Universal Terror | A Boris Karloff triple bill on Blu-ray
From Eureka Entertainment comes Universal Terror: Karloff in Night Key, The Climax, The Black Castle on Blu-ray in the UK as a part of the Eureka Classics range (available from 18 July 2022). Frankly, I would have called this Karloff at Universal to tie in with Eureka’s previous Karloff box-set, and like that release, it’s a mixed bag, but so worth adding to your Karloff collection – especially as it comes with a booklet featuring new essays from Karloff biographer Stephen Jacobs.
By far the best of the bunch is Night Key, a cracking crime thriller from 1937 directed by actor/screenwriter Lloyd Corrigan. Karloff plays Dave Mallory, an inventor who stages a series of break-ins of stores protected by his former partner’s burglar alarm company. He wants to prove the effectiveness of his new electronic system, but a gang of crooks get wise and kidnap Mallory so they can use his invention to commit robberies.
Well-paced and acted, with a touch of noir added to the proceedings, Night Key is fun, fast and a great showcase for Karloff. Here he ditches his menacing persona to play a sweet soft-spoken grandfather type. It was also the last film in which he was billed by only his last name. Watch out for some John P Fulton effects when Karloff takes on his captors with some high voltage electric rays.
1944’s The Climax was Karloff’s first colour film. Producer-director George Waggner wanted to repeat his previous success of 1943’s Phantom of the Opera and had envisaged a sequel that reunited the original stars. But when Claude Rains became unavailable, Waggner decided on remaking the 1930 talkie, The Climax, based on Edward Locke’s popular 1909 play.
Karloff is back playing a villain (actually a secondary character in the original play). His Dr Hohner is the house physician at an Austrian opera house, whose insane jealousy drives him to murder. Ten years after the mysterious disappearance of his opera star wife, Marcellina (he killed her, of course, and has her body enshrined in the basement of his mansion), Hohner learns a new arrival called Angela (Foster) will take on Marcellina’s signature role. Enraged, he uses hypnotism to make Angela believe she can never sing again.
Now I really wanted to like The Climax, but I struggled. The music is really screechy (and I’m not a fan of opera anyway), and the plot sidetracks big time from Karloff’s madman antics to some boring romantic goings-on between Angela and her fiancé Franz (Turhan Bey). Criminally, the ever-reliable Gale Sondergaard, who plays Karloff’s housekeeper, is totally underused until the final reel. On the plus side, the film is lavishly shot (and scored a Best Art Director Oscar nomination), and the musical numbers are a camp delight (costume and stage setting wise). Plus, you get to see a lot of Universal’s opera house set for 1925’s Phantom of the Opera. On a trivia note, director Waggner went on to helm some of the best TV shows of the 1960s, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Batman.
In between making two Abbott and Costello farces and the 1951 horror The Strange Door (why isn’t it included here?), Karloff found himself in the 1952 Gothic horror The Black Castle. Future TV Robin Hood, Richard Greene, plays an 18th-century English adventurer who is about to be buried alive by the vengeful Count von Bruno (Stephen McNally) as the film opens. A flashback then reveals how he came by such an awful predicament. Joining Greene and McNally in this Black Forest set programmer is Lon Chaney Jr as a mute, scarred henchman; John Hoyt and Michael Pate as a pair of murderous noblemen; Paula Corday as von Bruno’s abused wife; and Karloff as the castle physician.
The Black Castle was one the very last of Univeral’s period costumers before it turned all sci-fi. While more a period adventure than a ghoulish chiller, it boasts atmospheric sets and effective low-key lighting to give it that classic Universal horror touch. Karloff gets an interesting role where you just don’t know whose side he’s really on. McNally, meanwhile, overacts as the villain, while Chaney makes up for not having any dialogue but chewing the scenery with his facial expressions. Michael Pate, who also appeared alongside Karloff in The Strange Door, would go on to play opposite another horror great, Vincent Price, in 1962’s The Tower of London.
SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
• Limited Edition slipcase
• 1080p presentation of all three films across two Blu-ray discs
• Night Key and The Black Castle presented from 2K scans of fine grain film elements
• The Climax presented from a 2K scan of the interpositive
• Optional English SDH
• Audio commentaries on Night Key and The Climax with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby
• Audio commentary on The Black Castle with authors Stephen Jones and Kim Newman
• Stills Galleries
• Booklet featuring new writing by Stephen Jacobs (author of Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster)