The last movie Karloff made under his contract with Columbia Pictures and filmed in after his success in the 1941 Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace, this is the last of the Columbia Karloff as mad scientist films and is a comedy version of that story. It was directed by Lew Landers (The Return of the Vampire, Terrified) and written by Edwin Blum (who in addition to a writing career that stretched from 1935’s The New Adventures of Tarzan all the way to 1986’s Gung Ho — with stops in-between including Stalag 17 and episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The New People — as well as being the scriptwriter who came up with the nickname Tricky Dick for Richard Nixon), based on a story by Hal Fimberg and Robert B. Hunt.
Karloff is Professor Nathaniel Billings, a scientist who has fallen behind on his mortgage. He sells his gigantic home to Winnie Layden (Miss Jeff Donnell, who took her first name from the comic strip Mutt and Jeff; she played Gidget’s mom and housekeeper Stella Fields on General Hospital) who decides to pull off that The Beyond plan of turning a place filled with dead bodies into a hotel. She also hires Billings’ staff, housekeeper Amelia Jones (Maude Eburne) and maintenance man Ebenezer (George McKay), all while ignoring that he’s growing superhumans for the war effort.
Winnie’s ex-husband Bill (Larry Parks) wants her to reconsider the sale — pretty wild to have a divorced couple in a Hayes Code movie — so he explores the house, finds the bodies and tries to get the law involved in the form of sheriff Dr. Arthur Lorentz (Peter Lorre), who promptly starts working with Professor Billings and using a traveling powder puff salesman (former NYSAC, NBA and The Ring light heavyweight champion Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom). Then everyone learns another murderer is in the hotel as well as a potential German agent.
It’s no Arsenic and Old Lace, but it certainly tries to make you think that it’s exactly that movie.
Mill Creek’s Thrillers from the Vault set also includes The Black Room, The Man They Could Not Hang, Before I Hang, The Devil Commands, The Man With Nine Lives, The Return of the Vampire and Five. Each movie has a commentary track — The Boogie Man Will Get You has Larry Strothe, Matt Weinhold, Shawn Sheridan and James Gonis from Monster Party Podcast — and there’s also a documentary, Madness and Mayhem: Horror in the 30s and 40s. You can get it from Deep Discount.
I dunno – I like it way better than Arsenic – though I loved that film as a kid – these days Grant’s sexual panic-masking itself as determination to get his aunts declared insane almost in real time (similar to Heston’s using the car bomb as an excuse to avoid sexual panic over Janet Leigh in Touch of Evil) really seems so broad and over the top it’s pretty stupid (also that you can somehow buy a cab by keeping it waiting all night – that doesn’t even make any sense). Boogeyman has Peter Lorre and his kitten (with “an incredible nose for crime and corruption”) and Karloff making a great team. Add Slapsie Maxie and “the human bomb” and you can easily get past the spastic slapstick of Parks. All in all a short little triumph.