Universal Terror: Night Key/The Climax/The Black Castle [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (25th July 2022).
The Film

One of two box sets of disparate selections of Boris Karloff Universal and Universal-International offerings, Universal Terror brings together a late film from Karloff's first tenure with Universal in Night Key, a Technicolor potboiler from Universal's second horror boom of the forties in The Climax, and one of Universal-International's last gothic horrors from the fifties before the switchover to science fiction with The Black Castle.

The titular Night Key is a new form of security alarm invented by scientist David Mallory (Karloff) whose vision is failing and he believes that selling it to Stephen Ranger (The Raven's Samuel S. Hinds) is a means of setting his daughter Joan (Charlie Chan in Panama's Jean Rogers) up for a life without working the cash register at a cafeteria, even though Ranger stole the patent and took sole credit for his previous security alarm that formed the basis of the Ranger Protective Systems. Ranger's operation has wired up almost the entire city and employs their own security force that rivals the size of the police department to whom they turn over apprehended criminals; and Ranger plans to assuage his disappointment that he and the press will be commemorating the company's ten-thousandth criminal apprehension with inept, small-time crook "Petty" Louie (A Letter to Three Wives' Hobart Cavanaugh) by scamming Mallory again with the help of the old man's own lawyer. After Mallory signs the contract, Ranger reveals that he only wanted the patent so he could not sell it to a rival but has no plans to install it since it would be too costly to replace the current technology. As Mallory is shown out ahead of Ranger's meeting with the press, he warns "What I create, I can destroy," and then humiliates Mallory by using his "Night Key" to spring Petty Louie from his alarmed cell, leaving his warning written on the walls of the cell.

In the days to come, Mallory with Louie's help uses his device to bypass his old system to break into several businesses, only springing the alarm after they have left. Since Mallory's goal is primarily revenge and secondarily to pressure Ranger into installing his new system, he forbids Louie to actually steal anything (although his failing eyesight means that Louie can make off with little things). Ranger knows that Mallory is behind the break-ins but withholds that information from the police and the press lest they discover his own treachery, instead sending his own security force after Mallory who goes on the run with Louie. Ranger security office Jim Travers (The Walking Dead's Warren Hull) trails Joan in hopes that she will contact her father, but his growing attraction to her causes him to look into his employer's double-crossing of Mallory. When thief The Kid (Saboteur's Alan Baxter) – whose own grizzled scientist Krueger (Mystery of the Wax Museum's Edwin Maxwell) has been unsuccessful at bypassing Ranger's system – discovers that Petty Louie is involved in the break-ins, he uses the thief to bring Mallory into his larger scale operation by force. Mallory smashes his device rather than enable a crime wave, so The Kid abducts Joan to ensure his cooperation.

Coming at the tail end of Karloff's first tenure at Universal when horror was on the outs after Britain's first moral panic over the genre had them threatening to outright reject any more such efforts from the American studio, Night Key anticipates the wronged mad scientist films Karloff did at Columbia during the early forties The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man with Nine Lives, and Before I Hang but Karloff's wronged scientist here is ultimately benevolent. Baxter's soft-spoken crook and his violent heavy "Fingers" (The Maltese Falcon's Ward Bond) are too over the top to be truly threatening, making usual good guy Hinds' industrialist seem more vile by comparison. The romantic subplot byplay between Travers and Joan also undercuts the thriller aspects; however, Night Key gets the job done if the viewer is in the right mood for a Universal Karloff film that plays more like a Poverty Row quickie -- with only one particularly ruthless-seeming last minute killing suggesting the imposition of the Production Code with a "crime does not pay" moral – in spite of the usual studio production values and typically fine photography by studio regular George Robinson (Son of Frankenstein), with only studio optical effects stalwart John P. Fulton (The Invisible Man) probably glad he went uncredited for some electrical shock effects that look like they were scratched into the negative with pinpoint.

In The Climax, Viennese opera physician Dr. Friedrich Hohner (Karloff) has not been the same since the company's prima donna Marcellina (Black Angel's June Vincent) mysteriously vanished ten years ago, wandering the streets at night and falling asleep in her dusty, disused dressing room. When he overhears the voice of music student Angela Klatt (The Phantom of the Opera's Susanna Foster) – snuck into the opera's library by Seebruck's retainer Carl (Pride of the Yankees' Ludwig Stössel) along with his nephew and Angela's aspiring composer fiancé Franz Munzer (The Amazing Mr. X's Turhan Bey) to study old scores – singing "The Magic Voice" and sounding so like Marcellina, he is angered that anyone would desecrate her "sacred music." The company's manager Count Seebruck (Key Largo's Thomas Gomez), on the other hand, is overjoyed since her raw talent is just what he needs to resolve the difficulty between diva Jarmila Vadek (A Song for Miss Julie's Jane Farrar) and leading man Angelo Roselli (Scared Stiff's George Dolenz, father of Mickey Dolenz) by replacing her with Angela. Angela is an instant hit during her opening night performance, so much so that Seebruck decides to resurrect "The Magic Voice" as her star vehicle; whereupon, Hohner gives Angela a throat examination during which he hypnotizes her and forbids her to sing. When Angela seemingly loses her nerve on-stage during an exhibition for the press, Hohner invites her to recuperate at his home where he keeps a shrine to Marcellina tended by the singer's devoted dresser Louise (The Savage Intruder's Gale Sondergaard) under the guise of treating her, he continues to hypnotize her but the haunting beckoning of Marcellina's ghostly voice from a mysterious locked room might drive him to silence Angela forever.

Seemingly an in-spirit sequel to Universal's 1943 Technicolor The Phantom of the Opera – also starring Foster, produced by this film's director George Waggner (Man Made Monster), and also shot on the same redressed standing sets from the studio's 1925 Phantom of the Opera (much-reused in the interim), The Climax is handsome-looking but just as wrong-headed a horror film as the aforementioned 1943 film. Suspense is non-existent due to an early flashback, Edward Ward's "opera" music is incredibly wretched, and the comedy is jarring rather than charming. Karloff and Sondergaard are given little to do, Foster is as passive as in the earlier film, and Bey is incredibly miscast, seeming more opportunistic and exploitative rather than encouraging when his fiancée expresses hypnosis-induced doubts about her career. There is no chandelier fall, but the titular "climax" does include a contrived Technicolor-friendly conflagration, but the film ultimately disappoints as a Karloff horror effort and even as a companion piece to the studio's watered down "Phantom" adaptation of the previous year.

The Black Castle is the Viennese manse of the Count von Bruno (Criss Cross' Stephen McNally) into which Sir Ronald Burton (Sword of Sherwood Forest's Richard Greene) gains entrance for a hunting party under the guise of non-titled gentleman Richard Beckett in order to investigate the disappearance of two of his good friends who crossed the Count during the two countries' race to cash-in on West Africa's ivory trade, costing the Count an eye. Burton cannot help but humiliate two of von Bruno's close friends – Counts Steiken (When Worlds Collide's John Hoyt) and von Melcher (Curse of the Undead's Michael Pate) – when they bully the Count's coachman Fender (Harry Corden, future voice of Fred Flintstone), he risks exposing himself before he even reaches the castle.

Upon Burton's arrival, the Count is only too eager to display his casual sadism, giving Burton and his own new bride Elga (The Body Snatcher's Rita Corday) a tour of his dungeons and introducing them to the tiger he has imported from Africa for the hunt. When he recognizes an African charm belonging to one of his missing friends worn by Elga as a pendant, he tries to get close to her and ends up falling for her, rousing the Count's jealousy – even as he is already romancing his potential next wife in ruthless sportswoman Therese (Whirlpool's Nancy Valentine) – and he consigns the two "lovers" to the dungeon where their only hopes are Burton's servant Romley (My Cousin Rachel's Tudor Owen) and the Count's own physician Dr. Meissen (Karloff).

Somewhat of a follow-up to The Strange Door – which surely would have been a better choice for this set than Night Key which would have been better off with Black Friday and The Invisible Ray in Eureka's upcoming Maniacal Mayhem Karloff set – The Black Castle is better-known to horror fans as the last of Universal's gothic horror films before the switch to science fiction in the mid-fifties and possibly also as the last Universal picture for Lon Chaney Jr. cast here in a seeming career humiliation as the Count's hulking servant with no dialogue. Amidst standing sets and props recycled from not only The Strange Door but several earlier Universal pics dripping with monochrome atmosphere, it is not Karloff or Chaney that bring life to the film, or even action romantic lead Greene and love interest Corday, but actually McHattie and Pate who give the film a sense of menace that even Charles Laughton did not bring the earlier film. In spite of a wraparound teaser involving the hero on the verge of being buried alive, the ending is more than a bit of a disappointment with a less significant villain meeting the Count's moat of alligators and the main villains getting off easier in comparison. The film marked the directorial debut of Oscar-winning art director Nathan Juran – who would go on to direct sci-fi efforts for rival studios Universal (The Deadly Mantis) and Columbia Pictures (20 Million Miles to Earth) – when The Strange Door director Joseph Pevney (Man of a Thousand Faces) quit or was fired.


Following its 1937 theatrical release, Night Key was reissued theatrically in 1954 by Realart Pictures and then went into syndication as part of Screen Gems' "Shock Theatre" program in 1957. The film was skipped the VHS format when Universal started cashing in on their more obscure horror pictures in the 1990s, debuting on DVD in The Boris Karloff Collection with this Blu-ray set's two co-features followed by a Vault Series burn-on-demand solo release. The film made its Blu-ray bow in 2020 stateside as part of the Universal Horror Collection: Volume 4 followed by a French edition earlier this year. Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 transfer is the same master from a Realart reissue source that boasts a nice range of whites, blacks, and grays in keeping with some of the better preserved of the studio's lesser-known genre efforts and one of a number of films from this period that anticipate the film noir look of the next decade. Detail is excellent during the film proper with only a few degraded stock shots and a few John Fulton process shots looking a bit softer.

Following its theatrical release, The Climax became hard to see, rousing the curiosity of horror fans as a Karloff vehicle. Presumably its Technicolor hues and its Phantom of the Opera-adjacent-ness warranted not only a 1996 Universal VHS but also a double-bill Encore Edition laserdisc with The Strange Door but it did not hit DVD until the aforementioned The Boris Karloff Collection (and the Vault Series DVD-R). The film also made its Blu-ray debut in the aforementioned Universal Horror Collection: Volume 4. Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer comes from the same master. Apart from some minute speckling and the usual coarsening in opticals, the Technicolor image is wonderfully lush and colorful with the pink bias of some scenes an effect of the color scheme with the environs of the mad doctor's home giving a monochrome impression spiked by Foster and her costumes compared to the hair, make-up, and wardrobe choices for Karloff and Sondergaard.

Following its theatrical release, The Black Castle was hard to see until its 1995 Universal VHS release followed by its DVD bow in the aforementioned The Boris Karloff Collection and the usual Vault Series DVD-R. The film made its Blu-ray debut stateside as part of the Universal Horror Collection Volume 6 in 2020 from a 2K scan of a fine grain element, and the same master is used for Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray. Detail is stunning in close-ups of actors, insert details, and the many recycled interior sets and studio backdrops while a few coarser shots may be evidence of recycled shots from The Strange Door (note that when one character takes a tumble into the moat of alligators, we only see roiling water rather than the creatures we were shown earlier in a contrasty cutaway).


The Westrex-system mono mixes of all three films are given uncompressed LPCM 2.0 audio encodings here. Night Key is one of those early Universal films that primarily used scoring for the credits and some sparse source music during the film proper. Dialogue is crisp and clear as are the alarm and electrical noises while the sound design is rarely "busy" apart from the climax. The Climax being a semi-musical boasts clear dialogue, scoring, and vocals while the ambience is usually restrained and restricted to crowd murmurs and applause. The most recent of the films, The Black Castle has a bit of hiss during the silences but dialogue is always intelligible and there are a few piercing screams that will raise the viewers' goosebumps (surprisingly, the most startling one is that of actor Hoyt rather than starlet Corday). Optional English HoH subtitles are provided for all three films.


Night Key and The Climax are accompanied each by an audio commentary by critics Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby. On Night Key, they put the film in the context of the unofficial horror ban and the studio not knowing what to do with Karloff's contract, how the film anticipates his Columbia Pictures mad doctor films, the film's science fiction and comic elements – as well as the tone shift of the latter half – the character's blindness as a McGuffin that goes nowhere rather than being the expected countdown element, as well as the production troubles that brought film over-budget and over-schedule (with more experienced directors Arthur Lubin and Sidney Salkow signed on at different points before actor Lloyd Corrigan ended up in the director's chair). Of The Climax, Lyons and Rigby reveal that the film was always going to be an adaptation of the Edward Locke stage play – previously filmed by Universal in 1930 – even when the 1944 film had been announced as a sequel to the 1943 Phantom of the Opera (for which Karloff had one been considered before Claude Rains). Although they are of the opinion that it is better than the former film, they do poke fun at its operetta-like idea of turn-of-the-century Viennese opera and also point out that the film is actually a Suzanne Farmer vehicle rather than a Karloff vehicle.

The Black Castle is accompanied by an audio commentary by author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman who discuss the film's connection to The Strange Door and the replacement of director Pevney with Juran, the borrowings of sets and props from that film and other Universal pics, the film as being a combination of the previous decade's gothic horror and swashbuckling adventurer genre trends (while also noting how scenarios for genres also lend themselves to the western genre), their disappointment with Karloff's characterization while speaking more warmly of Greene here and his Robin Hood TV and film fame – before being cast as the worst Nayland Smith in two Jess Franco Fu Manchu films – and the former film being attributed to a Robert Louis Stevenson story while it anticipated Roger Corman's Poe films by borrowing element form "The Raven" and "The Pit and the Pendulum" while The Black Castle is a hodgepodge of "The Premature Burial" and Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game". Only the first two films include theatrical trailers (1:38 and 2:07, respectively), and each film includes separate production stills and artwork and ephemera galleries.


Neither the collector's slipcase or the collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Karloff expert Stephen Jacobs have been supplied for review.


One of two box sets of disparate selections of Boris Karloff Universal and Universal-International offerings, Universal Terror brings together a late film from Karloff's first tenure with the studio, a misfire of a Technicolor potboiler from their second horror boom of the forties, and one of their last gothic horrors from the fifties.


Rewind DVDCompare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.fr, amazon.de, amazon.it and amazon.es . As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.