The Man with Nine Lives (1940)

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Another day, another Boris Karloff mad doctor movie directed by Nick Grinde. This time we have The Man with Nine Lives (1940) and the branch of science du jour is cryogenics. We begin by watching a doctor (Roger Pryor) chill a patient enough to halt metabolic function but keep a steady heartbeat. Five days later the patient is heated, fed hot coffee through a pipe and funnel, and eureka, she awakes none the worse for wear. The experts gathered declare the procedure a remarkable success, but Pryor foresees far more work before he can reach his goal of freezing cancer out of a body. His demonstration attracts so much publicity and such a mob of people demanding the cure, that the hospital takes him off the project.

Pryor learned everything he knows about cryogenics from a book by a mysterious hermit and researcher, Dr. Kravaal (Boris Karloff). That expert seemed on the verge of a perfecting method, when he stopped publishing and vanished years ago. Now that Pryor’s on forced leave, he and his fiancé, nurse Judy (Jo Ann Sayers) travel to Karloff’s last known residence. As soon as they arrive, way up north at Crater Island, they’re warned by a boatman that a decade ago, Karloff, the sheriff (Hal Taliaferro), a doctor (Byron Foulger again), and several others disappeared over there. Pryor and Judy press on, and once on the island they enter a huge ramshackle house, fall into the cellar, go down a secret tunnel, descend another 100 feet into a secret lab which leads to a vault that badly needs defrosting. There they find Karloff’s body encased in ice.

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They warm and wake him up and welcome him to 1940. Karloff explains how he got there, and the flashback is almost identical to his first mad doctor movie at Columbia, the one I reviewed yesterday, The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) (even the names of his doctors are similar: Kravaal here and Savaard in Hang). Karloff had frozen a volunteer patient, a rich man with terminal cancer, and was then accused of murder by the man’s son (Stanley Brown). Since being arrested would doom his patient, Karloff invited the whole group to his island to show them the body could be revived. They saw but didn’t believe, so Karloff gassed and locked them all up in his icy vault. He was sure they’d all die, but luckily those poison fumes were the key to preservation during freezing, so the whole group is now successfully thawed and roused. When the greedy heir realizes his fortune is now long gone, he destroys the potion formula, triggering Karloff’s enraged decision to use them all as guinea pigs to recreate his work. Experiments, failures, suspicions, betrayals and struggles ensue.

Pryor and Sayers are a fun couple, at first a little too excited about this insane adventure and then really sorry they ever came down those 199 steps. Sayers just dusts herself off after crashing down a level through the floorboards, stacks and climbs crates to reach a high exit, and eventually ends up on a gurney in Karloff’s freezer. The sets are great; I loved the grandfather clock whose hands you have to turn like a combination lock, to open a secret passageway to the lower lab. The ice vaults are huge, covered with icicles, and nicely explained as the bottom part of a glacier. The whole underground mine-like network looks fittingly dark and spooky, but much less thought went into the construction of story and pacing. Once everyone’s trapped underground, Karloff’s experiments drag on way too long, there are too many arguments and unexplained shifts in people’s behaviour plus an annoying false ending where Pryor and Judy are almost released. Nothing really thrills or scares, especially when some characters’ actions are comically telegraphed and just plain dumb.

Compared to The Man They Could Not Hang, Karloff isn’t as commanding or fiery. He’s more sympathetic, thrilled by success and grateful for happy accidents. But once again, he’s driven mad by obstacles and interference, and his kindness toward Pryor and Sayers turns ugly when they’re the only subjects left to experiment on. Since his work is sound and valuable, it’s good to see that in this story Karloff passes it on to better minds. At one point I wished Pryor and Sayer would leave the whole dysfunctional gang down there to kill each other and go back to report they’d found nothing but cobwebs. But Pryor wants those research notes so he can figure out how to freeze a body more believably than by stacking giant ice cubes on it.

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2 thoughts on “The Man with Nine Lives (1940)”

  1. I found this one and dug it out when I read your piece, which is as always a good one, and enjoyed it well enough.
    I’d agree more or less with your criticisms, a movie running just an hour and a quarter really ought to be snappier all round. I can’t say i was all that impressed by the others in the cast apart from Karloff, which just goes to show what a good actor he was as he pretty much carries the picture single-handedly.

    1. Yes I agree with praise for him, he usually makes these fun and worth the time no matter what the other flaws are. Even when he’s playing almost the same character, he looks so different, he makes the effort to bring something new to it and does the best with what he’s given. Really enjoying my trip through the Karloff cv, some more in mind to look at next. Thanks!

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