Robert Day, 1958
Starring: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Betta St. John, Finlay Currie, Francis Matthews
Victorian-era surgeon Thomas Bolton is among the best in his field, but is obsessed with finding a way to ease the agony of his patients and make surgery painless. Ignoring the disdain of his colleagues, he begins experimenting with various chemicals and gases and has some measure of success, but he begins to black out, act strangely, and even becomes addicted to some of the chemicals. He arranges a demonstration in front of his fellow doctors, but the patient awakens early and he is laughed out of the medical theater. As his mind and career deteriorate, a local gang — led by men named Black Ben and Resurrection Joe — blackmails him into participating in murder for profit.
This Amalgamated Productions picture is the second collaboration between star Boris Karloff and director Robert Day — read more about them both in my review of their first film together, The Haunted Strangler — and though it has some issues, I find it endlessly endearing. It would have been easy for them to retread the same ground as The Haunted Strangler and make this another riff on The Strange Cast of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After all, Bolton does inject a chemical that makes him act strangely — he has bouts of hysterical laughter and unpredictable violence — but the film fails to launch the doctor into strict horror film territory during his blackouts, but instead makes him a tragic, pathetic figure.
For the US theatrical release, MGM paired it as a double feature with Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory, which makes very little sense as, at its core and despite its lurid title, Corridors of Blood is really a Victorian-inspired melodrama with themes of mad science that dip into Frankenstein, medical experimentation, and the real life story of Burke and Hare. The character of Bolton himself seems to be based on the real pioneer of anesthesia — specifically nitrous oxide, which Bolton works with in the film — dentist Horace Wells. Wells had a failed demonstration, not unlike Bolton’s scene in the film, where a patient woke up mid-surgery, leading to his disgraced from the medical community. He eventually became addicted to chloroform, thanks to more experiments, and killed two prostitutes by dousing them with acid during a violent, drug-induced episode. At the end of Corridors of Blood, Bolton kills (or at least seriously maims) Resurrection Joe by throwing acid in his face.
Speaking of Resurrection Joe, this is an early role for Sir Christopher Lee, fresh off the previous year’s The Curse of Frankenstein. He may not have a lot of screen time, but he’s incredibly memorable as a black-clad villain who asphyxiates the less fortunates and sells their bodies to doctors for a hefty sum. Joe gives off the icy chill that made Lee so memorable in both benign and malevolent roles and, between bouts of murder for profit, he finds time to attempt raping a barmaid (buxom Hammer regular Yvonne Romain), whose cries of horror he seems to delight in.
Both men had the chance to play Frankenstein’s monster (albeit 26 years apart) and grave robbers, as one of Karloff’s break out mid-career roles was in Val Lewton’s powerful The Body Snatcher (1945). Like that film, Corridors of Blood makes great use of its Victorian setting and the grimness of London’s poor areas gives a palpable sense of gravity and horror. Life is cheap at best, meaningless at worst in a neighborhood known as the Seven Dials, which is where Bolton runs a weekly free clinic for the poor. It is also home to the seedy bar that houses Black Ben (From Russia with Love’s Francis de Wolff) and his unscrupulous gang who seduce the unfortunate in order to execute them.
Corridors of Blood comes recommended, though if you’re expecting an outright horror film, you might be disappointed. This works very well as a gruesome historical drama and its real-life elements are fascinating and subtly used. It would be an interesting companion piece to Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein, though it deals more with the dangers of obsession and the loneliness of many factual scientific pioneers than any overt exploration of monstrosity. There are a few issues — for instance, the film could have done more with Bolton’s black outs — but if you’re as big of a Karloff fan as I am, you’ll find a lot to love. And mystifyingly, this was released by Criterion as part of their Monsters and Madmen set.