the dubious—in every sense—hero, Rexford.
The Comedy of Terrors (1963): Written by Matheson and directed by Val Lewton alumnus Jacques Tourneur, this is a black comedy about unscrupulous undertakers who drum up business the hard way, with veteran horror stars Price, Lorre, Karloff, and—carried over from Tales of Terror—Basil Rathbone. Originally slated to play the more athletic role of Price’s acerbic landlord, which ultimately went to the ironically older Rathbone, Karloff has a hilarious scene in which he delivers a rambling funeral oration, complete with every imaginable synonym for the word “coffin.”
I Tre Volti della Paura (The Three Faces of Fear, aka Black Sabbath; 1963): Again, I won’t belabor this anthology horror film, having discussed it in multiple posts devoted to director Mario Bava, but it would be a shame to omit it. As with Thriller, Karloff hosts and stars in one segment, effectively playing a Russian vampire opposite Mark (House of Usher) Damon in “The Wurdalak.” Sadly, you won’t hear his voice in the uncut Italian version, only in the one re-edited by the film’s co-producer and U.S. distributor, AIP. The other segments are “The Drop of Water,” as a ghost reclaims a ring stolen by a greedy woman, and “The Telephone,” in which a girl is stalked by her ex-lover.
The Sorcerers (1967): One of three films (the others being La Sorella di Satana and Witchfinder General) on which the reputation of Michael Reeves rests; his early death of an alcohol and drug overdose ensured a kind of James Dean fame for the British director. Karloff and Catherine Lacey star as an elderly couple who invent a machine with which they can share the sensations of, and ultimately control the actions of, a disaffected youth played by Reeves’s perennial lead, Ian Ogilvy.
La Camara del Terror (The Fear Chamber, 1968): One of four Mexican horror films for which Karloff shot footage (in L.A., I believe) shortly before his death; behind-the-scenes machinations altered some of the resulting pictures from their original conceptions. Hard to imagine what they had in mind for this one, which as it stands is an incoherent mishmash about scientists using blood from frightened girls to fire up a living, power-hungry rock. At least, I think that’s what it’s about…
Targets (1968): Peter Bogdanovich’s first and probably best film (I’m not a fan; it’s mercifully unlike his other work), this stars Karloff as an aging actor who feels his Hollywood horrors can no longer compete with real life, and Bogdanovich as a young guy who chats up oldtime filmmakers (quite a stretch for both!). Proving his point, a seemingly mild-mannered young man suddenly goes on a killing spree, eventually konfronting Karloff (sorry, too much Famous Monsters of Filmland in my youth) at a drive-in screening of one of his films—in reality, The Terror, made by Pete’s sometime mentor, Corman.
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