This post is part of the Boris Karloff blogathon being hosted by Pierre Fournier at Frankensteinia. Spoilers for The Man They Could Not Hang and Before I Hang follow.
Boris Karloff spent a lot of time trying to defeat death. Often in his films, leaps in medical technology offered the possibility of erasing death as a biological necessity, or at least a reversal of the aging process to such a degree that a person's lifespan could be doubled. Karloff's involvement in these breakthroughs could range from the driving intelligence to the assistant to the driving intelligence to the guinea pig. Whatever his place, Karloff always, finally, realized that death cannot be beaten, and to even try is an immoral act.
Karloff's career in anti-morbidity began, of course, in James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein, where he played the stitched-together prototype of immortality to Colin Clive's basically decent, yet deluded, title scientific pioneer. One of Karloff's own first forays into the kind of role Clive portrayed in the earlier film was in Nick Grindé's 1939 The Man They Could Not Hang, in which Karloff plays Dr. Henryk Savaard. Cutting through the script's pseudo-science, Savaard's idea is basically that the heart of a deceased individual, with the kind of medical assistance that includes lots of electricity and beakers, and provided the initial cause of death did not damage the heart, can be restarted, and the deceased can actually be brought back to life. He's attempting to prove this as the film begins, with one of his medical students cheerfully acting as a guinea pig, but he is thwarted by a police raid which has been instigated by the guinea pig's fianceé (and Savaard's nurse), who chose the exact wrong time to turn her private misgivings into action. When the police stop Savaard, he has just killed his assistant, with the intent of bringing him back to life. But the police do not allow him to do this, so the dead stays dead, and Savaard is tried and convicted of murder, sentenced to hang, and hanged. Only, of course, to be brought back to life by one of his partners in science.
Before he's hanged, and before he goes all Dr. Phibes on everybody, Dr. Savaard is given the opportunity to speak in court. Here, Karloff is allowed to rage with moral indignation and frustration at everyone who has allowed the boy to die and condemned him, Savaard, for trying to save humanity from mortality. He tells the judge, the prosecutor, the foolish woman who called the police and ensured the death of her fiancé, that when their time comes, in the moments before they each breathe their last, they will remember him, and what he could have done for them. It is with Savaard's conviction, and with his outraged and bitter words directed at all those who he believes, correctly, to be far stupider than he, that all the love for the human race that might have originally spurred him to pursue his theories, drains away from him forever. When he returns from the dead, he is physically as fit as he was the moment before his appointment with the gallows; however, mentally, even philosophically, he is a changed man. His entire existence at this point is given over to exacting vengeance on everyone he blames for his death.
The thing is, though, now he has proof! His every breath is a slap to the face of the doctors, judges and policemen who laughed at what he claimed were his motives for killing the young man. When presented with this unavoidable proof, each of these men and women is properly thunderstruck, but Savaard does not use this to push his new technology forward. He uses it to mock his enemies, and throw them off-balance long enough to kill them. When his revenge plans inevitably fall short of his ambitions, and Savaard has to use his invention to resuscitate his own daughter before expiring from a gunshot wound himself, his last act with his second life is to destroy all his work so that it can never be reproduced. The last line in the film is delivered to Savaard a split second before he dies, by one of his intended victims: "Why did you destroy it?" No answer is forthcoming, but the only possibility is that Savaard has decided that, outside of his daughter, mankind doesn't deserve what he's offered them.
Had Savaard not been sentenced to hang, but rather given life imprisonment, an imprisonment from which he escaped, would he spend any time seeking revenge, or would he instead retreat to his lab to continue his life's work? Some of Savaard's bloodthirstiness can of course be explained by the gross injustice he suffered, but isn't it also possible that he lost something in the days he spent dead to the world? If a return from the dead is possible, might not something still be lost? In Before I Hang (1940), also directed by Nick Grindé, this question, or some loose variation of it, is also posed. This time playing the far more gentle-of-spirit Dr. John Garth, Karloff is attempting to reverse the aging process. His work, like that of Savaard, is brought to a halt by a death, this time that of an elderly patient. Dr. Garth could not help this man, who was suffering great pain due to his advanced years, so Dr. Garth performed euthanasia. Again, like Savaard, Garth is convicted and sentenced to hang. While in prison, he is allowed to work with the prison doctor, who is convinced that Dr. Garth's new anti-aging, serum-based methods can succeed, and that Garth must be allowed to complete his work. The serum requires blood, and Garth chooses to test the serum on himself, shortly before he's set to hang, using the blood of a recently executed multiple murderer. As it happens, though, Garth's sentences is soon commuted to life imprisonment, which is followed up by a full pardon. As the years Garth has piled up begin to fall away -- he no longer needs eyeglasses, his hair darkens -- he is, like Savaard, walking proof that his crazy ideas aren't so crazy after all. Except that any time he tries to perform his procedure on a patient, he finds himself strangling them to death instead.
Why? Because, in a tip of the cap to the creature's abnormal brain, of the killer's blood now running through his veins. Garth does no choose to murder -- he's overcome by an unstoppable impulse. When he realizes what he's been doing, he begs to be apprehended, even killed himself, so that he won't harm anyone else. His wish is granted, but his work is carried on by his daughter and young apprentice, and the film ends on a note of optimism completely absent from the climax of The Man They Could Not Hang.
Even so, in both films, the best of intentions -- to help mankind live well beyond their natural allotment of years -- results in horror and death. And before Dr. Garth's serum kicks in, both returning Garth to his youth and instilling him with a bloodlust he'd never known before, he spends several weeks in a coma, a condition often referred to as a "living death". Savaard and Garth both return from their graves with a desire to kill that in one case replaces, and in another case betrays, both men's original desire to give life and health to their patients. They don't return from the dead the same men they were when they began that last great journey we will all face, and which we all dread. In perverting nature, the capital N kind, Savaard and Garth also pervert their own private natures, and that piece of themselves that they left behind in their different deaths was their core humanity.
And now look at Karloff in Val Lewton and Robert Wise's The Body Snatcher, from 1945. Five years after Karloff died as the kindly Dr. Garth, he was revived as the cynically and gleefully amoral John Gray, who will do anything to provide his employer, Dr. MacFarlane, with fresh corpses. MacFarlane is a cold man of science who cares only to solve the puzzles that medical science lays before him. He has nothing of the care for mankind shared by Dr. Savaard and Dr. Garth, and Karloff's Gray is amused as he commits the murders that provide the bodies that allow MacFarlane to continue his research. He's further amused by MacFarlane's belief in his own goodness, as well as Gray's essential evilness. Gray knows that MacFarlane is just as nasty and unpleasant a figure, and every bit as culpable in the murders, as Gray himself. Gray also knows where MacFarlane's own brand of medical drive and ambition will lead him. Gray knows how this will end. He's been here before.