Boris Karloff made his fame during the great horror cycle at Universal Pictures in the 1930s, but he also flaunted his iconic status at other studios. At Columbia, Karloff etched a handful of good mad doctor roles (notably The Devil Commands, available on a separate DVD) and other oddities. Four of these mostly low-budget pictures are gathered in this two-disc set--which, if not a collection of classics, is nevertheless a real boon for Karloffians. Although it is called the Icons of Horror Collection, the "horror" is more macabre mood than monster mash. The best (and best-looking) film in the set, 1935's The Black Room, is a wonderfully lurid costume romp with Karloff in a dual role: twin brothers who inherit a baronage but live under a family curse. One is good, one bad, and happily enough, the bad brother has the upper hand. Karloff is in terrific form, and the film features a secret chamber (complete with torture pit) that provides just the right Gothic oomph. Director Roy William Neill later did Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The Man They Could Not Hang, from 1939, is a solid mad-scientist picture. Karloff's Dr. Savaard has perfected a re-animation process, but the police arrest him before he can revive a student--and so the doctor is sentenced to death for murder. The hanging isn't a problem, not when the doctor's assistant has the process down pat, and now Karloff can take elaborate revenge. Before I Hang (1940) opens a similar vein, with Karloff once again sentenced to death and this time conducting experiments in prison (aided by Edward Van Sloan, filmdom's original Van Helsing). However, using a murderer's blood in the secret serum proves a fatal mistake.... These cheaply-made films are solid enough programmers of the era, and surprisingly literate--although it would be a stretch to call them scary. The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942) goes the comedy route, spoofing Karloff's image as a white-haired gentleman who should not be allowed to run experiments in the basement. An Arsenic and Old Lace vibe prevails (Karloff had been starring in the stage production), and the labored comedy has Karloff and Peter Lorre using boarders at an early-American hotel as subjects for experiments. Larry Parks and "Slapsie Maxie" Rosenbloom co-star. Lorre, who's in his slim Maltese Falcon period, is as sly and peculiar as ever; of course, he and Karloff would team up again for more horror-comedy in the 1960s: The Raven and Comedy of Terrors. --Robert Horton
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