Director: Robert Day
Screenplay: Jean Scott Rogers
Cast: Boris Karloff (as Dr. Thomas Bolton); Betta St. John (as Susan); Francis de Wolff (as Black Ben); Adrienne Corri (as Rachel); Christopher Lee (as Resurrection Joe)
Synopsis: In 1840s London, renowned surgeon Dr. Thomas Bolton (Karloff) experiments with the possibility of surgery without pain, attempting to develop an anaesthesia gas. When his first public demonstration fails, he becomes despondent and starts a new experiment with an opium based gas for a stronger effect. The gas slowly robs him of his free will, devoted to his experiments to an obsessive state but becoming an addict at the same time, slowly becoming less competent at his daily work as the narcotic effects his mind. It also leads to nightly stupors he cannot remember, leading him into the clutches of Black Ben (de Wolff), a malicious inn keeper who with Resurrection Joe (Lee) offer fresh corpses to the hospitals for dissection, Bolton perfect to falsify the documents for a natural death.
Corridors of Blood has title perfect for a drive-in b-movie. But it has a double meaning here - it's a literal metaphor for a period before anaesthesia was developed, where the corridors were literally soiled, sawdust on the surgery room floor to soak up the gore during the operations. As someone who spent one term of a university history course studying medical history in the British Isles, it was a pleasant surprise to find out this not the mad scientist film I expected, but one directly placed in a part of history where body snatchers and the rocky beginnings of medical advancement existed. Whether this film qualifies as an actual horror film or not is up to debate, as much an issue as with whether it's also a drama or not, entrenched both but not completely. It's too lurid to be fully viewed as a sensible, sombre minded drama, but the horror is more in the London depicted in its germ ridden, poverty filled state. This was a period where graveyards would become so crowded bodies piled in together in the same grave, even if it meant digging them back up, to save space. A time the Thames became so filled with faecal matter and waste the Houses of Parliament suffered from the smell projected off it during a hot early afternoon. The horror is in death as a matter-of-fact acceptance of life, especially in a time before pain relief in surgery when amputation was more common.
In the central role of a doctor with good, potentially revolutionary intentions lost to failure and addiction, Karlof is perfect. This is him when he's much older, more of the kind grandfather figure with a great warmth and intelligence to him. You feel pity as his mind degrades into repeating continuing his experiments on instinct just for an opiate fix; the gravitas needed to make a character like this more than just the bland figure found in Karloff. In general the casting exceptionally well done. Even in the likes of Black Ben and his wife Rachel, the stereotypes of evil working class who feed off their own, having actors like de Wolff and Corri to give the roles more relish improves on the basic characterisations. Amongst the cast Christopher Lee has only a small role in contrast to the films he would be getting by this point in his career, the same period as his first Hammer Dracula film, but as Resurrection Joe he's allowed to try out something different. An unnerving thug dressed in stark black clothes and hat, Lee's visible height difference against other actors makes him tower over people like a ghoul. That the film never becomes an outright horror film, depicting these characters as opportunists who smother people in their drunken stupors and sell their freshly killed bodies, changes the type of fear they generate. It's nice to know that, rather than a heavy handed anti-drug message this side of Reefer Madness (1936), the concern with Bolton is in him losing his morals in his opium induced cloud by accident rather than becoming immoral immediately. In fact that the ending moves on briefly with historical progress comes off as a more thoughtful way to end the character's plotline. The only thing remotely like an anti-drug movie is the trippy effect used to depict Bolton's opium highs, using previously used footage and audio in repetitious layers until it piles on top of each other, which in itself is a nice thing in itself to have as said sequences do succeed into being very woozy in their effect.
The production design is a key factor for how the film works very well. Shot in rich monochrome, the replicated streets of 19th century London with all its back alleys and rundown streets adds a personality to the film. While the version depicted here is still sanitised - there are always cutaways just before a surgical procedure takes place, only the bloody tools depicted - it thankfully avoids becoming too cleaned and false.
Abstract Spectrum: None
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Nothing of note with this film.
It was an immense surprise to see this. I've been a lot more picky when it comes to British genre films but this one appealed to me more for its historical setting and context for the plot. That it's got Karloff in such a sympathetic lead role adds to this, not another mad doctor figure but something, again, different from usual. Befittingly this was screening after midnight on BBC2, the closest thing I'd get to the old broadcasting schedules where this sort of film was shown more often, adding a greater worth to my delight in the film as the channel introduced me to a film I'd never heard of before.