Monday, July 31, 2017

Before I Hang (1940)

A scientist on death row tries to save his life by injecting himself with a serum made from the blood of a homicidal maniac! How's that for a horror concept! Certainly made me laugh, and made me want to watch the film immediately. How could that synopsis not immediately draw you in?...

'Mercy killer' Dr. John Garth has been sentenced to death for euthanizing a terminal patient, and the man is despondent at not being able to continue his potentially life saving research. He's given a chance by the sympathetic warden however, to spend his final weeks working on his project, with the help of the prison doctor. The tests seem to be a success, and Garth desperately tries it on himself before his execution, not realizing his sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment. The serum works wonders on the doctor, rejuvenating his older body, but he learns too late the error he made using the blood of a madman for the process...

Before I Hang is an interestingly paced horror film in that nothing horrific happens in the first third.   more concerned with setting up its characters and plot, and only when an inciting event kicks things into gear do murdernanigans start a'brewing. Then, as if to make up for the lack of action, Karloff racks up a sizable murder count pretty quickly, including the lurking prison guard who I at first thought would be the murderer that Garth and co. get the crazy-blood from, then thought might be a decoy protagonist, taking up the role of the hero once Dr. Garth goes crazy! That'd certainly be an interestingly unexpected direction, and he certainly puts up quite a fight, but he ends up as victim No. 2.

The driving force of the script is the aforementioned hilarious idea behind it. Sadly, the film never goes off-the-rails into crazyville with that plot point, instead treating it with utmost sincerity. This could work really well, as it's a high class of horror film (or indeed any genre) that can take a goofy concept and make it work in a serious context. Before I Hang doesn't quite succeed though. Because it doesn't go loopy with the concept, or explore in more detail the ghoulish nature behind it, the movie ends up hampered by being an overly serious story based on a silly idea.

Because of its slower pacing, Before I Hang feels way longer than just an hour. This isn't a bad thing, thankfully, though I wish a little more happened. There's one unexpected plus though. The film surprisingly actually has a denouement, and it's a whole 30 seconds long! Shocking, I know! The climax itself though isn't hugely satisfactory, but it's not awful or anything.

Boris Karloff delivers an effective and conflicted performance, and when he turns killcrazy, the man does not look like an idle threat. You totally believe that this kindly doctor is now going to turn you into a shishkebab! Edward van Sloan seems to be a supporting lead, but doesn't survive the first third, and is missed. Evelyn Keyes and Bruce Bennett don't really get the screentime they deserve, but are decent, and the former gets a little more to do once the movie changes settings from out of the jail. The rest of the acting is sound.

Before I Hang is a slightly flawed movie, but still a worthwhile spooky watch, with the legendary Karloff in top form, even if it doesn't live up to its laughably ludicrous plot description...

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