by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran a movie I’d recorded October 30, when TCM did a marathon of Boris Karloff’s movies and I set the DVD recorder to get all the films on their schedule I didn’t already have on DVD — including the two from his cycle of five films for Columbia from 1939 to 1942 inexplicably left out of the recent Columbia Karloff DVD package, The Man with Nine Lives and The Devil Commands. While I think The Devil Commands is the best of these films by a wide margin — partly because it had the strongest story source (William Sloane’s moody, atmospheric novel The Edge of Running Water) and partly because it had Edward Dmytryk as director instead of Nick Grindé or Lew Landers, the movie I ran last night was The Man with Nine Lives, mainly because I hadn’t seen it since the 1960’s.
This was the second in the cycle and a pretty close recycling of the first, The Man They Could Not Hang — down to the names of Karloff’s characters. In The Man They Could Not Hang he was Dr. Henryk Savaard; here he’s Dr. Leon Kravaal, and he’s likewise revived from the dead during the course of the narrative — though this time he’s actually dead at the start of the film and he doesn’t appear until over 20 minutes into this 73-minute movie. The film opens with a long written prologue, claiming that “frozen therapy” — chilling the body to sub-normal temperatures to facilitate the effectiveness of operations and medicine — is already an accepted part of medical practice, and surely more applications for it will be discovered. (Some of the Karloff Columbias actually attempted to ground themselves in the science of the time, but this one seems wildly outrageous; one would have to ask writers Karl Brown and Harold Shumate whether they really thought packing people in ice as if they were beers in a cooler at a frat party was one day going to be an integral part of the cure for cancer.)
We then cut to a hospital, one of those rooms where a doctor can operate while a whole bunch of other doctors look on and watch, where Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) has encased a cancer patient in ice and is pumping liquefied gas into coolers attached to her bed and is blowing fans on her, all in the interests of suppressing her cancer and killing off the malignant cells. When this cockamamie therapy actually works, the hospital is flooded with applications from desperate cancer patients anxious to get the new treatment — and the hospital’s head, Dr. Harvey (Charles Trowbridge), orders Dr. Mason to stop talking to the media and to take a leave of absence. Dr. Mason then explains to his nurse/girlfriend Judith Blair (Jo Ann Sayers) that his own researches in frozen therapy were inspired and stimulated by the previous discoveries of Dr. Leon Kravaal, who published a book called Frozen Therapy and then mysteriously disappeared in 1930. Mason decides to spend his enforced leave to go up to Silver Lake in upstate New York, where Dr. Kravaal lived until his disappearance, and he drags Judith along with him and has to deal with the usual reluctant locals — he gets the typical horror-film warnings not to go to the Kravaal place — and also finds that four locals, Sheriff Stanton (Hal Taliaferro, previously known in the silent era as minor Western star Wally West), district attorney John Hawthorne (John Dilson), coroner Dr. Bassett (Byron Foulger) and spoiled rich kid Bob Adams (Stanley Brown), disappeared at the same time Dr. Kravaal did.
Arriving in the Kravaal home, Mason searches for any remaining records Kravaal might have taken down after he published his book, and when Judith falls through a weak floor to the cellar below she and Mason discover a long underground passageway with several doors that leads to a room where they find the skeleton of a man. Then they find another door that leads to an underground glacier, which Dr. Kravaal had been using as a sort of natural freezer — and they find Dr. Kravaal himself, dead for 10 years but still in a state of suspended animation, and thaw him out with the same technique (including force-feeding him coffee) they used on that cancer patient back at the hospital. When he comes to, he narrates a flashback (during which, oddly, Boris Karloff’s hair looks grayer than it does in the present-day scenes) explaining what happened: he was treating Jasper Adams (Lee Willard), Bob’s uncle, for cancer, only Bob decided that Kravaal was bleeding Jasper’s bank account and trying to collect money from someone who was already dead, so he rounded up the authorities and went out there. Dr. Bassett saw Jasper’s body in a state of frozen therapy and pronounced him dead; Kravaal insisted he was alive; the sheriff and D.A. insisted on arresting Kravaal and he fought back by mixing three toxic chemicals, noting down the proportions, then throwing the beaker to the floor and rendering all five people unconscious, locked in his natural icebox. (The skeleton Mason and Judith found on the floor earlier was Jasper Adams’; he actually came to on Kravaal’s operating table but, with no one attending him, suffered a fall and died of his injuries.)
Kravaal, Mason and Judith realize that if Kravaal himself survived, the others probably did too and could also be thawed out and revived — and after they’re all together, Bob Adams gets the bad news that since more than seven years have passed, he and all the other people in the room have been declared legally dead and therefore there’s no way Bob can inherit his uncle’s fortune — whereupon Bob responds by seizing the piece of paper containing Kravaal’s notes from 10 years earlier and throws it in the fire. Able to remember what chemicals he used but not their correct proportions, Kravaal goes ballistic and insists he’s going to use everyone else in the room as human guinea pigs to discover what concentration of the toxic drugs enables people to survive sub-freezing temperatures. He shoots Bob Adams and kills the other three in the tests — then realizes that because they’d already had the drug, it no longer protected them but instead killed them, and he insists on making Judith his next subject because she and Mason are the only people there who’ve never been exposed before. Judith actually survives the drug, but just then a search party led by Silver Lake’s current sheriff (Ivan Miller) and alerted to the situation by Pete Daggett (Ernie Adams), the man who rented the boat to Mason and Judith that allowed them to get to Kravaal’s home, crashes in and shoots Kravaal, who this time dies for keeps.
The similarities to The Man They Could Not Hang are obvious — particularly the Karloff character keeping the people he feels wronged him in a confined space and using them as hostages, knocking them off one by one — but this film, though pretty ridiculous scientifically, is better constructed dramatically and has the advantage over The Man They Could Not Hang and the third film in the series, Before I Hang, of not attributing the Karloff character’s moral degeneration to his death and resurrection. The Brown-Shumate script for The Man with Nine Lives actually gives Karloff the chance to play a character with a truly tumbled psyche — one moment all smiles and beneficence as he announces his intention not to patent his discovery but to give it to the world for free; the next all snarling and revenge-driven as his scientific obsession and determination to crush anybody who stands in his way takes control of his personality and leads him to murder.
Nick Grindé’s direction is also a bit better than usual; many of the shots are surprisingly atmospheric and the film, once it gets to Kravaal’s place, takes on an old-dark-house aura that helps build the cross between science fiction and horror the director, writers and studio were obviously aiming for. The Man with Nine Lives is hardly a great movie — and the gimmick of Karloff as the obsessed scientist driven mad when he can’t get the authorities or the public to accept his work was done better in some of his other films (notably the 1936 British film The Man Who Changed His Mind, which really set the template for the Columbias and most of Karloff’s other mad-scientist roles and had two considerably more prestigious writers, John L. Balderston and Sidney Gilliatt, than most of Karloff’s later forays into mad-doctor parts) — but it’s a lot of fun and, within its rather twisted plot devices, it actually maintains a level of integrity and provides a showcase for Karloff that shows off his depth as an actor.