The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
July–September 2001, Issue #4

Karloff Delivers In Two Underappreciated B Classics  

Justin Felix

In his classic 1976 work on horror icons, The Horror People, John Brosnan suggests that, during the final years of Boris Karloff’s life, very few of his films were of any particular note. Indeed, after making Black Sabbath, Brosnan claims that “the only other film of importance that [Karloff] made was Targets” (1954). He neglects, like several other authors, many of Karloff’s films from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and this is a shame. Two such films—Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood—have been available on DVD from Image Entertainment for a couple years now. For Karloff fans, these two films, both directed by Robert Day and featuring a historical British setting, are definitely worth checking out—although one is far superior to the other.

The first film, Haunted Strangler (1957), begins interestingly enough with the hanging of a murderer (later found to be innocent) with the obligatory cheering of a peasant audience. We’re told that the setting is Newgate Prison, 1860, and in a clever pan shot of a legal archive, discover that this film occurs in the same era as Jack the Ripper. After this effective opening, we fast forward twenty years and meet Karloff’s character, a kindly social reformer who wants to revamp the criminal justice system, especially when it comes to murder cases. He’s particularly obsessed with a case involving Edward Styles, the man hanged at the beginning of the film. Styles, he notes, did not have the money for an adequate defense, and he’s convinced Styles is innocent. Karloff has an assistant, Ken McCall, interested in the new field of Psychological Medicine. A dashing young man, Ken is in love with Karloff’s adopted daughter, and the usual love story serves as a subplot.

Anyway, it’s no real surprise to discover, about a third of the way into the film, that Karloff, not Styles, was really the killer from 20 years ago. I’m not spoiling this shocker for anyone who hasn’t seen Haunted Strangler—indeed the DVD cover, apparently a reproduction of the original movie poster, clearly shows Karloff with a grotesque facial expression leering at a shocked, busty girl. The tag line at the top reads “KING OF THE MONSTERS!” Karloff may indeed be the king of the monsters, but this “monster” is not one of his best; the film flounders after the discovery.

Haunted Strangler owes its premise to Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Karloff is this sweet old family man one moment, and then he messes up his hair, shuts one eye, curls his lip to expose some teeth, and pretends to have a limp arm the next moment, all to demonstrate that he is now a mad slasher. It should be noted here that Karloff not only strangles his victims, as the title suggests, but also slashes them with a scalpel. Amazingly, though, this produces little or no blood. This does not provide any real horror, unfortunately, even though the setup is delivered very effectively. Karloff is quite good in his kindly “Jekyll” persona, and some settings, including a graveyard exhumation, are done with style and class. Regrettably, Karloff’s “Hyde” persona doesn’t pass muster. This, combined with intensely annoying dance sequences in a house of ill repute called the Judas Hole, lead the last two thirds of the film lacking. Still, you’ve got to respect a killer willing to murder a woman with the name of “Martha Stewart.”

The second film, Corridors of Blood (1958), is a far more satisfying, if a bit morbid, vehicle for Karloff. Indeed, I would venture to argue that this is one of Karloff’s best non-Universal horror films. [As a side note, shock rocker Rob Zombie wrote a song about this film, entitled “The Ballad of Resurrection Joe and Rosa Whore,” for his solo album Hellbilly Deluxe.] Corridors of Blood shares many things in common with Haunted Strangler. The setting, for instance, is roughly the same. In Corridors, we’re told at the beginning that it’s “London, 1840, before the discovery of anaesthesis.” Karloff again plays a kindly old man—this time he’s Doctor Bolton, a physician seeking a way to practice surgery without pain. To emphasize his desire to find a way to make his patients numb to the scalpel, the movie eerily begins with the tolling of bell announcing an unpleasant leg amputation at an operating theater. The doctors’ refrain “pain and the knife are inseparable” is repeated quite effectively as a coda throughout. To further emphasize Dr. Bolton’s benevolent character (and gain the audience’s sympathy), every Tuesday afternoon he offers his services for free to the poor at an office in the Seven Dials. He is also, once again, a family man—he has a pretty niece, Susan,who has a romantic interest in his son, Jonathan, a subplot that may seem odd to today’s audience.

Unlike Haunted Strangler, however, Dr. Bolton’s “downfall” in Corridors of Blood is much more convincing and horrifying. Experimenting upon himself, Bolton becomes addicted to the drugs he’s studying. Karloff pulls off his character’s spiraling drug addiction very well, especially considering that when this film was made he was already in his 70s, making the physical performance seem even more noteworthy. Dr. Bolton becomes increasingly irrational and unable to perform his duties. He unwittingly involves himself in a particularly nefarious illegal corpse trade with the likes of Resurrection Joe (an early horror film appearance by the great Christopher Lee) and Ned the Crow. They murder transients in their sleep, he signs forged death certificates claiming natural causes, and the hospital pays for the corpses in order to experiment upon them.

As I said, this film is rather morbid at times, but it is also very stylish and offers some fine performances from its lead and supporting actors. The movie also ends with a nice scene showing that Karloff’s vision of painless surgery does finally come to be a reality.

I’d certainly recommend Corridors of Blood to the horror film fan and Haunted Strangler to, at least, the Karloff fan. These two films are worth the watch and deserve more attention from critics. Image Entertainment’s DVD releases of these two films are certainly respectable. The image is surprisingly clear on both, and the sound quality is acceptable for films from this time period. Perhaps my only qualm about the DVDs are the fact that there are very few extra features, outside of the usual scene access menu and theatrical trailer. I’ve owned both DVDs for about a year now, however, and I’ve found myself “digging them up” (pardon the pun) again and again, which is the best test for a DVD I have.

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Justin Felix is an English teacher, and a big fan of horror films. He resides in Clarion, Pennsylvania.

Copyright © 2001 by the author. All rights reserved.