Boris Karloff didn’t get a lot of legit acting opportunities in the later stages of his career. His many glorified Guest Ghost appearances in over-ripe horror pics earned him top-billing, but scant screen time. So, he must have been pleased with this little British assignment (and its companion pic, THE HAUNTED STRANGLER/’58) which offered a bit of elbow room for his rusty acting chops. Set in Victorian England, which is smartly handled at the cost, Karloff plays a top surgeon desperate to find an effective anaesthetic. But when he winds up addicted to his own formula and in league with a gang of cutthroats, something’s gotta give. The two lines of action (scientific research gone wrong and blackmailing criminal lowlifes) don’t quite add up, but it makes for a kind of geriatric Jekyll & Hyde story, which obviously appealed to Karloff. Robert Day, who helmed most of THE AVENGERS for tv, gets a lot out of his tight budget, and out of a surprisingly good cast, including the young Christopher Lee who does a neat villainous turn. But you only have to compare this with similar cost-conscious efforts Karloff made for Val Lewton’s unit @ RKO to realize how dull & unimaginative it is.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The Lewton pics, BODY SNATCHER/’45; ISLE OF THE DEAD/’45 or BEDLAM/’46 are all superior entries in the field. Or, for a different take on Pain-Free surgery, there’s THE GREAT MOMENT/’44, a bit of a lost cause for the great Preston Sturges who wasn’t able to get the film released in its original form. But it’s still a fascinating miss.