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The Man With Nine Lives (1940)

Following his rise to fame as The Frankenstein Monster and other notable villains at Universal, Boris Karloff, signed on to Columbia studios where he embarked on his mad scientist phase in a number of enjoyable films including this fast paced “B” that I’m quite sure Austin Powers would approve of with it’s focus firmly planted on suspended animation.

At a running clip of 74 minutes, this scientific tale begins when Roger Pryor and his nurse/girlfriend, Jo Ann Sayers, are released by a hospital where Pryor has been experimenting with suspended animation as a form of battling cancer. He’s taken up the fight following in the footsteps of Karloff who hasn’t been heard of in over ten years. A decade earlier Karloff was the leading expert in the field but after going into seclusion on an island near the Canadian border has never been heard from since.

Why not seek out his mentor? With that thought in mind Pryor and Sayers are off to solve the mystery of Karloff’s disappearance. Renting a boat and ignoring the stern warnings of a local, the pair sail over to the island that Karloff had gone to before disappearing for good. According to the local gent who rents them the boat four others had gone missing along with our horror icon. In little screen time at all the pair find themselves in a run down house that is weathered and empty. Nothing to see here until Sayers falls through the floor to an unknown cavern below the house.

I had to rewind that fall to see if Miss Sayers herself does this risky stunt and I won’t swear to it but it sure looks like her taking the plunge through the floorboards.

Now that we’re in a chilly cavern with a large door solidified in ice things are getting more than a little interesting. Pryor knows he’s on to something and gets that door pried open revealing a wall of ice and a body clearly encased inside. I should state that I love this icy set design from within as Pryor’s hatchet job breaks through the wall. A quick cut and there’s Boris laying on a cot just beginning to come out of a decade long slumber.

I so badly wanted to hear Pryor go a little nutty proclaiming “He’s Alive, He’s Alive!” but it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe If Mel Brooks was behind the camera instead of “B” specialist Nick Grinde who took on the directorial duties here as he did on another pair of Karloff’s mad doctor series for Columbia, The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) and Before I Hang (1940). Since we’re on the topic, the other two Columbia films with Boris as a slightly bent Doctor are The Devil Commands (1941) and The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942).

Pryor is overjoyed to have Karloff back in the here and now but learns there’s more to Karloff’s disappearance than just getting himself encased in ice. In a flashback sequence we’ll see Dear Boris under attack from a sheriff and three other men who believe he has killed a man who has been missing for a month. They want answers and force Karloff to take them to his lab. Of course the man they seek is frozen solid and Boris is one step away from the electric chair. The four men are played by Stanley Brown as a relative to the “corpse”, Byron Foulger as a disbelieving Doctor, Hal Taliaferro as the Sheriff with the handcuffs and a lawyer played by John Dilson. To save both his patient and his reputation, Karloff locks the four men in an adjoining ice locker but doesn’t make it out of the main chamber that Pryor had found him in before his own body ends up in suspended animation.

So yes there are four more bodies to thaw out and it’s at this point that evil thoughts get the better of Karloff who isn’t overly fond of the men who sought to lock him up and are the reason his patient from 10 years ago lies in the outer chamber a skeleton. Cut off from the world above, Boris, has a total of 6 guinea pigs at his disposal to continue his research moving forward as he seeks to reconstruct the formula one needs to inhale before entering suspended animation. Sadly for those involved not all of his experiments are proving to be successful. So try, try again.

I for one never get enough of these mad doctor films from the 30’s right through to the 1950’s and I suppose beyond to more modern fare like Dr. Herbert West’s experiments into the Re-Animation of the dead. Boris was a natural fit in the lab moving from the “created” of 1931 to wearing the white smock as he himself dabbles in things best left alone. During his run of titles for Columbia he’d still squeeze in some nutty Doctors for Universal (Black Friday) and Monogram (The Ape). There were others to come in the years ahead. Everything from Dr. Neimann in House of Frankenstein (1944) to the villainous Dr. Hollingstead in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). From Dr. Meissen in The Black Castle (1952) to Dr. Jekyll who tangles with Bud and Lou in 1953 to later fare including the Baron himself in Frankenstein 1970 (1958) among other medical performances in his later years. How about Dr. Bolton in Corridors of Blood (1958) and even a most enjoyable Dr. Scarabus in 1963’s classic Corman comedy, The Raven.

Let’s ponder this for a minute or two. Actually, no need. If Boris had not become an actor he’d have made a great country doctor back in the 1930’s through to the 50’s. After all, most of us fans know he was nothing but a true gentleman off camera as opposed to the crazy bloodthirsty villains he often brought to the screen.

Took me years to see this title. One of the first movie books I acquired as a kid was The Films of Boris Karloff so of course I knew of the film but it never turned up on late night TV leading me to think that maybe it was a lost title. Thankfully that changed when Columbia issued it on DVD years ago. Now if we could get the studio to issue all 5 films together in a nice blu ray set. Better still, license them to Scream Factory or maybe Indicator. I think either releasing company would do them justice.

Yup, still have that book.

2 Comments »

    • I think I’ve given that angle before. It’s where the fingers tap the keyboard to bring you my latest “take”. I do think this book and one on Bogie are the earliest books I got on movies. Thanks to Mom.

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