Three Times the Karloff
Boris Karloff was the best thing to happen to horror cinema since Count Orlok raked his shadowy claws across the screen. The gravitas he brought to his roles is still unparalleled, and when the end of his career took a turn for the schlocky, he remained a gentleman and an unbelievably good sport. But there were a few occasions on which Boris placed his monster make-up to the side and exercised his acting chops in traditional dramatic parts. These films aren't as famous as Frankenstein or even How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but thanks to the Warner Archive Collection, the Boris Karloff Triple Feature proves what a powerhouse performer the man was, no matter what the genre.
Devil's Island (1939)
Charles Gaudet (Karloff) is a respected brain surgeon who's summoned in the middle of the night to tend to an old friend. It's unfortunate that his pal is an escaped felon, which gets Gaudet branded a traitor and shipped off to France's notorious Devil's Island prison colony. Devil's Island gives Karloff his meatiest role to chew on in this set. It's an old-fashioned drama about injustice, cruelty, and never giving up hope. As such, the movie is a bit on the hokey side, with its snooty, mustache-twirling bad guys callously disregarding Gaudet's pleas to hear him out. But even at just a hair over an hour's length, Devil's Island is still surprisingly compelling. Karloff's performance certainly helps, as his haunted gaze and gaunt features compliment Gaudet's bleak surroundings. But the direction by William Clemens (Warner's Nancy Drew series) is also tight and filled with a number of effective shots (as when a prisoner's walk to his execution is framed by a guillotine). There isn't an unpredictable frame to its name, but Devil's Island is put together well and goes about its job of rousing viewers into taking action with gusto to spare.
The Invisible Menace (1938)
Strange things are afoot on an island military base. A killer has struck down a soldier and slunk back into the fog-drenched night. The authorities are completely clueless as to the fiend's identity, but with Boris Karloff topping the bill as a staff doctor, you can bet that he's more than just an innocent bystander. Despite Karloff's presence and virtually the entire film being caked in shadows, The Invisible Menace is forgettable as thrillers go. Released on a double-bill with the Humphrey Bogart redneck wrestling vehicle Swing Your Lady, this was made to fill marquee space and not much else. The mystery aspect is pretty basic -- with the usual business about thievery and smugglers running amok -- and not all that inept in presentation. Still, Karloff really is the only thing giving The Invisible Menace a sense of prominence. He does a good job, but his contribution is ultimately that of a glorified red herring, someone so obviously set up to look like the murderer that you know from the start that he's anything but. The Invisible Menace is nothing special by a long shot, but a decent turn from Boris and some spooky scenery do make the 55-minute running time zoom by.
West of Shanghai (1937)
Chaos reigns in China's furthest, lawless corners. Warlords like Wu Yen Fang (Karloff) have assumed control, and when rival Americans competing for an oil field cross into his territory, only his whim stands between them and an early grave. West of Shanghai is an unfortunate reminder of that time in Karloff's career that had him playing embarrassing Asian caricatures in terrible make-up. In this film's case, it wouldn't have been so bad, as Fang is positioned as a morally-ambiguous figure who sits back bemused as the greedy characters he's captured fight amongst themselves. But West of Shanghai suffers from some seriously poor scripting that turns the complex behavior of its cast into randomized spaz attacks with little to no motivation. Good guys go bad on a dime, supporting players are thrust into the spotlight on a moment's notice, and Fang messes with everyone for no other reason than because he just feels like it. All of these swaps are unexpected, yes, but they're also incredibly sloppy, robbing a previously noble character's defection to the dark side of its drama and leaving us wondering what brought it on at all. Karloff's skills give his character a wily edge that does make him entertaining to watch, but that's about the only excitement that West of Shanghai has in store.
(The Boris Karloff Triple Feature is available to buy via the Warner Archive Collection: http://www.warnerarchive.com )