Cryogenics...what the heck is that, you ask? The online dictionary defines it as "The production of low temperatures or the study of low-temperature phenomena." Hardball fans got a crash course, in terms of its use on humans, back in 2002 when Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Ted Williams had his head separated from his body (post mortem, of course), the two parts now frozen in cold storage somewhere in Arizona, I believe...here lies Ted, there lies his head...but back to my point, it seems the legendary Boris Karloff, as a movie character, had been a pioneer of the process back in 1940 (actually the process, in one form or another, had been around since the turn of the century, although I'm unsure when they actually began freezing humans or their parts) in the film The Man with Nine Lives (1940). Directed by Nick Grinde (The Man They Could Not Hang, Before I Hang), the film stars Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, Bride of Frankenstein), Roger Pryor (Bullets for O'Hara, I Live on Danger), and Jo Ann Sayers (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Also appearing is Stanley Brown (Island of Doomed Men), John Dilson (Drums of Fu Manchu), Wally Wales (The Sea Hornet), Byron `Wendell Gibbs' Foulger ("Petticoat Junction"), and Ernie Adams (The Devil Commands).
As the film begins we're witnessing a demonstration the miracle of `frozen therapy' as performed by Dr. Tim Mason (Pryor), assisted by his fiancée Judith Blair (Sayers), who also happens to be a nurse. The process seems to involve covering a patient in ice, bringing their body temperature way, way down, and then reviving them by administering a hot coffee enema. The theory is to bring the patient's body temperature to the point where the cold kills the malignant cells while not harming the healthy ones, or something like that (sound a bit like quackery to me, but then the proof is in the frozen pudding). As word of Mason's success spreads, he admits he's hardly a pioneer, and that his inspiration came from another, a doctor by the name of Leon Kravaal (Karloff), who mysteriously vanished some ten years ago. Mason, realizing he's only just touched the tip of the proverbial iceberg, travels, with Judith in tow, to Dr. Kravaal's last known residence, a secluded home on Crater Island, near the American/Canadian border, in hopes of finding notes, journals, or anything that might advance Mason's work. The townspeople seem tightlipped (apparently five men, including Dr. Kravaal were last seen some ten years ago headed towards the island, all vanishing without a trace), but Tim and Judith forge ahead, arriving at the island, finding Kravaal's seemingly deserted home, and uncovering a hidden tunnel that leads to a secret lab. Next to the lab are two cold storage chambers, one of which contains the frozen body of Kravaal himself! After the elder doctor is revived, he relates a fantastic tale (one which indicates there may be other human Popsicles lying about), and it turns out, through accidental means, Dr. Kravaal has achieved his greatest success...a formula compound that enables a person to survive the deep freeze process (no one likes freezer burn), but circumstances conspire against him as some information is lost, and now Kravaal is desperate to recover the vital details, even if it means using Tim, Judith, and whomever else might be lying about as human guinea pigs (lets just say deviations from the original compound result in a case of the terminal sleep).
Certainly Karloff played the `altruistic scientist working towards the betterment of mankind, the means justifying the ends, his theories rejected by his peers' character a number of times in his career (The Man Who Changed His Mind, The Devil Commands, The Body Snatcher), but I never seemed to get tired of the role. Perhaps it's Karloff's ability to create a tenuous sense of likeability in his characters. Sure, some of their deeds and methods are construed as dastardly or even evil, causing the characters to be ostracized from his peers and society in general, but the intent is usually benevolent, the focus being towards the benefits towards humanity, rather than base, personal gains (sometimes there is a desire for vindication present, but its usually a secondary motive). The cast is comprised of professional actors (many of them experienced supporting character actors), but the standout here is Karloff (big surprise). Where others might present a wacky, over the top rendition, Karloff keeps it real, providing a strong and believable (and wily) character, full of depth, driven by an `intensity of purpose'. You may not agree with his methods, but you can sympathize with his desires. As far as Roger Pryor, often considered `the poor man's Clark Gable' and Jo Ann Sayers go, they seemed pretty much along for the ride. Pryor's character was of the sympathetic sort until things got heavy (about the time the human test subjects started croaking), while Sayers character was basically eye candy, often relegated to domestic duties (making coffee, serving food, etc.), par for the course for female characters in many of horror or science fiction films of the time. The direction is straightforward, as is the story, and the scripting very solid. One aspect with regards to the script I liked was the strength, for the most part, in the scientific material. They appear suspect now, but even so, there seems to be, at the very least, some presence of validity, as if someone actually did some research, rather than making it up as they went along. Another strength of the production was the settings, especially the relatively rustic underground facilities of Dr. Kravaal, including the ice chambers. Whoever created these sets did an outstanding job. My favorite sequence of the film, which actually didn't feature Karloff, involved the characters of Tim and Judith. Prior to finding Dr. Kravaal's island home, they arrive at a meager boat rental business on the lake, and approach the elderly owner. After asking the man a few questions, Tim relates his intent to which the man issues a stern warning (about four or five times) about how they shouldn't go to the island. So what's the first thing Tim and Judith do after renting a boat? Go straight to the island...I could almost picture the man, witnessing this from the far shore, raising his fist and shaking it, like old men are apt to do, at the disembarking couple.
The picture quality on this DVD release, presented in original fullscreen (1.33:1) aspect ratio, looks excellent, for the most part. There were a couple of noticeable points where the quality wavered (a slight `watery' effect), but I doubt fans of Karloff will mind considering the relative rarity of the film prior to this recent release. The Dolby Digital mono audio comes through very strong at the beginning, lessens slightly as the film progresses, but, overall, it is very good. There aren't any special features, other than usual previews for unrelated Columbia Tristar Home Video DVD releases like Frankenfish (2004), Devour (2005), Vampires: The Turning (2005), and "Kingdom Hospital" (2004).
If you're interested in some other, obscure Karloff films on DVD, I'd suggest The Old Dark House (1932), The Ghoul (1933), The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936), and The Bela Lugosi Collection, which features The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), and Black Friday (1940), all which feature Karloff, along with Lugosi...perhaps the set should haven been titled The Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff Collection, as the only film in it which doesn't feature the duo is Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932).