Boris Karloff Triple Review

This DVD comprises three films Boris Karloff made at Universal during the 1930s, two of them in partnership with Bela Lugosi.

The Black Cat (1934) is “suggested” by the Edgar Allan Poe story, but in reality has nothing to do with it. A black cat does make a few brief appearances to justify the title, and in one scene Lugosi throws a knife at it. Newlyweds Joan and Peter Allison (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners) meet Dr Vitus Verdegast (Lugosi). On the way to the hotel, their bus crashes and Joan is injured. They take refuge in a house belonging to Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff)… An absurd plot is treated in high style by B-movie king Edgar G. Ulmer, including a flaying, a Black Mass made up of phrases from a Latin textbook (“Cum grano salis, cave canem” and so on) and an uncredited bit part from John Carradine.

The packaging states that the DVD includes the 1963 version of The Raven (which does feature Karloff) but this is incorrect: it’s the 1935 version, again co-starring Lugosi. Although Karloff – billed, as he was in The Black Cat, with just his surname – is first in the credits, it’s actually Lugosi who has the leading role. The story, which again has little to do with Poe, falls into three acts. Act One involves dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), who is injured in a car crash in the opening scene. Her father (Samuel S. Hinds) persuades brilliant but retired surgeon Richard Vollin (Lugosi) to make her walk again. The second act introduces Edmond Bateman (Karloff), a man who asks Vollin to change his appearance. Both stories coincide in the final act, which features a couple of Poe-derived tortures: the pendulum and the room with the crushing walls. It’s in this film that you see what made Lugosi and Karloff such a good double-act. They’re almost like a perverse couple. Lugosi, quoting great chunks of Poe and cackling manically, is the sadist. A limited actor to say the least, he found his niche with roles like this. On the other hand, Karloff plays the masochist of the partnership. A much subtler actor, he had a gift for bringing out the pathos in broken, monstrous men. He brings a grave dignity to his roles, despite fates that include flaying, bodily mutilation and burial alive.

Karloff solo is the title character of The Mummy (1932). He plays Imhotep who, in ancient Egypt, was buried alive for falling in love with a beautiful princess. In the 1930s, an archaeological expedition finds his grave, complete with a scroll alleged to be able to bring Imhotep to life. One night, a young man in the expedition reads out the scroll and, in his famous words, Imhotep “goes for a little walk”. Disguised as a modern Egyptian, Ardath Bey, Imhotep travels to London in search of his lost love, now reincarnated as socialite Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann). Director Karl Freund had begun his career as a distinguished cinematographer, and it’s no surprise that this film is stronger on atmosphere rather than storyline. As with the other two films you do have to make allowances for dated acting styles and creaky plot mechanics, but it’s that atmosphere which counts, and it’s still potent. If you can enter into the spirit of the piece it’s compelling and occasionally – particularly in Freund’s use of close-ups of Karloff – manages to be unnerving even more than seventy years later.

Three films on one dual-layer disc has to be good value by any standard. However, these are very short films. The first two barely satisfy the usual definition of a feature as an hour or more in length. The running times on this PAL DVD are 59:22, 59:11and 72:57. Compare that with the usually quoted cinema times of 65, 61 and 73, and it would seem that the three transfers have different origins. The time for The Raven is what you would expect given PAL speedup, but The Mummy matches the running time of the cinema print, which would indicate a DVD sourced from a NTSC original. The puzzle here is The Black Cat, which would seem to have around 2-3 minutes missing, assuming that the longer running time is correct.

All three films, like almost every other one of their time, were shot in Academy Ratio, which means the DVD transfers are full-frame. Anamorphic enhancement is neither desirable nor necessary. Probably lost to overscan on most TV sets but noticeable on my PC monitor is the fact that the framelines of The Mummy are very thin, with a thin sliver of the previous and next frames at the top and bottom of the screen. When sound was first introduced, the reduction in width of the frame due to the soundtrack made for a slightly narrower ratio than the 1.33:1 used in silent days, roughly 1.2:1. This was considered too close to a square to be aesthetically pleasing, so the framelines were thickened, slightly reducing the picture height and reproducing the old ratio (actually becoming 1.37:1, for some reason). I suspect, without confirming it, that The Mummy, made in 1932, predated this and should ideally be shown in 1.2:1, which would require a “windowboxed” transfer.

As for the picture quality…well, as this is a budget disc you can’t expect an elaborate Criterion-style restoration, and you don’t get one. The black-and-white pictures are rather lacking in contrast, so that light greys and white become one, likewise darker greys merge with blacks. There are also quite a few scratches and dust spots – in short, pretty much what you’d expect of films that are around seventy years old if we hadn’t been spoiled by expensive remasterings. If you’re not too fussy, it’s quite watchable.

The sound is single-channel mono, which is faithful to the original soundtracks. You have to make allowances for the fact that these three films were made in the first decade of talkies, so the soundtracks are very thin and lacking in dynamic range by today’s standards. There are no subtitles provided, which is a pity (especially given Lugosi’s thick Hungarian accent). You get five chapter stops per film. This is an unusual Magna Pacific disc in being region-free.

The only extra is a Karloff biography and filmography. It runs to twenty-five pages, the biographical part being the first three. It’s unexceptional compared to what you might find in the average reference book or at the IMDB.

This is a budget release which usually retails for A$9.95, which is less than four pounds sterling at the time of writing. To get three films at that price has to be a bargain, and for fans of vintage horror this disc has to be a must-buy at least until better (and probably more expensive) versions become available.

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