|Man with Nine Lives, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 04 October 2005|
By 1940, Boris Karloff was known world-wide for his horror movie roles. He was in his 40s when cast in “Frankenstein,” a long-established character actor whose film career went back to 1918 or so. Universal capitalized on his fame in “Frankenstein” and swiftly elevated him above Bela Lugosi, limited by his accent. Soon other studios grabbed Karloff for their horror films; when the bottom fell out of the horror market for a while around 1936, Karloff kept working in character roles in A films, leading roles in Bs. But he was still always The Horror Man, even when there weren’t any horror movies.
But horror movies came back in a big way in 1939. In that year, Karloff began working his way through contracts at several studios, including Universal, Monogram (the Mr. Wong movies) and Columbia. “The Man They Could Not Hang,” his first under the Columbia contract. “The Man with Nine Lives” was the second, to be followed by “Before I Hang” and “The Devil Commands.” A final Columbia film, “The Boogie Man Will Get You,” was made after Karloff achieved Broadway fame in the phenomenally successful “Arsenic and Old Lace,” so unlike the earlier films, it was a comedy. Collectively, these are known as Karloff’s Mad Doctor movies.
Sony released “The Devil Commands” on DVD a few months ago, and now have followed up with “The Man with Nine Lives.” Sony Home Video is maladroit when it comes to marketing their older films. Anyone who collects DVD and is interested in horror movies knows that the surest way to market the Mad Doctor films would be to release them in a boxed set with a few cheaply-produced extras. Instead, they’re dribbling them out one at a time. Still, the release of these films in any form of DVD is to be applauded by the true fans of this genre.
Even when the movie itself is second-rate, as is “The Man with Nine Lives.” It was directed by veteran studio hand Nick Grindé, one of those faceless team players who rarely did anything of distinction. (Perhaps his real talent was outside Hollywood; he directed his last movie in 1945 but lived until 1979; what was he DOING the last 34 years of his life?) Everything about the film, except Karloff, is routine—not bad, not good, just a way to pass time.
The Karloff Mad Doctor movies for Columbia tended to be based on real-life research in biology and/or medicine. Usually Karloff is a dedicated worker in some arcane aspect of medicine that brings him scorn from the medical establishment. His mind snaps, he misuses his discovery and dies as a consequence, but there’s usually the suggestion that his ideas were sound, it was his method that was questionable.
So it is here. Young doctor Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) is experimenting with curing cancer by cooling human bodies down to near-freezing temperatures. This somehow wipes out the cancer, so the patients can be revived in a healthy state. But he needs to know more, and is curious about the work in this field by the famed Dr. Leon Kravaal (Karloff usually had names that were sinister going in; not for him Dr. Bobby Buttercup), who’s been missing for ten years. Mason and his nurse Judith (Jo Ann Sayers) head for the small town on the Canadian border where Kravaal had been living in seclusion.
After the usual “you don’t want to go THERE!” from a nervous local, the two row out to Kravaal’s island laboratory. After they poke around a while, they discover a chamber in the basement, a door that conceals a room caked in ice with Kravaal on the floor. He revives when thawed, and reveals he’d been trying to cure a patient’s cancer through the freezing-and-revival technique. Three nosy officials (John Dilson, Byron Foulger, Hal Taliaferro) arrive on the island, ready to toss Kravaal into the clink. During the fuss and bother, one of them destroys Kravaal’s most important notes.
So his mind snaps and he begins freezing and thawing his intruders, working his way through the three officials, then setting his sights on Mason and Judith….
Sony has done a middling job with the DVD transfer. The first 2/3 of the film is crisp and sharp, as was their earlier Karloff entry, “The Devil Commands.” But abruptly there’s a change in visual quality; an annoying flicker lasts for a few minutes, slowly fading away, but at the same point the image also undergoes a distinct degradation, as if the print used were 16mm rather than 35mm. It’s probable that Sony simply couldn’t find a print of the film that was satisfactory all the way through.
“The Man with Nine Lives” is brisk and interesting, but also feels cramped; most of it takes place in those small basement rooms, and it’s on the talky side. The scenes in the ice room are unexpected and welcome; the clear, frosty white of the ice makes this look radically different from most horror movies of the time and, indeed, from its own scenes set elsewhere. The actors’ breaths can easily be seen, so it’s clear these frigid scenes were shot in a real icehouse.
But it’s also a very limited, formulaic movie, with only the ice scenes and Karloff’s stylish goatee setting it apart from the other Columbia Mad Doctor movies. This is best left to aficionados, who’ll buy it immediately and need no encouragement from me. For others, it’s painless enough, and perhaps a welcome return to old studio standards.