Saturday, September 11, 1971: Behind the Mask (1932) / The Man With Nine Lives (1940)

Synopsis: A Sing Sing inmate named Quinn (Jack Holt) is plotting an escape. His cellmate Henderson (Boris Karloff) advises against it, claiming that powerful friends will spring both of them soon if they are patient. But seeing that Quinn will not be deterred, Henderson tells him how to get in touch with his associate on the outside, a man named Arnold (Claude King).

Quinn’s escape is successful and he travels to Arnold’s mansion in the country. Arnold seems afraid to assist Quinn, but is too frightened of his employer, the mysterious drug kingpin Mr. X, to refuse. He employs Quinn as his chauffer, and Quinn becomes enamored of Arnold’s beautiful daughter Julie (Constance Cummings).

Soon enough Henderson is released and makes contact with Dr. August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan), who runs the Eastland Hospital. We learn that Steiner is also an agent of Mr. X , and he tells Henderson that Mr. X arranged for him to be incarcerated so long because he was displeased with him.

Henderson suggests Quinn as the perfect man to deliver the next drug shipment for the organization. But as soon as Steiner sees Quinn he knows the man is an undercover federal agent. Henderson is shocked and angered by this revelation.

But the plan to have Quinn to pick up the shipment via seaplane goes forward. After Quinn delivers the drugs to a ship at sea, Henderson instructs Quinn to take off and then bail out – the boat, he says, will come to his location and pick him up. Quinn, sensing that this is an attempt to dupe him, quickly “rigs a dummy”, attaches it to the parachute and tosses it overboard so that Henderson will think it’s him.

But before long Steiner captures Quinn himself. He plans on disposing of the federal agent in his usual manner – by getting him admitted to his hospital and subjecting him to an unnecessary – and fatal – operation….

Comments: Life before the internet: nasty, brutish and short.

At least, that’s what future generations will say. Our grandchildren will marvel that we were ever able to find information without an oracular Google to tell us what we needed to know.

And no doubt newspapers will come in for the greatest amount of puzzlement. Folded sheets of printed material, updated twice daily from a central office in the city, sold in every store and from machines at every busy intersection – the idea is laughable, when you think about it.

Yet for all their technological limitations, newspapers were astonishingly versatile — kind of a primitive, self-contained internet. They served as news aggregators, they contained a variety of blogs, a version of Craigslist, a movie-listings app, a sports site that gave heavy emphasis to local teams.  They contained all the news you needed to know – everything from world news, to national news, down to state and local coverage, even what was going on in your local city council.

And in the days before televisions came with their own on-screen program guides, newspapers offered those too.  In fact, newspapers were our only guide to what was on television at any given time – unless you subscribed to TV Guide,  but of course only rich eccentrics did that.

So let’s open the Minneapolis Tribune and find out what’s being offered on Horror Incorporated for the evening of Saturday, September 11, 1971.

Midnight- Behind the Mask (1932) A US secret service agent risks life and limb to capture “Mr. X”, a notorious and cruel head of a dope ring. Boris Karloff, Constance Cummings and Jack Holt. Channel 5.

Based on this description, you might think that Behind the Mask is a standard crime drama from the 1930s, its only claim to being a horror film being the presence of Boris Karloff (who isn’t the star, as the description implies, but a supporting player).

And while it’s really not much of a horror film, it does have its moments — all of which center around the mysterious Eastland Hospital, run by the Keyser Soze-esque Mr. X.

Hospitals are fertile ground for horror films, delving into the primal fear that the ones we choose to trust (or are forced to trust) when we’re sick or injured, when we’re at our most vulnerable, are plotting to do us harm.  In an almost child-like fashion, Agent Burke is led away by Dr. Steiner, not knowing that he’s soon to be the victim of unnecessary surgery sans anesthetic.  Surrounded by all the trappings of a modern hospital, Burke isn’t able to perceive the danger that’s all around him.

This aura of creepiness is augmented by the Eastland Hospital sets, which lack the verisimilitude even of the sterile institutional corridors of the era, but still manage to be marginally interesting. Seemingly generic details such as the elevator banks seem stylized, as though the sets were designed and built by people who had never actually seen elevators work in real life.  The operating theater in which Steiner gloats over Quinn’s helpless body has a strangely art-deco feel to it.

By contrast the lobby is cramped and uninteresting, and we end up with a hospital that gradually becomes more surreal as we delve farther into it.

I can’t guarantee that the production designer spent a moment thinking about such things, of course — in fact, I’d be willing to bet he didn’t.  But it’s these little touches – whether intentional or not – that make repeat viewings of such films worthwhile.

Synopsis: Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) is conducting ground-breaking research in cryogenics. In a public demonstration, he lowers the body temperature of a patient until she is in a coma-like state. Five days later he brings her out of it, and after the procedure her chronic pain has diminished considerably.

After the demonstration, Dr. Mason tells his fiancee, nurse Judith Blair (Jo Ann Sayers) that his results are encouraging, but not what he had hoped. He reveals that most of his experiments are derived from the work of a mysterious Dr. Leon Kravaal (Boris Karloff), whose book on the subject of cryogenics hinted that he was in possession of a mysterious process that allowed the body to be completely frozen. Laboratory animals exposed to this process would completely recover from the freezing. Moreover, cancer cells in test animals disappeared after prolonged treatment, because the body’s immune system was still working while the cancer cells were suspended. Mason is fascinated by these revelations, and would love to get more of the details of the procedures from Kravaal; but the scientist vanished ten years earlier.

The hospital administration disapproves of all the meddlesome publicity that Mason is generating and they force him to take a leave of absence. Seeing an opportunity to track Kravaal down, Mason and Blair drive up north to Kravaal’s last known address. This turns out to be a spooky old house on a small island. The place had been abandoned since the disappearance of Kravaal, the county sheriff, county prosecutor, town doctor and two other townspeople.

Exploring the house, Dr. Mason and Judith discover a passage from the basement that leads to an abandoned laboratory, and beyond that, an icy underground cavern. In this cavern Dr. Kravaal is discovered. Using the specialized techniques he’s developed to revive hypothermic patients (i.e., warming them with blankets and pouring hot coffee down their throats) Dr. Mason eventually revives Kravaal. He’s astonished to find that he has been in suspended animation for ten years. Then he reveals that in a second chamber, behind the first, there are four bodies.

In a flashback sequence, Kravaal explains that the elderly Jasper Adams had come to him in hopes that frozen therapy might cure his cancer. Adams’ nephew became suspicious, and the county prosecutor brought Kravaal in. In the prosecutor’s office the town doctor avers that he had previously examined Adams, and it was clear the man’s cancer was terminal. Kravaal scoffs at the doctor’s hidebound pronouncements, but under duress he agrees to take the men to see Jasper Adams during his treatment.

Kravaal takes them, along with the county sheriff, to the island and the underground cavern. Seeing Adams’ frozen body, the doctor declares him dead, and the sheriff places him under arrest. Kravaal uses a beaker of chemicals to render his captors unconscious, but in the process places everyone — including himself — in a state of suspended animation.

After relating this amazing story, Mason and Judith help Kravaal revive the others, all of whom are astonished that ten years have passed and that they have all probably been declared dead.

When Jasper Adams’ loud-mouthed nephew destroys the formula used to put them in suspended animation, Kravaal kills him. He then tells the others that he must now reconstruct the formula, and he must use them all as his guinea pigs….

Comments: Hey, as long as we’re looking at TV listings for this particular Saturday in 1971, let’s check out the newspaper description of Horror Incorporated’s second feature:

2:30 am – The Man With Nine Lives (1940) A doctor has perfected “frozen sleep”. Boris Karloff and Roger Pryor. Channel 5.

This one is a bit perfunctory, isn’t it?  It might as well read, “Blah, blah, blah, Boris Karloff”.

And that’s only appropriate.  Because if ever a movie lived up to the description “Blah, blah, blah, Boris Karloff”, it would be  The Man With Nine Lives.  It starts with a reasonably intriguing premise, but squanders it on a never-ending parade of contrivances, the first of which is Dr. Mason’s forced leave of absence.  We are told that the hospital is fed up with all the publicity that Mason’s Nobel Prize-worthy research is generating. And as we all know, there’s nothing hospitals resent more than being associated with newspaper headlines like “CURE FOR CANCER FOUND”. 

How Dr. Kravaal stumbles upon his magical formula for frozen sleep is a humdinger: he mixes random chemicals  together in order to fool his would-be captors into thinking he’s creating a magical formula.  And jeepers, whaddya know! It works!

  And don’t even get me started on how Dr. Mason and his fiancee / nurse stumble upon Dr. Kravaal and his reluctant entourage, even though numerous searches by the authorities over the years have turned up nothing.

There’s very little in this picture that’s memorable, beyond the loony image of Roger Pryor piling ice cubes on top of his patients early on.  Pryor himself is too bland an actor to make an impression, and the other characters are too thinly-drawn to attract attention. 

Jo Ann Sayers might be a good actress, but it’s difficult to tell – she is entirely surplus to requirements here, and her career as a Columbia contract player was relatively brief.  For someone presumably placed on the road to stardom her look is unusual, though not unpleasantly so.  She is thinner than most actresses of her era, with a very pointed nose and pronounced chin. She also seems to be fairly tall, an attribute that has ruined quite a few actress’ careers.

The other supporting players are utterly generic, both in the script and on the screen. The only actor who stands out, really, is Karloff himself, but he struggles against a bland screenplay.  His Leon Kravaal is just a stock mad scientist, surprisingly unsympathetic without the tragic Jekyll-and-Hyde-ism that befell Dr. John Garth in Before I Hang, or the misfortunes endured by Dr. Julian Blair in The Devil Commands.

Of course, what Dr. Kravaal does have going for him is a pointed goatee and a pair of owlish-looking glasses, an apparent attempt to give him a cool and remote demeanor.  Other than that, we have little reason to suspect he’s a scientist, aside from the fact that he’s extremely antisocial.   If Horror Incorporated has taught us anything, it’s that most scientists are.



  1. I favor the first feature over the second (THE MOVIE WITH NINE LIVES?). Certainly after repeat viewings, male viewers would have a tendency to examine these lesser known actresses more closely, Jo Ann Sayers would probably be stunned.


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