The Man with Nine Lives (1940)

In 1940, Boris Karloff was still riding on the fame he got from his series of great Universal Horror films, and was hard at work making movies.  It was one of the busiest — and most successful — periods of his career.

Mixed in with all the other projects, he made an impressive number of mad scientist films.  I wouldn’t recommend watching them all back-to-back as they might begin to look the same, but Karloff was always worth watching, even in the films where you could tell he was just there for a paycheck.

The Man with Nine Lives is not the best of his mad scientist films, although it really isn’t a bad film.  It has a lot going for it and impressive icy sets.  Perhaps it just needed a little more passion, I don’t know.

It is one of six films he made for Columbia, which was definitely on the low rent side of the major studios — although it was still a lot better than getting stuck at PRC like Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill.

It does, however, have a nice twist on a somewhat familiar plot:

Dr. Tim Mason has just demonstrated an amazing new technique at the research hospital where he works, in which he lowers the temperature of the patient’s body to near freezing, allowing her body to destroy the cancer cells infesting it.

However, his efforts — even though he explained that they were experimental — caused such a media sensation that the hospital is besieged with requests to try his new “Frozen Therapy.”  The hospital is not happy about this and suggests — quite nicely — that he should take some time off and leave his research in other hands.  Immediately.

So, like any self-respecting doctor pushing the boundaries of medicine, he decides to go do some research on his own.

You probably have assumed that Karloff is playing Dr. Mason, but you would be wrong.

Mason based his work on the experiments of Dr. Leon Kravaal, who pioneered the techniques he’s been using.  However, Kravaal vanished under mysterious circumstances at his remote rural home in Silver Lake ten years earlier, and Dr. Mason decides to visit Kravaal’s home in the hopes of finding out what happened to him.

When the floor collapses beneath his nurse and fiancé, Judith, they find a secret basement and a shaft leading deep into the Earth — and, at its bottom, Kravaal’s secret laboratory.

And there, frozen in a solid block of ice but still alive, they find Kravaal.

Ten years ago, a group of local officials and the son of one of his patients descended on him demanding to see his patient.  When they refuse to allow him to revive his frozen patient, he released a deadly gas and trapped his visitors in the inner chamber of his freezer rooms to give him time to reawaken his apparently dead patient.

However, that doesn’t work out too well as he collapses from the effects of his gas and is frozen himself.

Kravaal realizes that he accidentally hit on both the proper method of delivering his protective treatment for freezing — as a gas — and the correct mixture.  However, his rich patient’s son, cheated out of his inheritance by his icy ten-year nap, destroys the only record of the mixture.  Kravaal reacts as any self-respecting mad scientist would, by pulling out a gun, shooting the boy and forcing the remaining people to act as his guinea pigs as he tries to rediscover the lost formula…

Now the inspiration for Kravaal’s experiments was the real-world experiments of Robert Cornish, who was fascinated with resuscitating dead people and did a lot of experiments on dogs.  Footage of him reviving one of his dead dogs was the centerpiece of another horror film, 1935’s Life Returns (which rather politely ignored the fact that his resuscitated dogs all died within hours of his treatment).

However there is an almost zen stupidity about the way cryonics (as we would call it) is presented: the patients are covered in ice cubes and revived with…

Hot coffee.


Despite this foundational absurdity, the basic setup here is quite sound.  Kravaal gives Karloff a fairly challenging role as he seems like such a mild and charming man, but he keeps doing the most alarming things.

But ironically, this may also be one of the weakest parts of the film as Karloff never gets to play Kravaal as out and out mad or evil.

And we all know Boris was almost unbeatable when it came to portraying either runaway insanity or pure malevolence.

Instead, the film is almost absurdly sympathetic towards Kravaal.  Dr. Mason — as strange as this may sound — seems remarkably willing to help Kravaal with his research at gunpoint and joins Kravaal in his laboratory while the others are all locked up.  Nor does he appear to be particularly reluctant or concerned about what Kravaal is doing until he and Judith are threatened.  At the end of the film, Mason actually lectures us about Kravaal’s brilliance and how much he wanted to help the world.

Ummm, have you talked about this with your girlfriend?

I can’t help thinking about how short a time it was after this film was made that the world suddenly learned about all sorts of unspeakable experiments carried out by scientists who also believed that their actions were entirely justified by all the good they would bring.

Offhand, I don’t remember any other mad scientist films which were this quick to excuse this sort of moral relativism.  The Man with Nine Lives couldn’t even manage the usual “he went further than Man was intended to go.” Instead it tells us, “gosh, he got a bit carried away, didn’t he?”

Which is really profoundly disturbing if you stop and think about it.

And I suppose that sums up why I found this a lesser entry in Karloff’s mad scientist films.  It could have roared like a lion and given us a scientist more dangerous than a wild beast because he had lost hold of his moral underpinnings, it could have had him turn to fanaticism, or descend into ever bloodier depths of madness.

Instead he loses his notes, kills four men and it’s okay.  He really didn’t mean it.  It’s just science.

Oh, well.  Just don’t blame Boris.  It isn’t his fault.  He did his best.

But it really would have been better if the movie didn’t secretly agree with Kravaal.

Except that he went a bit far.

That’s all…

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