CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
The Croydon-Day production “Corridors of Blood”–its more evocative British title was “The Doctor of Seven Dials” (the name of a once-notorious London slum district)–was yet another horror film set in the Victorian era. It even poached Hammer regular Christopher Lee in the role of “Resurrection Joe,” a secondary villain. The centerpiece of the film, almost its raison d’ existence, was Boris Karloff, nearing the end of his long career as a horror movie icon, but game to the end. Despite the M.G.M. publicity department’s best attempts at making him appear sinister, Karloff is actually the tragic hero of the film which itself harkens back to a role that Karloff perfected in the early 1940s, that of the medical genius who, coming of age in the wrong age finds himself mocked and ostracized.
Karloff’s Dr. Thomas Bolton is a top London surgeon whose skill is in the speed with which he can saw through bones, amputating limbs before the patients succumb to loss of blood. But his real dream is to be London’s first anesthesiologist. He believes that the right formula will allow him to lull patients into a blissful repose while he does his bloody, but necessary work. Unfortunately for Bolton, the Credo of his colleagues is “Pain and the Knife are inseparable.” When Bolton is finally able to arrange a demonstration of his new painless surgery technique it goes disastrously awry when the patient regains consciousness too soon and he is suspended from the hospital.
Believing that the answer lies in a more potent drug, Bolton goes completely off the wires when he experiments with tincture of opium and finds himself addicted to his “inhalations.” His addiction leads him into the waiting arms of Seven Dials’ local Godfather, “Black Ben,” who needs a reliable supply of fake death certificates so that he can continue to profitably market “Resurrection Joe’s” handiwork to local teaching hospitals. He’ll supply the opium, Bolton, the “penmanship.”
A lot of this film shares plot points with John Gilling’s masterful “Mania,” and that becomes a weakness. In Gilling’s film, you could all but smell the stench and taste the squalor of the world that William Burke and Willie Hare inhabit. It was dark, ugly and overwhelmingly powerful. Robert Day’s Seven Dials looks like a set for a period film. Despite the artfully-applied dirt smears on faces and bare feet, you never really feel the truth of it. Karloff needed a lifetime of acting chops to get you so caught up in the dilemma of Dr. Bolton–a good man fallen in among thieves–that you ignore the basic falseness of the setting to concentrate on the emerging tragedy. British horror films usually rely upon their actors to move things along, and “Corridors of Blood” boasted an usually strong cast. In addition to up-and-coming horror icon Lee–here teamed with Karloff for the first time–Francis Matthews played Karloff’s son and fellow-surgeon who ironically loves his father, but believes him to be mistaken in his goal of painless surgery, Betta St. John played his adoring ward. Bearded and burly, Francis De Wolff made a formidable “Black Ben” and Adrienne Corri played his lovely but evil partner-in-crime. Nigel Green turned up as a two-fisted police inspector out to nail Ben and his gang and Yvonne Romain, here billed as “Yvonne Warren” played woo bait to lure the suckers into “Resurrection Joe’s” clutches.
Filmed in 1958 in conjunction with another Karloff/Croydon-Day collaboration, “The Haunted Strangler,” but unreleased in the U.S. until 1960, “Corridors of Blood” is a workman-like affair, well-worth seeing, but sadly not a masterpiece. Karloff would have to wait a few more years and travel to Italy for one of those to come along.