Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on February 23, 2017
Life has been throwing me lots of curveballs lately and when I’m feeling low, I tend to gravitate towards what I like to call “comfort food films” and my comfort food tends to be classic horror films. During the cold winter months, cozying up on the couch with a warm beverage and a couple of creaky old black and white horror movies can make even the worse week seem manageable. Fortunately, I found exactly what I required streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, The Haunted Strangler (1958) and Corridors of Blood (1958). Both of these low-budget British thrillers were directed by Robert Day and feature standout performances from William Henry Pratt aka the one and only Boris Karloff.
The films Karloff made at the end of his long career tend to be dismissed by film fans or treated as lesser work in his distinguished canon. While it would be difficult for any actor to reach the glorious cinematic heights he scaled early in his career while collaborating with Universal, Columbia, Warner Bros., MGM and RKO during the 1930s and 1940s, astute horror fans will find much to admire in Karloff’s late period films if they’re willing to venture off the beaten path. A quick search through the blog’s archives will reveal pieces I have written about his roles in The Terror (1963), The Sorcerers (1967) and Curse of the Crimson Altar (1967), which are well worth a look but in all three films, Karloff’s performances were hampered by his failing health. That is not the case with The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood, which demonstrate that the actor rightfully nicknamed “The Uncanny,” was still firing on all cylinders at age 70.
The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood were both made by Amalgamated Productions, a small international company run by British expat Richard Gordon. Before becoming a producer, Gordon was a film journalist who first met Karloff while interviewing him for an article he was writing. The two became friendly and Karloff eventually approached Gordon with an idea for a film based on a story by Jan Read titled “Stranglehold,” written with the actor in mind. Gordon was enthusiastic about working with the horror icon whereas Karloff was eager to make a film in England so the two hashed out a plan to finance their project, retitled it The Haunted Strangler, and Robert Day (The Green Man , First Man into Space , Two-Way Stretch , Tarzan the Magnificent ) was brought on board to direct. Shot in just three weeks with a minuscule budget and limited resources, The Haunted Strangler is a marvel of economical filmmaking and a showcase for Karloff’s acting talents.
The plot is simple but effective and centers around a sensitive 19th-century writer (Boris Karloff) who becomes obsessed with a notorious murderer known as the Haymarket Strangler and in the process, he begins exhibiting similar killer instincts himself. The film was shot at Walton Studios in Surrey and imaginatively evokes the gas lit streets of Victorian London using moody black and white photography that accentuates the shadows and fog. Instead of employing a lot of makeup and effects, Karloff chose to distort his face giving himself an inborn monstrous appearance that ignites genuine terror and is supported by the impressive scope of his performance. His transformation from a soft-spoken wordsmith and empathetic truth seeker into a grotesque butchering brute is striking and recalls aspects of his challenging roles in films such as Frankenstein (1931), The Ghoul (1933), The Black Room (1935) and The Walking Dead (1936).
Karloff’s contract with Richard Gordon required that he appear in two Amalgamated Productions and his second and last film with the studio was Corridors of Blood. Although it’s not as effective as The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood has its own allure and director Robert Day maintains a similar Victorian ambiance. The storyline follows the misadventures of Dr. Thomas Bolton (Boris Karloff), an ambitious surgeon working in London during the 1840s who is eager to discover a more humane way to care for his patients. His desire to perform pain-free operations leads him to experiment with anesthetic gases and in the process, he becomes enmeshed with a gang of murderous cons. Christopher Lee plays one of the conmen and his character bears a striking resemblance to the vicious homicidal creature Karloff played in The Body Snatcher (1945). Both of their characters kill for money and sell cadavers to medical professionals while creeping around fog-shrouded streets wearing stovepipe hats that make their tall lanky frames look particularly menacing. Much like The Body Snatcher, Corridors of Blood also borrows story elements from the infamous true-life crimes of Burke and Hare that took place in Scotland in 1828.
Karloff’s role is much more subdued in Corridors of Blood and the film often resembles a historic drama more than the Grand Guignol-style spectacle the material might suggest. Despite its slow tempo and lack of scares, it’s an admirable follow-up to The Haunted Strangler and Karloff is in top form as the sympathetic Doctor Bolton. His depiction of a gentle medical man desperate to relieve his patients of their pain is atypical in horror films where doctors are frequently portrayed as madmen hell bent on advancing their professional standing and satisfying personal desires with little or no regard for human suffering.
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