In Before I Hang (a curiously appropriate title although not quite in the way we initially expect), made by Columbia in 1940, we once again see Boris Karloff as a mad scientist sentenced to death, and of course we fully expect that once again he will cheat the executioner. You have to wonder why any executioner would bother to try to hang Karloff!
This time Karloff is Dr John Garth, a kindly doctor who has been working on a serum to defeat old age. Unfortunately when he tried it on a human subject it failed, and Dr Garth took pity on his elderly patent and ended his sufferings. Not surprisingly this resulted in his being charged with murder, convicted, and sentenced to hang.
Dr Garth is convinced he was very close to success with his serum, but tragically it seems that now he will never get the chance to complete his experiments. Then fate takes a hand. The prison doctor is a great admirer of Dr Garth’s work and he convinces the sympathetic warden to allow Dr Garth to continue his work in prison until the date of his execution.
Dr Garth now has just three weeks to perfect his serum.
Of course when you’re working in a prison hospital you have to work with the materials that are to hand. If you need blood then the most convenient source is condemned prisoners. But that means working with murderers’ blood! And who can tell what might happen if the experimental subject is inoculated with a serum made from murderers’ blood?
Dr Garth does perfect his serum, and the results seem more than promising. But the serum has other results as well, which Dr Garth could not possibly have predicted.
This is the sort of role at which Boris Karloff excelled - he gets to play a gentle kindly man who only wants to serve humanity and he gets to play a terrifying monster as well. As usual Karloff is equally effective in both roles and he gives us a monster with whom we can sympathise to an extraordinary degree. We desperately want things to turn out well for Dr Garth but of course we know that since this is a horror movie that’s not very likely. Dr Garth’s struggle to overcome the consequences of his one scientific mistake is both tragic and moving, and this is due almost entirely to Karloff’s greatness as an actor.
The supporting cast comprises the sort of fine character actors who helped so much to make this period of movie-making a golden age. Evelyn Keyes doesn’t get enough to do as Dr Garth’s daughter Martha but what she does do she does well.
Director Nick Grinde was one of those solid journeyman directors who rarely reached any great heights but were good at bringing in B-movies on time and on budget and could be relied upon to produce satisfactory results in just about any genre.
As with so many horror movies this one explores the theme of science trying to do too much, to go too far. In the world of horror movies this is always a dangerous thing to do. As Dr Garth tells a young colleague, in the war that science wages against death there will be casualties. It’s by no means an anti-science movie; it merely points out that scientific advances always come with a price.
This movie is one of four in Columbia’s excellent Boris Karloff: Icons of Horror Collection. The transfer is of very high quality although it’s lacking in extras. But at the price this set is a must-buy for all serious horror fans.
Before I Hang is a solid horror B-movie that would be reasonably entertaining anyway but Karloff’s performance gives it that extra something that elevates it a little above the usual B-movie standard. Recommended.