The second Boris Karloff movie in the Monsters & Madmen boxed set is not the expected monster flick, but instead a melodrama with tinges of Victorian horror and elements of morbid tragedy. 1959's provocatively titled Corridors of Blood is the story of Dr. Thomas Bolton, a surgeon in 1840s London obsessed with the idea of finding a way to perform operations without causing the patients great pain. No anesthetics had yet been invented, and so swiftness is believed to be the best way to operate with a minimum of harm. Bolton is the speediest cutter in the hospital, but the screams of those he means to help still haunt him.
In addition to his duties at the hospital, Bolton is a humanitarian who spends his off hours providing free medical care to the poor in the Seven Dials slum, and in a movie like this, it's a fair bet that anyone this good is likely to be taken advantage of. Bolton is preyed upon by unsavory types; in particular, Black Ben (Francis De Wolff), the owner of a seedy tavern in the ghetto. Ben tricks the good doctor into signing a death certificate for a cadaver he swears died of a fever but who was really strangled by Ben's colleague, the sinister Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee). With proof of a legal death in hand, they can sell the body to Bolton's hospital to be chopped up by eager students.
An accident with his own laughing gas concoction leaves a giggling Dr. Bolton wounded from broken glass but surprisingly free of pain. His niece, Susan (Bella St. John), points out that he must have found the formula he has been looking for if he didn't feel the cut, and so Bolton amps up his efforts. Determined to find the right combination of chemicals, he continues experimenting on himself. Huffing his dangerous gas, he goes into fevered states, wandering to Black Ben's in the middle of the night and completely forgetting everything by morning. The more he experiments, the worse it gets. His surgery begins to suffer, and he even takes a hit to perk himself up so he can face company Susan has invited over to the house. Dr. Bolton has become a full-blown addict! Suspended from work, he starts suffering withdrawals, and he makes a pact with Ben and Joe to trade more death certificates for helping him steal the chemicals he needs for his drug. Murder follows, and the doctor makes his final descent into the darkness.
Every time Karloff would hook himself up to his gas contraption, a kind of mad scientist hookah, I kept expecting him to turn into a deformed killer like the one he played the year before, working with the same director (Robert Day) and producer (Richard Gordon), in The Haunted Strangler. No such luck. Anyone looking for more shocking thrills and chills are likely to be disappointed by Corridors of Blood. Most of that blood is confined to the hospital and the gruesome surgeries Bolton performs, and the closest we get to a monster is the menacing Resurrection Joe. Christopher Lee makes an imposing villain. Tall and thin, dressed in a long black coat and a stove pipe hat, his angular face cut by shadows and marked by scars, Joe says little but he does much. The most horrific act of violence in the movie isn't when he snuffs out the life of his victims with a filthy pillow, but when he sexually assaults the flirty waitress Rosa (Yvonne Warren), smiling at her cries of terror.
Too bad there isn't more of Resurrection Joe. I wouldn't have minded if he had been the doc's sidekick rather than Black Ben's, bringing him live test subjects to try his creations on. Unfortunately, without either of these men unleashing their darker talents, Corridors of Blood can be a little slow going. Robert Day shoots the picture in a rather straight-ahead style, relying on Karloff's panic to convey the frenzied emotions when sharper angles and exaggerated focus could have really amped up the paranoia. Even the doctor's hallucinations are rather staid, getting no crazier than simple double vision.
Perhaps it's a case of misguided expectations, I was too busy looking for what I thought would be there to see what really was, but in a boxed set called Monsters and Madmen I expect one or the other in the movies contained therein. Corridors of Blood had the potential to have both, and they could have even done it without resorting to the supernatural. (Though, why shouldn't they? It's not like Thomas Bolton was real!) A more wicked Resurrection Joe, a less scrupulous and more driven doctor--these things could have meant we'd really see some bloodstained hallways. Instead, we're safely shielded from the splatter. Dr. Thomas Bolton wanted painless surgery, and instead he got a painless movie.