The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - MANIACAL MAYHEM | The Movie Waffler


Three films starring Boris Karloff.

Eureka Entertainment's set features the UK blu-ray debuts of 1936's The Invisible Ray, 1940's Black Friday and 1951's The Strange Door, all starring Boris Karloff.

maniacal mayhem bluray

The Invisible Ray review

The Invisible Ray
1936's The Invisible Ray combines two popular storylines of its decade – the jungle expedition and the mad scientist taking revenge on those he believes wronged him. The bonkers boffin in question here is Karloff's Janos Rukh, who has discovered a way to use a telescope to gaze not just into the heavens but into the past. Assembling a group of his peers who previously scoffed at his theories, including Bela Lugosi's Felix Benet, Rukh shows how a meteorite smashed into Africa. He believes said rock contains Radium X, a substance whose powers could prove invaluable to science.

Thus begins the jungle expedition as Rukh and his now convinced colleagues search the jungle of Nigeria for the meteorite (the earlier flashback clearly showed the rock landing in southern Africa, but African geography was never Hollywood's strong point). The weakest segment of the movie, this has the usual assortment of terrified natives being condescended to by the Western protagonists, and takes a little longer than necessary to get to the meat of the story, i.e. Rukh finding the rock and becoming poisoned by radiation.

Glowing like the Ready-Brek man (an effect later deployed on Lon Chaney Jr in 1941's Man-Made Monster), Rukh finds that everything he touches instantly dies. He becomes a hermit at first but when he learns Benet has adopted Radium X in his Paris surgery, where he restores sight to the blind, Rukh heads to France and sets out to kill Benet and the rest of the expedition crew.

After a sluggish second act in Africa, things really pick up on European soil with a thrilling climax involving a trap set for the glowing Rukh, reminiscent of the finale of James Whale's The Invisible Man. Prolific director Lambert Hillyer keeps things moving along nicely but it's the special effects of John P. Fulton that really capture the imagination, particularly a shot of Rukh leaping through a window before combusting in mid-air, extraordinarily impressive for 1936. Also surprising for its time is the love affair between Rukh's attractive young wife (Frances Drake) and a rather stiff love interest (Frank Lawton). How this was snuck past the Hays Code is anyone's guess.

Surprisingly, it's Karloff who delivers the ham while Lugosi gives one of his more restrained performances. Karloff is all ticks and gasps, while the Hungarian remains stiff as a board throughout, but the scenes they share leave us in no doubt that we're watching what for 1930s horror fans was the equivalent of Pacino and De Niro facing off in Heat.

Black Friday review

Black Friday
Director Arthur Lubin's Black Friday has nothing to do with discounted electrical goods but rather offers a novel premise that falls somewhere between Jekyll & Hyde and the body-swap comedies of the 1980s.

Run over by a car driven by pursued mobster Red Cannon, mild-mannered Professor George Kingsley falls into a coma, his prospects looking dire. Luckily for him his best friend is the ingenious surgeon Dr. Ernest Sovac (Karloff), who finds a way to transplant Cannon's brain into Kingsley's head, bringing the latter back to life. Trouble is, the mobster's brain is still partly alive inside the noggin of the boffin, and he's determined to bump off his enemies.

Both Cannon and Kingsley are played by Stanley Ridges in what is a staggeringly effective dual performance. Ridges fully convinces as the George Raft-esque Cannon and the avuncular Kingsley, switching between the two in the manner of Jekyll and Hyde. Karloff may receive top billing, just ahead of Lugosi as a rival gangster, but it's Ridges who steals the show.

The script by Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor strikes a fine line between comedy and horror, with both elements complementing one another. Siodmak would expand this concept a couple of years later with his novel 'Donovan's Brain', which later received its own cinematic adaptation in 1953.

The Strange Door review

The Strange Door
Karloff goes from heel to hero in this 1951 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's story 'The Sire de Maletroit's Door', though he's relegated very much to a supporting role despite his high billing. The real star, and the real heel, is the great Charles Laughton. He has a whale of a time playing the villainous Sire Alain de Maletroit, a wealthy cad who has kept his brother Edmond (Paul Cavanagh) locked in a dungeon for the past 20 years. Edmond's crime? Seducing the woman Alain was in love with and fathering her child. That child has now grown up to be 20-year-old Blanche (Sally Forrest), and Alain plots to further torment Edmond by marrying her off to a scoundrel who will make her life a misery.

Scouring the local taverns for a suitable, or rather unsuitable hubby for his niece, Alain finds drunken lothario Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley) and lures him to his castle, trapping him behind the strange door of the title, which can only be opened from the outside (it never is explained how Alain gets in and out of his gaff). Assuming he is to be wed to a "toothless hag," Denis isn't too happy about Alain's plan, but when he sets eyes on the pretty Blanche he only goes and falls in love with her, threatening to ruin Alain's plan.

And what of Karloff? Well he's relegated to the role of Voltan, an affable dimwit who has been secretly taking care of Edmond, who has been faking insanity to prevent Alain from killing him off. Initially untrustworthy of Denis, Voltan is roped into helping the newlyweds make an escape from the clutches of Alain.

I'm an avowed fan of studio programmers of this era, but while they boasted talented directors, great character actors and veteran crew members, they do have one distinct weak spot – leading men. Any actor who ticked off the boxes of being young, handsome and charismatic was snapped up for A-pictures, leaving b-movies with a bunch of stiffs to cast from. The wooden Stapley is a classic example. He certainly has the handsome looks, but has all the personality of a wheelie bin. Screenwriter Jerry Sackheim gives Denis plenty of witty retorts to Alain's various jibes, but Stanley is never able to rise to anywhere near Laughton's level. That said, Laughton is so fun to watch that we can easily overlook Stapley's failure to match his presence. Constantly nibbling on giant chicken legs and skipping around in tights, Laughton is having the time of his life hamming it up here. What a commendable lack of pretence the great actors of this era had.

Alain's castle is a classic gothic set, beautifully lit by cinematographer Irving Glassberg, whose light and shadow dance through its hallways and dungeons. At 80 minutes, the film packs a lot in (this story would likely require twice that length if remade today), leading up to a tense finale as the walls literally begin closing in around our heroes and only Karloff can save the day.

Bonus features:

New audio commentary tracks on The Invisible Ray and The Strange Door with author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman; a new audio commentary track on Black Friday with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby; 'The Sire de Maletroit’s Door' radio adaptations; stills galleries; trailers; and a Limited Edition Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing on all three films by film writers Andrew Graves, Rich Johnson and Craig Ian Mann.

Maniacal Mayhem is on UK blu-ray from October 17th.