Friday, October 16, 2009

October Horror-thon #16: "Corridors of Blood" (1958)

Pain and the knife are inseparable...

Such was the attitude of most medical professionals in 1840s England, at least according to Corridors of Blood. It was a time before anesthesia was introduced, when operations had to be performed quickly to avoid prolonging a patient's pain. But this approach doesn't sit well with Dr. Thomas Bolton (Boris Karloff), one of the country's top surgeons. Sickened by the cries of horror he hears on a daily basis, he decides to formulate a gas to numb one's senses. Bolton successfully creates a batch, only to develop an unfortunate addiction to the stuff. His experiments proceed to consume his life and destroy his career, to the point that he pairs up with a cryptic criminal (Christopher Lee) to perfect his concoction.

The way it usually went in cinema's golden age was that if you hit it big in horror, that's where you stayed. It's easier for genre actors to branch out these days, but you need only survey the careers of Karloff or Bela Lugosi to witness the side effects of being typecast. But bless his heart, Karloff made the best of it by delivering performances so uncommonly good, he was almost always the highlight of his vehicles. Corridors of Blood is no different, though it has the added bonus of a sound story to start with. It's more of a historical thriller than a fright fest, its disposition leaning more towards tragedy than delivering shocks. In fact, it's not unlike Karloff's own The Body Snatcher, in which roles are reversed, and Karloff brilliantly played a villain who specializes in conjuring corpses.

And just as with The Body Snatcher, Karloff really is the heart of this film. He's a man you can't take your eyes off of, whom you can't help but feel sorry for as good intentions lead him down a dark road (a theme repeated by countless misguided movie scientists of the time). The terrible lengths to which Bolton will go in the name of a noble cause generate more suspense than any traditionally lurid thrills. That said, director Robert Day really nails the film's mood, with just a few simple sets and a colorful population of supporting players. Lee stands out in particular, and it's no wonder why; he was just getting into Hammer's Dracula pictures at the time, and even in his low-key role here, he displays a chilling presence that the man still hasn't been able to shake.

Corridors of Blood does run out of things to do when the third act commences. It would've been better having taken a cue from some of Karloff's Universal outings, which ran a little more than 60 minutes and ended just when the dramatic payoff was at its most ripe. But Corridors of Blood still runs smoothly a great deal of the time, thanks in no small part to Karloff. The film is proof positive that not only was he a great horror actor, he was a terrific performer all-around, possessing the pathos to transform a simple tale of terror into a much more involving picture than it could've been.

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