Saturday 28 November 2009

The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

Director: Lew Landers
Stars: Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre
In honour of the Boris Karloff blogathon which will celebrate across the blogosphere what would have been Karloff the Uncanny's 122nd birthday.
The historic colonial edifice called Billings Tavern in Jenksville, built in 1764, is for sale and going very cheap indeed. It's home to Prof Nathaniel Billings, a biochemist who works out of the basement, along with his devoted servants Amelia and Ebenezer, and they'll all be able to stay there when they sell it because the buyer, young divorcee Winnie Layden, is delighted with the whole thing, right down to the wormeaten steps and warped floors. She's even willing to overlook Amelia sleepwalking as a chicken. It's a charming setup, given that we're watching a blissfully matter of fact white haired Boris Karloff selling out to the delightful Miss Jeff Donnell so he can pay off Peter Lorre.

If there's anything better than a Boris Karloff movie, it's a Boris Karloff movie with Peter Lorre in it, especially one where he dresses almost entirely in black and keeps a kitten in his pocket. Here he's Dr Arthur Lorentz, who lives next door and runs almost everything there is in Jenksville, from banking to doctoring via performing marriages and even selling bogus hair tonic. He's also the mayor and the county sheriff, the coroner and the notary public, suggesting that Jenksville is a pretty small place with a population of four people, along with the ghost of Uncas from The Last of the Mohicans and a growing collection of corpses, door to door salesmen who became victims of the professor's experiments to turn them into super-supermen.

As a spoof of a couple of entire genres that's a mere 66 minutes long, it naturally doesn't take long for us to get down to business. Prof Billings does his experimenting down in the basement and sure enough, it's full of huge pieces of electrical equipment that flash and buzz and look impressive when switched on. He's almost there with his experiments but keeps making those odd fatal mistakes, like forgetting to check pockets for stray monkey wrenches. He stores his corpses in a secret room behind a secret door, and you can be sure that that's not the only secret built into the fabric of the Billings Tavern, this being full of all the cliches of the genre, from creaking doors to sliding pictures and, of course, secret passages.

The writers really had a field day with the material, which is as joyous as it is improbable. They threw in everything but the kitchen sink. Karloff and Lorre are hilarious here, playing off each other like a time honoured comedy double act. If they weren't so talented at other things they could have made a career of playing roles like this like a more sophisticated Abbott & Costello. They're aided by Maude Eberne and George McKay as the elderly servants, right out of Arsenic and Old Lace, Don Beddoe as a choreographer who so obviously isn't, Frank Mitchell as Jo-Jo the Human Bomb... did I mention they threw everything in here that they could think of?

Best of all though is the dialogue, which is as well delivered as it is well written and utterly outrageous. Peter Lorre is simply gleeful when he sees Bill Layden, Winnie's ex-husband, hanging from the chandelier, saying 'I hope he breaks a leg. I'll set it knock-kneed!' Karloff is a bundle of mild manners as Prof Billings, so much so that he can come out with lines like 'You almost ruined my electric helmet!' and not appear petulant. 'Pros and cons of survival after death are so confusing I prefer not to think about them,' he says as if he's reading the back of a cereal packet.

Even the guests get in on the action. 'No, this is the first time! I never murdered them before!' cries Maxie, the powder puff salesman, played by 'Slapsie Maxie' Rosenbloom, playing a role that Nat Pendleton would have fit perfectly. 'Will it fix my brains so's I can do 'rithmetic like the kids do?' he asks when volunteered for a turn in the professor's superman cabinet. There are films that you enjoy, there are films are that joys to behold and there are films that you want to transcribe the script and publish on the net for the benefit of all and sundry. This is one of the latter.

I only wish I had a copy of 1967's The Comedy of Terrors to follow up with, which didn't just reunite Lorre and Karloff, but added Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone to boot and was a real gem, written by Richard Matheson and directed by Jacques Tourneur. Lorre and Karloff surprisingly only made comedies when they teamed up, another notable one being 1940's You'll Find Out, which also featured Bela Lugosi, but that's not up to this level. Alternatively this would run well as a double bill with Sh! The Octopus!, made five years earlier, which may only have run as far up the star list as Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins but which, like this, is a peach of a guilty pleasure.

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