Before I Hang (1940)

As I noted in my review of The Man with Nine Lives (1940), the late Thirties and early Forties were one of the busiest moments in Boris Karloff’s career, as he took on an impressive number of projects at different studios.

And many of these were mad scientist films.

Before I Hang was one of six films he made at Columbia, and, yes, he played a mad scientist in most of them.  However, they all seem like fairly minor efforts compared to many of his other films of the era.  Only the non-mad scientist period drama, The Black Room, really stands out — and I suppose the bizarre laboratory scenes in The Devil Commands although that film suffers from its intrusive and unnecessary narration.

Before I Hang is by far a better film than The Man with Nine Lives.  After all, even though we have essentially another sympathetic doctor drawn to his own destruction in his quest for scientific progress, this time he gives Boris Karloff a chance to turn in a far more interesting performance.

But it also delves into the same sort of murky ethical territory as the later film does: in The Man with Nine Lives, Dr. Kravaal, in a curiously un-mad sort of way, shoots a man and then holds several people hostage because…science.  What happens to them doesn’t matter, as long as we get his promised new cures.  More people benefit and no one really suffers except for a few people no one will miss (as they’ve been frozen in Kravaal’s basement for ten years).

This, you will note, only five years before the end of World War II and the revelation of everything that had been going on in Nazi Germany.

Here, Dr. John Garth ends up convicted for murder because he kills a patient to relieve him of his suffering.  Regardless of what you may think about what we politely call “Euthanasia,” this would have been both utterly shocking to most of the public at the time — as well as something quietly supported by some doctors.

Again, whatever you may think about it, it was a subject which went underground once again, after the end of the War.

Now this is clearly portrayed in a very sympathetic light, although Dr. Garth also accepts the fact he has been sentenced to hang, and only regrets that he won’t have time to finish his great experiment.

But the warden allows him to continue his work, and, on the eve of his execution, he decides that he might as well try his new serum out on himself as he’s going to die anyway.

Only to have his sentence commuted by the Governor minutes later.

However, his anti-aging serum works, and makes him years younger.  Which means he’ll have a lot of time to work on it.

Only, the word of his discovery gets out and he is given a full pardon.  But something goes wrong (this is a horror movie after all), Karloff undergoes a strange change and kills his assistant.

When he returns to normal moments later, he has no memory of what happened…

In case you’ve missed it, Before I Hang is, more or less, a minor variation on the old Jekyll and Hyde story.  We have, once again, the good and kindly doctor, transformed into a killer by his experiment.  It is an unintended effect this time around, and we have the critical difference that he is unaware of what is happening, but, as with Hyde, we can see that his murderous side is getting stronger.

This means that we get one of Boris’ better mad killer performances.

But only in those few moments of madness.

And, let’s face it, there aren’t too many of them.

The interesting detail is what causes this disastrous result: Dr. Garth gets the blood he needs for his experiment from an executed murderer.

This somehow reminds me of the silent more-or-less-a-werewolf film, Wolfblood (1925) and ties it into some very unscientific ideas that were running around at the time in the Eugenics movement.  Not that the film ever suggests that the murderer’s blood is tainted because of his heredity.  I don’t think they ever gave this that much thought.

As in The Man with Nine Lives, we do not get the standard mad scientist lab with lots of strange devices throwing sparks.  Instead, we get racks of test tubes and a bit of glassware, and one of the weirdest accessories ever to grace a mad scientist’s lab:

Dr. Garth has a model of a human torso and head, with the heart and circulatory system exposed.  The heart, veins and arteries are all clear and can be filled with liquid.  I suppose the original purpose of this mockup was to demonstrate how the blood circulated, but here it is supposed to be some sort of important lab device, and we see him injecting things into it and the fluid inside changing.


But I will admit that Evelyn Keyes’ extravagant hairdos are almost as weird.

And I’ll confess that I appreciated one of the nice little side details: when Dr. Garth is asked if he wants the chaplain to visit him, he replies that “the kind of scientist who has no room for faith in his universe is rather old-fashioned these days.”

It’s nice to know atheist scientists were just a passing fad.

Before I Hang is better than The Man with Nine Lives.  It gives Karloff a bit more room to create an interesting character, gives him a better character arc, and avoids the inexplicable help Dr. Kravaal gets from a fellow doctor in the later film.  Karloff’s murderous turn makes a lot more sense here, and his character remains far more sympathetic.  After all, he isn’t killing people and carrying experiments on them while he’s in his right mind.

But despite that, Before I Hang isn’t one of Karloff’s best films, either.  It is pleasant and likeable, but there isn’t much that happens, and the horror moments are few and mostly concentrated in the later parts of the film.

So you won’t hate it — but it won’t thrill you, either.

Oh, well.  Maybe I’ll re-watch The Ape next.  Or The Walking Dead.

I’m fairly certain they’re both better than this one…

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