Boris Karloff had appeared in movies for nearly a decade before he sat down in Jack Pierce’s make up chair to achieve stardom in Frankenstein in 1931. He would maintain a profile in the horror genre with more Frankenstein film, The Mummy, The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Black Cat, but his career wasn’t limited to spooks and scares. Boris Karloff Triple Feature captures a period of time when the actor went over to Warner studios to make three films that weren’t intended to spook audiences with the supernatural.
West of Shanghai (1937 – 64 minutes) puts Karloff into a variation of his Fu Manchu make up. He’s a warlord general that control a frontier part of China that could be oil rich. Ricardo Cortez and Gordon Oliver are eager to make deals with him to pump his fields. Things get lost in translation when they’re not sure if they’re negotiating leases or being held hostages by the general. The general has a fondness for the woman in the middle of the two Americans. He wants more than money from his guests. While the film might upset people who have an issue with an actor playing another race, there are plenty of roles for true Asian actors and extras. Richard Loo He played Hai Fat in The Man with the Golden Gun. While West of Shanghai is barely over an hour, director John Farrow makes you feel like you’ve seen a two hour movie complete with battle scenes and Karloff at his diabolical best.
The Invisible Menace (1938 – 54 minutes) sounds like a monster movie, but turns out to be a remote whodunit. A solider sneaks his bride onto the base in order to have a quickie honeymoon, but their cover is blown by a corpse. There’s no time for romance when Army Intelligence swoops in to investigate. Karloff becomes the immediate suspect since it turns out his character has a criminal past. But can the killer be so obvious? John Farrow also directed this one. Farrow is best remembered for The Big Clock and being Mia Farrow’s father. Karloff is good in the role of prime suspect. He has the ability to look sinister and evil in the same expression.
Devil’s Island (1939 – 61 minutes) is not that demonic. Devil’s Island was a penal colony off the coast French Guiana. The story opens in Paris with a rebel convicted of treason and sentenced to a trip to Devil’s Island. During the train ride to the port, his compatriots spring him from the guards. But the guy gets shot in the escape. Karloff is a doctor who gets rushed over to save the fugitive. He gets busted. He please that as a doctor, he’s obligated to save the guy before contacting the cops. The court disagrees and has him shipping off to Devil’s Island. The wicked warden assigns him to hard labor, but soon needs Karloff to save his daughter. He makes a deal to lighten his load if the operation is successful. But when she recovers, Karloff finds himself in an even worse spot. If he doesn’t take drastic measures, he’ll never see Paris. The film is rather exciting for a low budget jungle prison flick. There’s serious guillotine action to put fear in the inmates. Karloff proves swings between the kindly doctor to the desperate prisoner without much effort. He proves to be less of a monster than the evil warden.
Boris Karloff Triple Feature has three captivating films that prove the icon of horror didn’t always have to grunt to command the screen. He’s equally adept at being a Chinese warlord, a homicide suspect and an imprisoned doctor. All three films deserve to be brought out of obscurity. They’re tight and interesting beyond Karloff’s performance. He’s icing on these productions. This is a fulfilling triple feature that plays in less time than a double feature or a Peter Jackson director’s cut.
The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The black and white transfers look rather good for their age. The audio is Dolby Digital mono with clear enough sound to hear the guillotine blade drop.
West of Shanghai Trailer (2:27) promotes Karloff as “Baby-Scarer.” This must have been done to alert people to avoid bringing babies to the theater.
Boris Karloff Triple Feature packages together a trio of movies Karloff made between Frankenstein films. He took rather serious roles in this short feature films. All three are worth reviving as they show his diverse skills as an actor. He wasn’t merely a monster or a horror icon. He ruled the outlands of China, escaped from Devil’s Island and looked guilty on a military base.
Warner Archive presents Boris Karloff Triple Feature. Directed by: John Farrow and William Clemens. Starring: Boris Karloff, James Stephenson, Regis Toomey and Ricardo Cortez. Boxset Contents: 3 movies on 1 DVD-R. Released: January 8, 2013. Available at Amazon.com.