Thursday, October 25, 2012
The Man With Nine Lives
Columbia's second of four Karloff death-cheating films was somewhat mis-titled. In The Man With Nine Lives (9L), Boris Karloff has only two "lives", sort of. One before being frozen in 1930, then another when revived in 1940. Once again, a lone scientist has some wonder to prolong human life. In 9L, Karloff gives the by-now-traditional role a bit of a twist. 9L is directed by Nick Grinde, as were the first and third in the set. Karl Brown provided the screenplay, as he had for the previous film in the set, The Man They Could Not Hang. The trope of frozen people as a low-tech version of suspended animation, would be a recurring feature in several later movies.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Mason impresses a room full of reporters and other doctors with his cold temperature treatment of a cancer patient. Mason explains to his fiance and nurse, Judy, how his ideas came from a book on cold treatment by a Dr. Kravaal who mysteriously disappeared ten years ago. Mason's boss is displeased at the premature publicity, so sends Mason (and Judy) on leave. They take the opportunity to go up to Silver Lake, Kravaal's last known home. The man who rents the rowboats tries to warn them away. Five men went there ten years ago and never returned. Mason goes anyway.The old house has long been vacant. Judy falls through a floor board. This reveals underground tunnels that lead to a lab and a big frozen door. Mason sees a body trapped in the ice. He chops it free with a handy axe. They warm him up with a fire. He revives. It's Dr. Kravaal. He is surprised to be alive at all, let alone after ten years. He tells the flashback story of how he was treating a private patient with his cold therapy, but the nephew brought the authorities, suspecting foul play. Kravaal threatened them with a toxic teargas mixture. He drops it. It vaporizes. The nephew, D.A., sheriff and coroner flee to the rear ice vault. Kravaal locked them in. He passed out in the first ice vault. His patient (Uncle Jasper) dies for lack of care. Now back in 1940, they realize that the vapors are what kept them alive. They revive the other men too. The nephew is upset at not getting Uncle's inheritance, since he's now legally dead. In a rage, Nephew grabs the formula paper and throws it in the fire. Acting on impulse, Kravaal shoots him dead. He locks the rest in the room. Eventually, he lets out Mason and Judy to help him recreate the formula. He tries it on the coroner, but he dies. He tries it again on the DA, but he dies. The sheriff dies too. Kravaal is stumped, but eventually figures out that the others died because they already had the vapor exposure. He needs a fresh body. After a struggle, Mason is tied up. Judy volunteers to be the guinea pig to save her fiance. She doesn't die, but goes into a coma. Kravaal freezes her, but she remains alive. State troopers come and untie Mason. In all the scuffles, Kravaal is shot and mortally wounded. Yet, he shows Mason that the formula worked. Judy is alive, even though her body temp is 30 degrees. He gives Mason is notebook, then dies. Fast forward. Mason is the toast of the medical world with Kravaal's formula and cold treatment advances. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
Boris Karloff is always fun to watch. His portrayal of Kravaal is more star-crossed than mad, but still just as entertaining. Director Nick Grinde does a good job of providing rich visuals on a low budget.
In a rare turnabout, 9L presages to the trope used in the Universal saga and the later Hammer saga.Frankestein Meets the Wolfman ('43) had the monster frozen in an arm of a glacier, in a basement vault. In both films, the frozen man is thawed out with a toasty fire. While Boris Karloff did not star in FMtW, he is forever a member of the saga family.
Only Mostly Dead -- The story toys with definitions. Just what is "dead"? Existing traditional definitions keep failing. Dr. Bassett, the coroner, represents the stodgy conventional-wisdom voice. Dead is judged by body temperature. Since no one has survived (to his knowledge) a body temperature lower than 80 degrees, Uncle Jasper was, by conventional wisdom, dead. Even the lack of a pulse does not equal death, as frozen men come back to life. A nice literary play on this was the legal definition. Since all the men have been missing for more than seven years, they were legally dead (but clearly not). All four of Columbia's Karloff films tease around the edges of the real definitions of life and death.
First Frozen -- 9L is one of the earliest films featuring a person being frozen and coming back to life when thawed. Others would pick up and use this trope. Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman ('43), Return of the Ape Man ('44), The Thing From Another World ('51), Madmen of Mandoras ('63), The Evil of Frankenstein ('64) Frozen Alive ('64), and The Frozen Dead ('67 -- Frozen Nazis revived to rule the world! Oh my!) to name the older ones. 9L seems to be a trendsetter.
Freudian Face -- In a refreshing change, Karloff is made up to look more Freudian. In the place of wild white hair, he has a tidy, short, salt-n-pepper cut. He also sports a pointed beard and mustache. The round glasses and three-piece pinstripe suit (with watch chain!) give Kravaal much more of an old european charm than the usual lab coat and wild eyes. It's a nice change.
Bottom line? 9L is yet another remix of the trope (man-cheats-death), but it is still an entertaining film. Karloff is his usual quality self, playing a "mad" scientist who is a bit less mad, and maybe not all that bad. It's still worth checking out for Karloff fans, and for a look at sci-fi before everything had to be either atomic radiation or aliens.