Tomorrow on TCM: A Carload of Karloff

Tomorrow is the birthday of the great Boris Karloff. Appropriately, Turner Classic Movies will celebrate the day with a number of his classic gloomy features.


6:00am (EST): The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

This is tangentially a horror film, a sort of sub-genre (murder mystery/sci fi/ travelogue of the Mysterious East, much like Chandu the Magician). Karloff is the titular Fu a sinister, soulless villain with eight inch long finger nails and a plot to use the powers of the recently discovered sword of Genghis Khan to take over the entire world. He kidnaps the archaeologist who found it, demanding to know its whereabouts, and terrorizing his friends and family. Fu is scarcely human — he much resembles Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless. He is also a mad scientist, cementing his inclusion here amongst the horror films. His full title is DR. Fu Manchu.  He operates on people, but usually just to torture them. His torture methods are diabolically creative—he relishes it. Also he has excellent Tesla coils , which he uses to great effect when he gets his hand on Khan’s sword.  His daughter, played by Myrna Loy, exists only to corrupt and torture. They seem to have mysterious powers to mesmerize people against their will and make them their slaves. In the end, the heroes turn the electric ray on Fu’s army of minions and make their escape.

walking dead 1936 movie poster

7:15 am: The Walking Dead (1936)

A Val Lewton picture for RKO, directed by Michael Curtiz. Edmund Gwenn (best known as Santa in Miracle on 34th Street) is a scientist who revives the corpse of wrongly executed Boris Karloff. While Karloff seeks only answers (not revenge) from the men who framed him, they all die horrible deaths anyway, seemingly by his uncanny presence. Let sleeping dogs lie!


8:30am: West of Shanghai (1939)

Karloff once again in yellowface, this time as a ruthless Chinese warlord menacing a bunch of Euro colonials led by Ricardo Cortez.  This was a minor subgenre at the time (The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Shanghai Express are two other famous examples).


9:45am (EST): The Invisible Menace (1938)

Island honeymooners Eddie Craven and Marie Wilson stumble upon the victim of a bayonet murder. The young man is suspected….but I bet the real culprit is Boris Karloff.


10:45am (EST): Devil’s Island (1940)

Karloff plays the good guy for once, as a physician sent to the infamous French penal colony for treating a revolutionary.


12:00PM (EST): The Body Snatcher (1945)

One of the better (perhaps the best) of the Lewton horror pictures for RKO, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale (which was in turn based on the real life story of Burke and Hare.) Set in Edinburgh in the 1830s. Karloff plays a grave robber who helps a famous surgeon (Henry Daniell) obtain the corpses he needs to do his research. Like Burke and Hare, Karloff’s character has taken to killing people to get the corpses he needs.  As a subplot the surgeon’s assistant really wants to help a little crippled girl walk. The situation both drives the need for new corpses (for research) but also provides tension. Is she in danger? Will the ghoul come for her? In the end the surgeon kills the grave robber, then accidentally takes his corpse one night. As they ride on a road one night, the surgeon hears the grave robber’s voice, cracks the wagon up and has a fatal accident. Karloff’s performance in the film is great. Bela Lugosi plays a creepy servant.


1:30pm (EST): Bedlam (1946) 

Karloff as the cruel head of an 18th century insane asylum, inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. Martin Scorsese would appear to be paying tribute to this film in his own Shutter Island (2010).


3:00pm (EST): Lured (1947)

Karloff is neither the hero nor villain in this Douglas Sirk mystery, just part of an amazing all-star cast that also includes Lucille Ball (as a show girl who goes undercover to find a killer), along with George Sanders, Charles Coburn, Cedric Hardwicke, George Zucco, and Alan Mowbray. That is a LOT of creeps for one movie! And Alan Napier (Alfred from Batman! And guess what his character’s name is here? Inspector Gordon!)


4:45pm (EST): Frankenstein 1970 (1958)

An extraordinary updating of the Frankenstein tale, set in what was then the future, with Karloff as the doctor instead of the monster, and television, atomic reactors and post-Nazi Europe as part of the equation.


6:15pm (EST): The Venetian Affair (1967)

Stylish Cold War spy mystery starring Robert Vaughn and Elke Sommer, featuring Karloff in one of his last roles, as a scientist.

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