DVD Review: Boris Karloff Triple Feature - Warner Archive Collection

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Boris Karloff had already reached middle age by the time James Whale’s Frankenstein made him an international horror icon in 1931. His filmography contained dozens of entries at that point, so it’s not surprising that he continued to make non-horror films even after becoming a global star. Three such films, all B-movie programmers, have been reissued by the Warner Archive Collection on one DVD: West of Shanghai (1937), The Invisible Menace (1938), and Devil’s Island (1939). Hardcore Karloff collectors will almost certainly appreciate this release, while more casual fans might want to stick to his better-known work.

Certainly none of these films wears out its welcome (average running time: about one hour each). The strongest is Devil’s Island, in which Karloff is the farthest thing from a sinister villain. He plays renowned brain surgeon Dr. Charles Gaudet who happened to have treated a man guilty of treason. This doesn’t sit well with the French government and Dr. Gaudet receives a ten-year sentence in a brutal, spirit-crushing penal colony.

The crux of the drama centers on the daughter of prison commandant Lucien (James Stephenson). She has sustained a serious brain injury that requires surgery. Lucien turns to Dr. Gaudet, who wants his freedom restored in exchange for helping. Naturally, things don’t go quite that easily. With strong work from Karloff, it’s too bad this one wasn’t developed a little more fully. Even with a plodding second half, Island is easily the most watchable of the three.

Karloff Shanghai (198x250).jpgThe John Farrow-directed West of Shanghai might’ve fared better had someone other than Karloff been cast as General Wu Yen Fang (someone of Chinese descent, perhaps). I know this was made in a much different era, but it doesn’t really excuse the despicable practice of casting Caucasian actors in roles intended for different ethnicities. What is an otherwise acceptable also-ran, set in northern China featuring a group of white magnates vying for control over oil fields, is irreparably marred by the site of Karloff “playing Asian” in a ridiculous make-up appliance.

Basically, Karloff is almost a supporting player here. His renegade warlord Fang is an egotistical tyrant who says “dang” all the time. Karloff sounds more or less like himself, distinguishing Fang with only a slightly halting speech pattern. I know some find a certain amount of camp value in these politically-incorrect “yellowface” portrayals, but for me it ruins the movie (especially considering there are numerous actual Asians playing minor roles, too bad they didn’t cast all the parts authentically). Karloff had no shortage of work—what a shame he felt comfortable accepting parts like this. As with each of the films in this triple feature, there’s way too much plot for a 61-minute film.

Invisible Menace (169x250).jpgDespite its spooky title, The Invisible Menace is a fairly straightforward murder mystery (also directed by John Farrow). If Devil’s Island feels hampered by its scant running time, Menace—the shortest of the three at just 55 minutes—comes off more like a poorly realized episode of some long-forgotten television series. After Private Pratt (Eddie Craven) and his new bride, Sally (Marie Wilson), scuttle off for some privacy on an Army base, they discover the murdered body of Ted Reilly (Harland Tucker). The primary suspect in this whodunit is Mr. Jevries (Karloff), the superintendent of construction. Too many elements are introduced for the weak narrative to support, none of which are really worth detailing. Don’t make this one a priority.

This collection is really for Boris Karloff collectors only. Warner Archive hasn’t done anything to restore these old films. They’re all easily watchable, just be sure to expect a rash of scratches, dirt, hairs in the gate, shimmer, flicker, gate weave, and just about any other imperfection you can think of. If you’ve ever seen those old SLP-recorded VHS copies of movies from this era, the DVD does at least look better than those. A simple menu presents a list of the three features as well as a theatrical trailer for West of Shanghai, in which the star of the show is billed as Boris “Baby-Scarer” Karloff.

For those already familiar with all of his other available work, Boris Karloff Triple Feature is worth grabbing. Personally, I’d rather rewatch any of Karloff’s horror classics for the umpteenth time before returning to these.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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