After helping invent modern horror cinema through his various characterizations at Universal Studios, Boris Karloff went on to appear in a series of well-regarded "mad doctor" films for Columbia, most notably THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939). In this film, Karloff plays Dr. Saavard, a scientist who, with good intentions, experiments with technology designed to deprive people of life functions long enough to perform critical, life-saving surgeries. Unfortunately, the police interfere with his experiments when the nervous fiancee of his volunteer test subject spills the beans, resulting in a murder trial. The reactionary jury fails to understand the humanitarian purpose behind Saavard's experiments, and thus, the judge sentences Saavard to death by--you guessed it--hanging. Fortunately, Saavard's assistant acquires Saavard's body after the execution and applies the life after death process to Saavard's corpse--after fixing his broken neck, of course. The final act of this brisk film (just over an hour) involves the revenge of Saavard as he gathers those involved in his sentencing in his old home, telling them the appointed hours of their respective deaths and arranging for them to carry out their own death sentences.
Catching up with this movie on Columbia's "Icons of Horror" Boris Karloff collection, I was struck by the unlikely parallels to the recent and more visceral SAW series. Like the "Jigsaw" character of that film, Saavard de-emphasizes his role in the death of his victims, choosing instead to supply them with the means to bring about their own destruction. He also intends to "better" humanity through his efforts, though Saavard's motivation stems largely from revenge. With Jigsaw and Saavard, we also have two characters who have to contend with their own deaths, Jigsaw being terminally ill, while Saavard has literally been brought back from the dead.
BEWARE: I'M GONNA REVEAL SOME FUN PLOT DETAILS! While Saavard doesn't concoct anything quite as gruesome or elaborate as Jigsaw (no one has to perform surgery on themselves), he does come up with some groovy ways for people to exact their own deaths. The judge electrocutes himself, while my favorite death involves a panicking character who answers a phone call, only to have poisoned needle come through the receiver and pierce his brain.
The final act in Saavard's home makes for entertaining viewing, and it ends all too soon, with Saavard's plan falling apart before he can make a real dent in the number of his intended victims. I'd have liked to see the film-makers make more use of Karloff in his ressurrected, vengeance-starved persona, but in its existing form, THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG still makes for entertaining viewing.
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