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Blu-ray Review

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Universal Terror
Karloff in Night Key, The Climax and The Black Castle


Starring: Boris Karloff
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £29.99


Certificate: PG
Release Date: 18 July 2022

Eureka Classics releases the two-disc Universal Terror Blu-ray set, incorporating three Boris Karloff films: Night Key (directed by Lloyd Corrigan – 1937 B/W), The Climax (directed by George Waggner – 1944 Colour), and The Black Castle (directed by Nathan H. Juran – 1952 B/W). This is the first retail release for Night Key and The Climax, and the first outing for all three on Blu-ray in the UK. The first print run of 2000 copies include a limited edition O-card slipcase and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Karloff expert Stephen Jacobs (author of Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster). All three films are 1080p 2K scans of the originals. Extras include: Brand new audio commentary tracks on Night Key and The Climax by Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby; a brand new audio commentary track on The Black Castle by author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman (Newman is invariable entertaining, like chatting to a mate down the pub!). There are also Stills Galleries and Trailers.

In Night Key, Boris Karloff plays the inventor of a highly elaborate security system which has been utilised by the police for some years with great success. When the alarm of any premises is silently triggered, a light flashes in police HQ. The number of the light is cross-referenced to an address and a police unit dispatched. However, the inventor believes it is now outdated. He has been working for many years on a radical new system which he attempts to sell once more to the police. Afraid that their expensive system will become useless in light of the new invention, the police take it on but decide to shelve it. The old inventor is horrified he has been duped. To him it is not the money that’s important but the fruition of all his hard work. In order to stress how outmoded the existing system is, he adapts the new one to emit a bridging electrical pulse matching that of the alarm systems, and demonstrates he can break into protected establishments. However, a local crime boss and his gang kidnap him and hold his daughter to force him to break into places they can rob. Can this seemingly doddery old scientist turn the table on his captors and free his daughter before it’s too late?

This three-film set is marketed as horror (or, at least, terror); in actuality it is a crime/thriller with a sprinkling of science fiction. Notable for its format which became prevalent during the era of 1950s B-movies, it originates the central cast of the professor, his beautiful daughter, her love interest (in this case a police officer), and the villain – who in this case in just as much the police chief as the crime boss. Although far from edgy, it is imminently watchable. Karloff is convincing in his earnestness, tinged with angst or guilt as he is in many of his offerings. This one is like a Fu Manchu plot without the hammy elements.

In The Climax, Karloff portrays the physician of a theatre opera house. He had fallen in love with the star singer and become so besotted with her that her singing came between them. She subsequently went missing without a trace (but we all suspect what happened to her, don’t we viewers?). Now, ten years later a new young singer has arrived on the scene with a voice which matches the lost star, and the same musical is revived. The physician is devastated to hear the singing of his lost love, and goes to extreme lengths to prevent her singing again – including hypnotism, association, and sheer force of will. But he hasn’t counted on the intervention of the woman’s betrothed and the young king.

This one is a difficult one to quantify. It is at times a suspense thriller, a horror, and even a musical. In essence, it follows similar lines to a Phantom of the Opera scenario. There are long, drawn-out stage sequences wherein we are obliged to endure high-pitched shrieking, which is supposed to be one of the greatest voices in the world. This is tempered by the entertaining excitement and eagerness of her fiancé, Franz Munzer, played engagingly by Turhan Bey. A very young Scotty Beckett also puts in a good turn as The King, who amusingly momentarily forgets his etiquette when watching the new starlet sing. It would have been nice to have seen what happens off-film before the beginning, and there would have been the running time available if not for the over-long stage scenes. Karloff’s presence has a calm intensity to the point much is made of his stare, in the same manner as Bela Lugosi’s is lit in a couple of shots during 1931’s Dracula. The dénouement is somewhat reminiscent of House of Wax.

In The Black Castle, a young nobleman knight-of-the-realm travels incognito, under invitation, to Count Karl von Bruno, seeking information on two comrades who he believes have been killed at the Count’s hand. They soon diplomatically butt heads when it is discovered the Count is a cruel and sadistic master, least not to his beautiful arranged marriage wife. When our hero attempts to spirit her away, they are both imprisoned in the castle’s dungeon. They find help from the most unlikely source when the Count’s doctor offers them a potion which fakes death. This way they can escape the castle. But can the doctor be trusted?

The Black Castle is by far the most entertaining of the three films presented on offer here. Richard Greene takes centre stage as the swashbuckling hero, and Karloff shares the billing with fellow horror star Lon Chaney Jr. as the Count’s gruesome mute dogsbody. Karloff himself is the Count’s doctor, who remains pretty much in the background until the final quarter. Then his presence shines, giving the character an ambiguous quality. The difference is our hero and heroine are offered no choice but to trust him. The castle secret passages, traps and a deadly pool of crocodiles crank up the horror aspect. This is a movie that is wildly underrated in many reviews. Whilst not a strong as the Karloff at Columbia set which I reviewed in April 2021, Universal Terror remains of great interest. All of these gems from the classic horror stars deserve to be treasured.


Ty Power

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