Saturday, January 8, 2011

NIGHT KEY (1937)

A question that I like to return to in the course of this viewing project is how and why some of the horror-less SHOCK! features have come to be horror-ized over the years while others have not. The most recent example of this that I have written about was SECRET OF THE CHATEAU; SECRET OF THE CHATEAU is no more of a horror movie than, say, THE WITNESS VANISHES (a film from the "Crime Club" series that also turned up in SHOCK!), yet SECRET OF THE CHATEAU frequently passes as a horror film among Universal fans. The only explanation that I can see is that the inclusion of some movies in the post-SHOCK! feature showcases of the 1960s and 1970s must have given them reputations as horror films, but how did some films benefit from this horror-movie notoriety and others did not?

listing for WTOL-Toldeo, Saturday April 18, 1959

In NIGHT KEY, Boris Karloff plays David Mallory, a gentle, mild-mannered inventor (as opposed to the crazed, cunning mad scientist) who is losing eyesight and would do anything to protect and care for his beloved daughter. Not very monstrous. But 1937 was a tough year for lovers of Universal horror films: the British ban on horror movies robbed the studios of European markets and dampened their enthusiasm for making them; moreover, it appears that ticket sales in the US were dropping off. A new horror cycle would begin at Universal in 1939 with SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, but in the meantime, the pickings were mighty slim. (Karloff did three pictures for Warner Bros [WEST OF SHANGHAI; THE INVISIBLE MENACE; DEVIL'S ISLAND] and the Mr. Wong movies for Monogram during this time.) This explains why the only listing for "1937" in Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas' Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946 is a crime melodrama: NIGHT KEY.

Times Record, Troy, NY, August 28, 1958. The "CinemaSix" show frequently featured SHOCK! pictures.

NIGHT KEY got a lot of play on the SHOCK! circuit (probably because of the Karloff factor: "Let's see: Universal, Karloff, a spooky title like 'NIGHT KEY'-- this must be a horror movie," etc.). Based on small sample that I perused, it appears that, remarkably, the film got even more play as a horror movie between 1970 and 1980 (as well as putting in some appearances on "Science-Fiction Theater"-types of shows, thanks to the titular anti-alarm gizmo, Mallory's electric eye security system, and the d.i.y. electrical force-field that he rigs to get away from the crooks).

I wonder if NIGHT KEY's horror-movie reputation in the late 1950s on TV had gathered some momentum from the Realarts publicity push. Realarts theatrically re-released NIGHT KEY in 1954 and had no qualms about concocting the idea that the movie had horror-content. In this Realarts lobby card that I lifted from the NIGHT KEY thread on the Classic Horror Film Board, the image of Karloff isn't Dave Mallory from NIGHT KEY but the far more sinister Dr. Friedrich Hohner from THE CLIMAX (1944). The "Death in the Wax Museum!" come-on line is completely make-believe... there is no wax museum in this movie.

Amusingly, even today, NIGHT KEY's reputation as a horror film continues: the cover of Universal's 2006 five-film DVD set "The Boris Karloff Collection" promises "The Master of Horror in His Most Frightening Roles!" To put it plainly, I don't think that anyone who has ever seen Karloff playing a practical joke with twirling open umbrellas or wearing a party hat made from an old newspaper while eating cake in NIGHT KEY would classify David Mallory as one of Karloff's most frightening roles.

edited from a listing in the Evening Standard, Uniontown, PA, March 14, 1959

Lastly, here's a listing for a telecast of NIGHT KEY on a program on WJAC-Johnstown called "Ghoul's Paradise." It's counter-programmed against BEHIND THE MASK (a Son of SHOCK! title) on WTAE-Pittsburgh's "Shock Theatre," hosted by Sir Rodger (see E-Gor's Chamber of TV Horror Hosts for details and scroll down to "Sir Rodger"). I couldn't find any information on the wonderfully-named "Ghoul's Paradise"-- it appears to have run for only a few months in 1959 and I believe that it was hostless with an offscreen announcer. If anyone reading this has more information on "Ghoul's Paradise," please let me know-- I'd like to learn more.

NEXT: "MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, the masterpiece of America's greatest creator of horror, Edgar Allan Poe, is coming your way in the Shock feature film presentation starring Bela Lugosi on this channel."


Mirek said...

"Ghoul's Paradise"--love that program title, too!

Max the drunken severed head said...

"...yet SECRET OF THE CHATEAU frequently passes as a horror film among Universal fans."

This statement surprised me. In my experience among classic Universal film fans and among 16mm film collectors, (as well as in my readings of various magazines, books, and message boards), I have practically no attention given to this film, and certainly never as anything other than as a cheap mystery film. Your mileage has certainly varied from mine. Interesting.

As you point out, it, like NIGHT KEY, is an inappropriate choice for a package of films called SHOCK!

With NIGHT KEY, I think any film with a night-time setting, fantasy elements (however mild) and starring Boris Karloff is going to be tangentially labeled as horror. (Especially because of Boris--Karloff's "touch" being like that of a spooky King Midas.) Except for businessmen interested in padding out a syndication list, (or later, a dvd collection), no one would *seriously* regard it as "horror."

Great blog entries! Thanks for the good reads.

The Creeping Bride said...

You're probably right, Max-- that may be too much hyperbole on my part. Thanks for keeping me honest!

But you have to admit (I think?) that, though clearly a non-horror movie, SECRET OF THE CHATEAU has shown up a lot more on monster-chiller-horror-theater shows than some of the other non-horror movies.

Also, I think that an obvious, simple explanation as to why some of these non-horror movies have such a lasting horror reputation is that no one has seen it recently-- they don't show 'em on TV any more, and they are unavailable on DVD. So, unless you deal with the gray-black markets or 16mm collectors, you don't see these things and have to speculate about what they're like based on random stills and plot descriptions... kinda like when we were kids without VCRs thumbing through TV guides!

kochillt said...

How I miss those old TV guides! I used to scour them for all horror-related items since 1979, and kept many, especially from other cities. Alas, I had missed out on NIGHT KEY when it aired on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER on channel 11, WIIC-TV (twice- Sept 18 1976, with THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD, and June 24 1978, with SHE-WOLF OF LONDON). WTAE-TV, channel 4, had already shown it in 1959, as revealed by the clipping, but channel 11 made up for lost time during the 80's. By 1937, neither Boris nor Bela were welcome at "The New Universal," because this Karloff title was the last one on a contract signed with the Laemmles (however, they would return with a vengeance with 1939's SON OF FRANKENSTEIN). It was interesting to see both Samuel S. Hinds and Frank Reicher as villains, with Karloff as the hero, but he was no longer billed only as "KARLOFF." As to the label, SECRET OF THE CHATEAU was advertised as horror since its initial 1934 release, but only the Realart reissue from the 50's tried to portray this in a science fictional light. Nothing special, but perhaps less disappointing now than for original SHOCK! viewers of the late 50's. Also joining Boris and Bela in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN was Ward Bond, seen here in a decent role as the top henchman "Fingers."