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Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror - NIGHT KEY (1937)

What I create, I can destroy.

It sounds a bit ominous, doesn't it? As if poor David Mallory has finally been pushed over the edge, but Boris Karloff is actually playing the hero for a change.

Night Key is the first film I'm likely to be called out on in my study. No, it's definitely not a horror film and it just barely qualifies as science fiction. When I scanned the index of Michael Mallory's book on Universal horror I found that it's not even mentioned. In fact I guess it only made my list because of its inclusion in the Boris Karloff Collection DVD set, the cover of which promises "The Master of Horror in His Most Frightening Roles!" Still I'm glad it made the list because it's a film that any fan of Karloff and classic horror should take a look at if they'd like to see the range that Boris Karloff had.

An early take on the Little Man vs. Big Business motif, Night Key is the story of inventor David Mallory, who created a near flawless security system only to have the patent stolen from him by Steven Ranger, his former rival for his late wife. Twenty years later, Mallory invents a new system that will render the previous one obsolete, but Ranger connives with a crooked lawyer to lure Mallory into signing over the rights to the new system with no intention of actually implementing it. But Mallory has also invented a device that can disrupt the old system, and with the aid of a smalltime hood named Petty Louie, sets off on a gleeful spree of breaking and entering to demonstrate to Ranger just how valuable his ingenuity is to this business equation, always leaving his calling card: "What I create, I can destroy -Night Key".

I warmed to Karloff's Mallory the second I saw him. His first moment of screen time features him tinkering with his new invention with a look of pure joy on his face, as if he creates and perfects for the pleasure in it rather than out of greed. Yes, he'd like to make money off of his invention, after all he's slowly going blind and shares a tiny apartment with a daughter who's stuck in a dead-end job, but the good his invention will do is just as important to him. His moral lapse into breaking and entering is strictly to teach the greedy a lesson. He never steals from the burgled businesses. And when a local crime syndicate takes notice of his escapades and begins to use him for more nefarious purposes, he does his best to sound the alarm, even when that bring him and his daughter under threat.

Karloff is charming as Mallory. It really is refreshing to see him free of heavy prosthetics playing an outright likable, good humored yet still sympathetic character; a scientist, but not a mad one. At the time this was made, Universal was considering phasing out horror, Karloff was probably cast mainly out of contractual obligations, and despite my affection for the old fright flicks, I wonder what else we might have seen from Karloff had the genre not seen a resurgence at the studio. It's a pity we can never revisit Karloff's stage roles.

A rather good supporting cast: again the compulsory young lovers don't offer a lot to the story, but Jean Arthur as Mallory's daughter Joan and Warren Hull as a hotshot security employee do well with the material at hand. Samuel S. Hinds as Steven Ranger has a bit more dimension than he did in last week's outing The Raven. The group of thugs led by Alan Baxter as "The Kid", while well played, are a prime example of how screen criminals have changed over the years, it's hard to watch them and not think of Rocky and Mugsy of Looney Tunes fame. Last but not least, we have Hobart Cavanaugh as Petty Louie, the small time hood with the heart of gold, who delivers the second-most memorable performance in the film as its comic relief.

In defense of its inclusion here, you can certainly see attempts have been made to sell it as a horror film, and I guess those attempts resonate to this day, if the aforementioned box set can be used as an example. Take a look at these other promotional posters, both using pictures of Karloff from other films. The second one makes a blatantly erroneous promise of "Murder in a Wax Museum". Yet I'm grateful, for without those misleadings I might never have seen it; it may not be a horror film, but I highly recommend it to the classic horror aficionado.

Rounding out this week's bill:

Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam in 14 Carrot Rabbit (1952)

The Our Gang short Lazy Days (1929)

I'll be taking a break next week. Got a wedding to go to. Then it's a Friday the 13th weekend with:

Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary (1927) starring Laura LaPlante, Creighton Hale and Forrest Stanley

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