Directors: Roy William Neill, Nick Grinde, Lew Landers
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

This 2006 Halloween season has proven to be a real treat for fans of 1930s and 1940s classic horror cinema, as three of the major DVD studios have reached deep into their vaults to accommodate discerning genre aficianados: Warner has released its wonderful HOLLYWOOD LEGENDS OF HORROR; Universal has issued not only all six of Lon Chaney's 1940s INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES, but they've also given us their own BORIS KARLOFF COLLECTION as well. And now, not to be outdone, Sony Pictures does the iconic British actor proud themselves by releasing four more of Boris' most eagerly anticipated films! The ICONS OF HORROR COLLECTION: BORIS KARLOFF brings to DVD a quartet of enjoyable features which Karloff made for Columbia studios between 1935 and 1942. In some ways, Sony's release exceeds Universal's own "Karloff Collection" in terms of "quality" movies which all feature Boris more at the focal point of the proceedings.

1935's THE BLACK ROOM is the first and undoubtedly best of this collection and also remains one of Boris' finest triumphs as an actor. It's a period piece set in 1834 Budapest, with Karloff in an excellent dual performance as a pair of identical twin brothers. Ever since they were born to the house of Berghman, a terrible curse has hung over both their heads - it has been declared through an old prophecy that the younger brother will murder the older in what is known in the castle as "The Black Room". Upon the death of their father, the youngest brother, Anton, tries to avoid the dreaded prophecy by leaving Hungary for twenty years while the older, Gregor, becomes the new baron. But as a ruler, Gregor is an evil tyrant who is hated and feared by the peasants whom he abuses. When it appears that the people may take the law into their own hands and dispose of him, Gregor invites his younger brother Anton back home, and Colonel Hassel (Thurston Hall) accompanies Anton to the baron's castle. Anton is by contrast the complete opposite of his wicked sibling, a kind gentleman by nature, despite being born with the burden of a paralyzed right arm. Unbeknownst to Anton, Gregor has sinister intentions planned, and part of his brother's scheme is to make the colonel's lovely niece (played by SVENGALI's Marian Marsh) marry him. With poignant music, a magnificent double (actually triple!) performance from Boris, as well as a strong directing job by Roy William Neill, this is an excellent film which stands up to the very best work Karloff did over at Universal from this period. This is a movie not to be overlooked if you're a fan of Boris Karloff, and the purchase of this set is worth it for THE BLACK ROOM alone.

THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939) is the first of a few films in the Columbia canon which have been dubbed Karloff's "Mad Doctor Series". Directed by Nick Grinde, here we have Boris as the well-meaning Dr. Savaard, who has developed a method for restoring the dead back to life by temporarily stopping their hearts, which may then allow surgeons to more successfully operate on their patients before bringing them back. Unfortunately, when the local police burst into his laboratory as he is working on his first volunteer, he is accused of murder and is then sentenced to be hanged. But after the execution is carried out, Savaard returns via his own procedure and then seeks revenge on the judge and jurors who convicted him. Karloff is at his menacing best in one of the more fulfilling horrors of this collection.

Much in the same vein is the Grinde-directed BEFORE I HANG (1940), where Karloff would begin to repeat what might be considered the same part again and again. As the elderly Dr. Garth, Boris is developing a serum which he hopes may preserve life. He's been convicted of the mercy killing of a terminally sick friend (would that make Karloff the first Dr. Jack Kevorkian?) but yet is allowed to continue his experiments while on death row with the aid of prison physician Dr. Miller (DRACULA's Edward Van Sloan). Garth decides to use himself as a guinea pig and injects himself with a serum made with the blood of a known murderer. The kindly doctor is subsequently pardoned from his crime, and the end result of his experiment produces the amazing effect of turning him into a much younger man. He has now inadvertently reversed the aging process, but the tainted formula has one slight side effect: it periodically turns Dr. Garth into a homicidal killer who is seized with the urge to strangle his victims.

THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942) makes its home video debut here for the first time in any format. It's a welcome change from the other movies in this collection, and a fun way to cap things off. A light-hearted black comedy probably inspired by ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, Boris seems to be having a good time here spoofing his own mad doctor image. As a kindly (but naive) old inventor, the wacky Karloff wants to "aid the war effort" by creating his own homegrown superman. Boris teams up in this one with the offbeat Peter Lorre as another "scientist" and "jack of all trades" to bop unsuspecting subjects over the head for use in their daffy experiments. One of their dimwitted victims is even Max "Slapsie Maxie" Rosenbloom. Karloff and Lorre make a good comical duo in the first of a few films where they'd eventually share the spotlight together, and there are some light chuckles to be had in this good natured, if uneven, diversion.

It's certainly thrilling to have all of Boris Karloff's Columbia films together in one collection - well, that is, almost all of them. Because in actuality there are two other choice films in the Columbia "Mad Doctor" series which Sony previously released on their own within the last few years as an apparent effort to test the waters. These would be THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES (1940) and THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941). For the sake of completeness I would have liked very much to have these two vital features also added to this special collector's edition, as this is really an incomplete set as it now stands. Instead, collectors who wish to own ALL SIX of Boris Karloff's Columbia horrors output must seek the other two DVDs out on their own. It's a pity, as Sony has done an attractive job here of presenting their four BORIS KARLOFF COLLECTION titles on two discs, with two movies on each, encased in clear slimcases and including really nice double feature artwork.

Quality-wise, THE BLACK ROOM looks the best, and thankfully so. It's extremely sharp and detailed with nice contrasts and practically no scratches or marks to be seen. Both THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG and BEFORE I HANG aren't quite as nice, and occasionally suffer from marks, specks, scratches or blemishes which come and go. Those two seem to be taken straight from the source used for their VHS counterparts of the mid-1980s. Truthfully, it is very unlikely that the trouble would ever be taken to make them look any better, and despite some occasional imperfections, the image is still clear and sharp, with good contrast. At first glance, the visuals of THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU seem to be a tad dark after watching the other three films, but otherwise is in pretty good shape. All of these movies do have very good sound that's crisp and clean. The movies are all presented in their original aspect ratios of 1.33:1. There are no extras at all, and the menus are very generic with no opportunity for chapter stops. English subtitles are provided.

For a SLP of $24.96 (just about the price of THE DEVIIL COMMANDS alone when it was first released by itself) this four-film set is an easy no-brainer for Boris Karloff fans. It's great to have these on DVD at last, and with the heading of "Icons of Horror" on the front cover, we can only hope that this might be an indication that Sony has some more vintage horror films up their sleeves for future release in this series (Hammer Horrors, anyone?).
(Joe Karlosi)