Columbia Pictures was never a major player in the horror genre, but in 1939 they signed Boris Karloff to what came to be known as his “Mad Doctor” series—though in truth most of his doctors were rarely all that mad. The Thursday Horror Picture Show is screening the first of the films, The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), and the last of them, The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942). The Man They Could Not Hang is one of the better films in the set. Karloff plays Dr. Henryk Savaard, a scientist who has invented an artificial heart. The experiment that will prove the device’s practicality unfortunately results in death when the recipient’s girlfriend butts in, resulting in Savaard being hanged for murder. Of course, his assistant (Byron Foulger) uses the heart to bring him back, but the Savaard who returns to life is an embittered man out to revenge himself on those who sent him to his death. The film then turns into an elaborate house party of murder. The Boogie Man Will Get You is a silly but enjoyable movie that was made to cash in on Karloff’s success on Broadway in Arsenic and Old Lace. That’s also why Peter Lorre is on board, since he’d just starred in the film version of the play (audiences of the time wouldn’t have known that, though, since that film didn’t come out till 1944 when the show finally closed). Karloff—later joined by Lorre—is a more-dotty-than-mad scientist out to create a superman to help the war effort, but the subjects have a tendency instead to wind up dead and tucked away in the cellar.
Of the two films The Man They Could Not Hang is both the better and the more interesting—from just about any angle. Nick Grinde (sometimes—as here—with an accent over the e) was never much of a name to conjure with as a director, but on occasion—mostly in movies that called for a spooky atmosphere—he could be pretty stylish. His first feature The Bishop Murder Case (1930) was one of those curious hybrid creations of the early sound era with one director for the actors and another for the camera (leave it to MGM to come up with that). Grinde was the camera or screen director and whatever else may be said about the film, he conjured up one of the creepiest looking non-horror movies ever. Much the same style appears here, but the results are also a lot slicker.
The film itself is something of a mix-and-match affair. The whole artifical heart business and Karloff being sentenced to death, hanged and brought back to life is original. Afrer that, however, it essentially turns into an uncredited remake of Roy William Neill’s The Ninth Guest (1934), which was itself based on The Invisible Host, a 1930 novel by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning. The basic concept of that—which predates Agatha Christie’s And Then There None by a decade—has a group of people being invited to a penthouse party where they find themselves trapped by an electrified door and blocked exits, while some unknown host (who might be one of them) bumps them off one at a time, describing the events to them over a radio speaker. The same happens here. The difference is it’s a house with an electrified door and boiler-plate over the windows—and, of course, we know who the killer is.
Borrowed concept and all, it works quite well, even though the mayhem doesn’t get all that far. Maybe it was enough that Karloff had killed off a number of lesser offender jurors—offscreen—before getting to the main event. The big questions are when he had the boiler-plate shutters installed and by whom and how did he explain them? And what about that electrified entryway and the trick telephone? Some things you just can’t call Home Depot for for instructions.
The Boogie Man Will Get You is not a movie to go to in search of much in the way of style. That’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen when Lew Landers is the director. When Landers—under the name of Louis Friedlander —made The Raven back in 1935, there were occasional flourishes of style, but for the most part he seems to have been of “Oh, it’s in the frame so it’s fine” school. That’s abundantly obvious here. Karloff has a pretty good—albeit budget-conscious—mad doctor lab, but Landers does nothing to show it off. The best you can say about the direction is that it’s not actualy inept.
The joys of the film—and there are some—come almost entirely from the interplay of Karloff and Lorre. Karloff’s Prof. Nathaniel Billings is one of his dotty old man creations. Not only is his experiment to create a superman out of hapless door-to-door salesmen (nobody misses them when they disappear) on the screwy side, but he seems far too distracted most of the time to be able to imagine him getting much of anything accomplished—ever. When one of his subjects drops dead, he merely mutters, “Cold as a mackerel,” and soldiers on.
Lorre actually has the more engaging—and livelier—role Dr. Arthur Lorencz, who seems to perform every official function in the little New England town where all this takes place. He’s the sheriff, the coroner, the justice of the peace, the notary and he holds the mortgage on the Billings’ Tavern where the professor and his equally loopy, chicken-obsessed housekeeper (Maude Eburne) and pig-fancying handyman (George McKay) live. In his spare time, he appears to hawk some kind of hair restorer. He also dresses like a sort of wild west gambler and carries a Siamese kitten in his pocket. The cat also functions as a kind of detective—“She has the most amazing nose for crime and corruption.”
While it’s definitely a reel or two shy of greatness, The Boogie Man Will Get You is a fun little movie—as long as you’re not expecting too much.