The three (other) faces of Boris Karloff
If you only know Boris Karloff from the ‘Frankenstein’ movies or ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas,’ the Warner Archive Collection has a new DVD that shows the horror icon in a different light.
When you say, hear, or think of the name Boris Karloff, you immediately think of his classic Universal monster movies: Frankenstein (where he was billed as “?”), The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Mummy. You surely know his voice as the narrator of the Christmas classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas or as the Baron in Mad Monster Party, as the host of the anthology series Thriller, or as the co-star of the notoriously muddled The Terror starring Jack Nicholson. He made a series of thrillers at Columbia, worked with Roger Corman, Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre, and appeared on such TV shows as The Wild, Wild West, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. and The Name of the Game.
But after his success at Universal, Karloff moved over to Warner Brothers for a brief period of time to participate in three films that stretch the meaning of the words “feature length.” Perhaps hoping to break out of the horror cycle Universal had become famous for, Karloff was cast in three films of varying quality that allowed him to showcase his versatility. Now, thanks to the Warner Archive Collection, these mostly forgotten films are available on a new DVD collection, Boris Karloff Triple Feature. With running times averaging about an hour each, the Archive Collection has easily fit three films onto a single DVD for your viewing pleasure.
The lead film on the set is probably the least successful of the three, 1937’s West of Shanghai. Yes, that is Karloff in makeup even more frightening than that of the Frankenstein Monster. Of course, this was an age when white actors were cast in lead roles as Asians and no one batted an eye (and to its credit, the film does feature actual Asian actors in most of the supporting roles), but that makeup is just too much. Unfortunately, it makes him look more cross-eyed than Asian. The plot is a bit of a mess: Karloff stars as Chinese warlord Wu Ten Fang in what is actually an adaptation of the Western The Bad Man. Fang steps in to get involved in control of an oil field that two rival companies are fighting over. There’s also a bit of a murder mystery, a romantic triangle, and the confusing question of Fang’s character. Is he a bad guy, a good guy or just misunderstood? The trailer, the only extra included on the DVD, paints him as a true villain, but he never really comes across that way in the movie. Of the three movies on the DVD, this is the one I would be least likely to watch again.
1939’s Devil’s Island stars Karloff as French brain surgeon Charles Gaudet, wrongly accused of aiding and abetting an escapee from the notorious Devil’s Island prison; a man whom Gaudet testified for in court as not being guilty of his crimes because of a brain disorder. After being shot, the convict’s henchmen contact Gaudet to help him, but the man dies while Gaudet is on trial, taking his only defense to the grave. Gaudet is sentenced to hard labor on Devil’s Island, and after he and a group of fellow inmates are sentenced to death for the assault of a guard, the warden’s daughter is injured in an accident, and only one man can save her life. Gaudet makes a deal to spare the men in exchange for his help, but when the warden goes back on his deal, his own wife aids Gaudet and his men in a daring escape.
Devils’ Island afforded Karloff the opportunity to play a very sympathetic character, and you truly feel for him as he stands in the kangaroo court full of prosecutors looking to hang the original escape plan on Gaudet simply because he did his duty as a doctor. Once imprisoned, Gaudet becomes a bit more hardened, willing to let a child die if his demands aren’t met. Karloff gives a wonderful performance amidst a sea of caricatures (the warden could practically twirl his mustache, for example), and it’s nice to see a strong female character in a film like this. It’s still not a real classic, but it is worth checking out.
My favorite film in the collection is 1938’s The Invisible Menace. What looks to be some sort of war movie turns out to be more of an Agatha Christie style whodunit, sort of like Ten Little Indians, with a group of people on an island, a murder, and everyone is a suspect. Karloff’s ex-con, with his shock of white hair, is the main suspect when it’s discovered the victim had framed him for another crime. No one else has an alibi as they all seem to have been in their quarters alone, reading. There is also a newly wed couple trying to lay low (no women are allowed on the island after dark), but get tangled up in the plot as the only real witnesses to the crime. What sets The Invisible Menace apart from the other two films is the humor in the situations. When everyone says they were alone and reading, it is a funny moment but most of the laughs come from the newlyweds who just want a little privacy, but keep ending up in the middle of things. Karloff, again, does an excellent job of portraying a character who seems menacing but has more than one facet to his character. Of the three movies in the collection, The Invisible Menace is the most watchable and re-watchable.
The three movies on the DVD have not been remastered, and the quality varies from very good to passable. All of them have visible scratches, dust and blotches, but nothing really intrusive to ruin the viewing experience. Audio quality is very acceptable. If you’re a fan of Karloff or classic movies, this collection is definitely worth checking out … for at least two of the three movies. The DVD is available directly from the Warner Archives or from Amazon.com (link below).
This review was based on a retail copy of the Boris Karloff Triple Feature DVD provided to CliqueClack from the Warner Archive Collection.