1910s & 20s * 30s * 40s * Pre-50s * Frankenstein * Atomic Angst * 1950 * 1951 * 1952 * 1953 * 1954 * 1955 * 1956 * 1957 * 1958 * 1959 *
1960 * 1961 * 1962 * 1963 * 1964 * 1965 * 1966 * 1967 * 1968 * 1969 * 1970 * 1971 * 1972 * 1973 * 1974 * 1975 * 1976 * 1977 * 1978 * 1979

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Before I Hang

The third of Columbia's "mad doctor" films was, Before I Hang (BIH), released in 1940. Boris Karloff plays yet another variation on the formula. Nick Grinde directs again. As with the prior two in the series, the science aspect is somewhat minimal. The bulk of the story is a horror/crime hybrid. This time around, the story is more Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than Frankenstein. Writer Karl Brown was also involved the first two of the four, The Man They Could Not Hang ('39) and The Man With Nine Lives ('40). He also wrote a variant starring Bela Lugosi in '43, The Ape Man.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. John Garth (Karloff) awaits sentencing at his murder trial. He gives an impassioned statement about his work seeking an anti-aging serum and an old friend terminally ill and in great pain. The fail old doctor with white hair and thick glasses, admits to the mercy killing and accepts his fate.The prison doctor talks the warden into letting Garth continue his experiments for the three weeks he has left. They obtain needed blood for the serum from a recently executed murderer. With only minutes to go before he is hung, Dr. Howard injects Garth with the serum. As they come to take in for the long walk, the phone rings. The governor commuted his sentence to life in prison. Garth faints. He awakens in a hospital bed. His hair has streaks of black. He no longer needs his glasses. The serum took 20 years off of him. Garth and Howard continue working. Howard wants to be next to receive the serum. But, when Garth sees the blood in the test tube, the impulse to kill (from the murderer's blood) overpowers him. He strangles Howard. A shifty inmate, Otto, happens along. He and Garth have a big fight until Garth snaps Otto's neck. Garth awakens again in a hospital bed. He can't recall anything. The warden decides that Howard caught Otto stealing alcohol and was murdered. Otto then fought with Garth, but fell and broke his neck. Popular outcry over Garth's presumed heroics gets him a pardon. At home with his daughter Martha, Garth invites over three old friends: Victor, Steven and George. He offer them his serum. They all decline. Garth goes to Victor's house one foggy night and convinces him to try the serum. Again at the sight of blood, Garth kills. The police suspect him. Garth visits George with the offer, but rage at George's refuel incites the murderer's blood again. Garth knows he is an uncontrollable killer. He walks to the prison, demanding to be let in. He menaces a guard (on purpose) so as to get shot. Paul (Martha's love interest) agrees to carry on Garth's work. The End.

Why is this movie fun
Boris Karloff himself, is the primary attraction of the film. Yes, he was, by this point, typecast as the mad scientist, but it was a role he played with skill. His Dr. Garth characters is one of his more sympathetic.

Cultural Connection
Again, the mortal desire for immortality is the motivator of the story. In this variation, human biology is presumed to be "immortal". Aging (and death) are cast as cumulative flaws that science can somehow mitigate.

Not Bad Enogh -- Some Karloff fans consider BIH to be the weakest of the four Columbia "mad doctor" films. This may be because he plays a more accidentally evil man. Garth lacks the cold-hearted detachment of prior mad scientists. In place of ruthless disregard for lives lost, Garth is remorseful and repentant.

Bad To The Bone -- Central to the story, is the old notion that a person's being or essence was distributed throughout their body. Our goodness or badness was not just in our minds, but infused in all our tissues. The idea is very old. This is part of why some relics were revered in the middle ages. If St. Peter was saintly, that saintliness would be in one of his bones too. This was a factor in old-style voodoo (and picked up by New Age cults), that a bit of the person (hair, nail clipping, etc.) had some essence of the whole person, so useful in "magic." The same would go for badness. The criminal urge to kill was presumed to infuse even his blood cells. All this suggested that behavior was much more endemic than later theories would hold. For example, the "he's just sick…we can cure him" notion in A Clockwork Orange.

Immortality, 2-Edged Sword -- The Garth character enthuses over the prospect of "good" people being kept alive longer. His old friends could go on in public service, building and producing art. Yet, evil could be prolonged too. The murderer's blood is the symbolic dark-side of Garth's dream. To prevent "evil" people from extending their evil via the serum, it would have to be controlled. That control could all to easily fall into hands less altruistic than Garth.

Bottom line? BIH is the less sensational of the four "mad doctor" films, but still worthwhile for Karloff fans. The "science" is minimal and vague. The visuals are good. Director Nick Grinde makes good use of light and shadow to create images with a German Expressionist sort of drama.

No comments: