Thursday, December 16, 2010

Saturday, May 30, 1970: Before I Hang (1940)

Synopsis: Dr. John Garth (Boris Karloff) did the best he could for the elderly patient in his care, even giving the man injections of his test serum to reverse the effects of aging. But the serum was a failure. Finally, Garth helped his agonized patient achieve a peaceful death.

Now convicted of a mercy killing, the judge sentences Garth to death by hanging -- a sentence to be carried out in one month's time.

At the state penitentiary, prison doctor Ralph Howard (Edward Van Sloan) becomes intrigued with Garth's line of research, and he convinces the warden to allow him to work with Dr. Garth in a makeshift lab on the prison grounds. Working quickly, knowing that Garth's execution date is fast approaching, the two are elated when they are able to create a promising test serum.

But fresh blood is needed for further tests, and Dr. Garth asks Dr. Howard to secure blood from a prisoner due to be executed that night. Howard sees no reason why this shouldn't be allowed, and he takes the prisoner's blood after the execution.

The new batch of serum is finished just minutes before Dr. Garth is taken away to be hanged. Garth injects himself with the new serum, reasoning that the autopsy will allow Howard to examine the effects the serum had on the body.

But moments before the execution, Garth's sentence is commuted to life in prison.

Within 24 hours, Garth's body has undergone a remarkable change. His heart is stronger, his hair is turning dark -- he seems in every 20 years younger.

Dr. Howard decides that he will be the next one to try the serum. But as Garth prepares to inject him, he begins to feel strange. Dr. Howard, seeing his face, realizes in an instant what has happened: they used the blood of a three-time murderer to make the serum, and now Garth has absorbed the killer's nature into his bloodstream....

Comments: Drumroll, please: tonight we have the first Horror Incorporated feature that doesn't come from Universal Studios.

Before I Hang was part of the Son of Shock! package, which we discussed here; of the 74 movies included in Shock! and Son of Shock! 62 were from Universal. The remaining 12 were from Columbia.

Why Columbia? It's because TV distributor Screen Gems was owned by Columbia studios, which could toss in titles from its own vaults.

But it couldn't toss in many. Columbia had only dabbled in the horror genre, and it certainly hadn't developed the familiar faces and the durable franchises that Universal had. So these are relatively small and forgotten movies, somewhat on a par with the lesser-known Universal efforts of the time.

Before I Hang is certainly minor, but it does have its charms. It has an admirably goofy premise, equal parts Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Hands of Orlac.

The whole movie turns on the idea that the recipient of a blood transfusion might absorb the personal characteristics of the donor. Transfusions weren't new in 1940; in the 19th century it was found that a human-to-human transfusion would save one patient, but kill the next, and no one knew why. It wasn't until the advent of blood typing at the dawn of the 20th century that the procedure moved past the experimental stage. Vaccines against a host of diseases were perfected in the first decades of the 20th century, and such things as injections and inoculations and blood draws were becoming increasingly common.

Misperception and misinformation persisted, of course, as they always do in the wake of new discoveries. As late as the 1920s, Russian serologist Alexander Bogdanov believed that taking regular transfusions of whole blood was a potential fountain of youth. And it's easy to imagine why one would think such a thing. Blood has always represented life and vitality in the human mind, and the great new strides in medicine seemed to offer unlimited promise.

Which brings us to the rejuvenated Dr. Garth meeting with his elderly friends in his drawing room, offering them each the chance to be young again. Rather than jumping to their feet, rolling up their sleeves and shouting "Me first!", as one might expect, they each shrug and say, in effect, no thanks, I've lived a rich and full life, it's gone on long enough. This comes across as fairly improbable (I'm guessing that the screenwriter was very young), and the movie would have been better served if the men were greatly tempted to be young again but were held back by the nagging sense that somehow it was all too easy, that there was a catch they hadn't been able to figure out yet.

This, of course, is where horror films always diverge from science fiction films. In horror there is always a catch, and the cost of getting what you want inevitably proves to be ruinous.

But Before I Hang never pushes that sensibility very hard, and comes across a bit muddled as a result. Garth is depicted in the movie's first act as a kindly old scientist, guilty only of acceding to his dying patient's request for an end to his suffering, interested only in the good of humanity. He is no Faust, willing to trade away eternity for fleeting success. The movie works so hard to put us on Garth's side that we cannot hold him accountable for what happens next.

So we wind up with a fairly anemic villain, as Garth is repeatedly -- and predictably -- possessed with the soul of a serial killer.

And as Garth comes under suspicion almost immediately for his crimes, there's very little suspense to be had as the film totters on to its conclusion.

But as a showcase for Boris Karloff's talent, Before I Hang excels. It struck me once again how physical an actor Karloff was. His body language for the elderly Dr. Garth is spot on. A big, ungainly-looking man, Karloff isn't able to mimic the frailness of a septuagenerian, but his whole physical demeanor is brilliant -- the stoop-shouldered gait, the slowness in reaction time, the slight fogginess in his general demeanor. The old-age makeup in this film isn't bad, but Karloff has do most of the work himself (unlike Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, whose state-of-the-art age makeup didn't hide the fact that he walked and talked like, well, Tom Cruise).

And what a joy it is to see Karloff working with Edward Van Sloan again! The two are delightful to watch. Interestingly, Van Sloan looks younger than the characters he played a decade earlier in Frankenstein and Dracula, making me wonder if he took a bit of Dr. Garth's serum himself.


kochillt said...

A rare Columbia title in the SHOCK! TV package, most of which aired just once or twice on CHILLER THEATER, BEFORE I HANG was third in Karloff's sci fi quintet for the studio that first starred him in 1935's THE BLACK ROOM. It was a pleasure to see Edward Van Sloan with him again one final time, from FRANKENSTEIN, BEHIND THE MASK, THE MUMMY, and THE BLACK ROOM (he retired in 1948, and died in 1964). Following THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG and THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES, and itself followed by THE DEVIL COMMANDS and THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU, it seems that each succeeding film falls below its predecessor. The sheer repetition of mad scientists must have been wearisome for even the great Karloff, with Universal's BLACK FRIDAY and Monogram's THE APE tossed into the fray as well. It would seem that ARSENIC AND OLD LACE couldn't have arrived at a better time for the hard working actor.

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