(7/10) This rare British sci-fi horror film from 1936 is a tad formulaic, as it rides on Boris Karloff’s mad scientist fame, but it is certainly better written, acted and directed than most of the abysmal Columbia films he would get stuck in later. Great actors and a very witty dialogue help Karloff do one of his best film appearances.
The Man Who Changed His Mind. 1936, UK. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Written by John L. Balderston, Sidney Gilliat, L. du Garde Peach. Starring: Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, John Loder, Frank Cellier, Donald Calthrop, Cecil Parker. Produced by Michael Balcon. IMDb: 6.7/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
As the American mad scientist films started to slowly wane in quality in the second half of the 1930s, and Universal shut down their horror film production for at few years as its head of production, Carl Laemmle Jr. was reassigned, the Brits came to the rescue with The Man Who Changed His Mind (released as The Man Who Lived Again and Dr. Maniac in the US). The filming saw Boris Karloff back home in Britain for the first time after his tremendous success with Frankenstein (1931, review), and the change of scenery seems to have done him good, as he delivers one of his best performances, surrounded by a superb co-cast and working from a fast-paced, funny and witty script.
Young and brilliant surgeon Dr. Clare Wyatt (Anna Lee) leaves her mentor Dr. Gratton (Cecil Parker) to work as an assistant for the eccentric but once famed scientist Dr. Laurience (Boris Karloff). Replicating the journey in Dracula, Wyatt travels by train and later horse and carriage through a dark, misty Britain to a spooky old mansion (the driver even takes a hike like in Dracula), where she is met by the doctor’s wheelchair-bound old assistant Clayton (Donald Calthrop).
Laurience is thrilled to have his old student working with him, but is slow to reveal his actual experiments – he has been able to refine a method for transferring the mind from one chimpanzee to another – and is now keen on experimenting with humans.
But before this revelation, we meet the staple wise-cracking reporter Dick Haslewood (John Loder) who falls in love with Wyatt, and warns her that the whole village is ripe with rumours about the doctor’s strange experiments – of which he also writes a piece in the newspaper owned by his father Lord Haslewood (Frank Cellier). Lord Haslewood also happens to be the founder of Europe’s largest research institute, and after reading the story, he invites Dr. Laurience to work there, all expenses covered – hoping to cash in on any publicity.
But when Laurience settles in London he quickly finds himself mired in trouble. Dr. Wyatt refuses to help him work on human beings, and he is laughed out of the auditorium when he tries to convince the scientific community of his breakthrough. Lord Haslewood then tells Laurience he is going to terminate everything, and send Laurience back to the hole from whence he crawled. In a lovely montage shot we see Karloff slowly losing his mind, after which he attacks Haslewood and swaps minds between him and Clayton. When Haslewood tries to rise in Clayton’s body, he drops dead of a heart attack. Laurience then convinces Clayton to take over the life of Lord Haslewood so that he can continue the research.
But this isn’t enough, since Laurience has now fallen in love with Wyatt, who in turn has become enamoured with Dick Haslewood. At the same time Clayton realises that Lord Haslewood has a bum ticker, which prevents him from drinking alcohol, which leads him to wanting the body of Dick Haslewood, so he can inherit his empire. But Laurience comes up with a diabolical plan. He strangles Clayton, so that Laurience’s body will be tried for murder. He then kidnaps Dick and switches bodies with him, so he can be young, inherit the empire himself, AND have the babe, and Dick will be safely behind bars as a murderer. But he hasn’t counted on the fact that Dick doesn’t touch cigarettes, so when Wyatt sees him chain-smoking she realises the truth, and knocks him out. Dick, now in Laurience’s body, manages to escape a deadly gas chamber and falls out of a window, breaking all his bones. Wyatt and Dr. Gratton manage to talk the police into carrying him back up to the lab, where Wyatt herself becomes mad scientist and undoes the transformation just in the nick of time. Laurience, now back in his dying body, naturally repents on his death bed – as we known, there are some things that man should not meddle in.
At one hour in length, this film just flies past the viewer. This is both a merit and a flaw. On the positive side; it is short, to the point, and doesn’t have an ounce of extra baggage. The problem is that it does feel a bit lightweight. Even though the film flirts with Dracula in the beginning, the tone quickly changes from gothic horror to a pace that is more familiar from crime dramas, although this one is heavily spiced with science fiction.
The Man Who Changed His Mind has a smart script and is laced with pitch-black humour, much of it from the mouth of Clayton, whether played by Donald Calthrop or Frank Cellier. One thing that does make this movie stand out is, as we pointed out earlier, its strong female character, well performed by Anna Lee. The role of Clare Wyatt is set up as a strong character from the start, with the words of Chris Hewson at the blog Not This Time, Nayland Smith: “Clare is a very strong protagonist. Intelligent, determined, and proactive, she holds her own superbly, and manages to save the day all by herself! There’s never a moment where a man does something for her and gets her out of danger, and instead she’s always the one in control of herself, and the one who sees through Laurience’s lies after he’s swapped Clayton and Lord Haselwood.” As the author of the German site Hannes’ Filmarchiv points out, it is a rare reversal of the roles of the knight in shining armour and the damsel in distress. For once, it is the leading lady that saves the leading man, and not the other way around. Very refreshing.
And the acting is superb throughout. Clayton could well have been just another spooky assistant, but Calthrop gives him a certain charm, which makes him likeable, even though he is clearly an asshole. There is a twinkle in his eye saying that beneath the cynical, alcoholic shell, there is some evil genius that refuses to give in to he wheelchair. And it is a testament to both actors that Cellier just simply owns the same character after the two of them have switched.
Cellier is also wonderful as the pompous, self-righteous businessman. John Loder manages to make his fast-talking journalist quite likeable and at the end has a tremendous time being Boris Karloff. Anna Lee is one of the best of the sci-fi horror leading ladies of the thirties. But that may very well also be because this is probably the first time a horror sci-fi leading lady has been given a proper role. Lee takes command of the film from the very beginning as a strong, independent, funny and daring woman, and holds on to that throughout the film.
And then of course we have Karloff himself, who might be the clunkiest actor of the film, but pulls through wonderfully because of a brilliant script, great direction and what seems to be a new-found joy of acting in Britain. He even seems ten years younger than in The Invisible Ray (review), the Universal film released the same year, despite the fact that the former film tried to make him look younger. He is full of energy, leaping and dashing, playing out in a wild manner he seldom was allowed to in the American films he made. This is one of his best – if not the best – of his mad scientist roles, and stands along with The Old Dark House, Frankenstein and The Mummy as some of his finest film work.
The film lacks some of the visual artistry that made James Whale’s Universal horrors such masterpieces, but director Robert Stevenson makes up for this with clear, crisp cinematography, a mobile, fast-moving camera courtesy of Jack Cox, quick editing and a brisk pace. The crazy scientist lab easily matches anything that Kenneth Strickfaden could come up with in the States, although the homage to his work is quite clear. The film also benefits from not borrowing too heavily from Frankenstein, as so many of Karloff’s later Columbia films did.
Robert Stevenson started his career with some dabbling in genre cinema. He wrote the dialogue for the English-language version of F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer (1933, review), and returned to the semi-sci-fi genre in 1937 when he directed Non-Stop New York (review). After that he took to serious drama, then played around with TV in the early fifties, before setting up his tent at Disney’s back lot, and directed many of Uncle Walt’s great live-action films, including the sci-fi-esque The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), the Jules Verne tale In Search of the Castaways (1962), The Island at the Top of the World (1974) and most notably the classic Mary Poppins (1964), that won five Oscars, and for which he was nominated as best director.
The script of The Man Who Changes His Mind was written by a very competent trio. One of them was John L. Balderston, best known for having written the American adaptations of the stage plays Dracula and Frankenstein. Balderston contributed to many of Universal’s horror films in the early days, but later he worked on high profile films like The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Gone With the Wind (1939) and Gaslight (1944). He was nominated for an Oscar twice. In sci-fi he is remembered for writing for The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review), and for his 1932 play Red Planet, that was turned into the film Red Planet Mars in 1952 (review).
John Loder also appeared on Non-Stop New York, as did Cellier. Anna Lee played the lead in Non-Stop New York, and teamed up again with Karloff in Bedlam in 1946. She had a long and reasonably successful career, and appeared in a recurring role in the TV-series General Hospital as late as 2003, a year before her death.
Calthrop played one of the major roles as Sunshine the photographer in F.P.1. Does Not Answer, a role that went to Peter Lorre in the German version. Cecil Parker starred in the 1962 sci-fi film The Brain, but is perhaps best known for his role as one of the original Ladykillers (1955), alongside Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom.
The Man Who Changed His Mind didn’t kick off a boom of mad scientist films in the UK, but was most certainly a way for Gainsborough Pictures to ride the coat-tails of Boris Karloff’s worldwide fame. The press is said to have had a field day during the filming, especially when Karloff’s brothers came to bask in his light. Some of his siblings were diplomats, and it is widely thought that William Henry Pratt chose the stage name Boris Karloff partly as to not embarrass his family back in 1918, when he was still an unknown bit-part actor in Canada. The reaction he got upon his glorious return proves his fears were pretty much unfounded.
While Boris Karloff is equally famous for playing nutty doctors as he is for playing the stuff in their Petri dishes, his mad scientist days were really third phase of his career. The Man Who Changed his mind was the second time Karloff donned the white coat in an SF setting, and to him this must still have represented a welcome change from the monsters, ghouls and racially stereotyped villains he had been at for the last five years. Alas, he sealed his doom after the executives at Columbia saw this film and signed him on for a five-picture deal, basically reprising his role in The Man Who Changed His Mind.
This film is not nearly as well-known Karloff’s monster movies, but most modern critics seem to concur that it is one of his best films post-Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review). Steve Miller at Shades of Grey writes that it is “driven by a tight, expertly paced script that presents just the right mixture of horror and humor to make both aspects as effective as possible”. Not all agree. The Terror Trap gives it 2,5/5 stars, calls it “formulaic” and writes that it is “often too restrained in its approach and fails to deliver its fair share of chills”. Still, the consensus seems to be, with the words of Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings, that “it ranks with some of [Karloff’s] best work and is definitely worth catching”.
The Man Who Changes His Mind. 1936, UK. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Written by John L. Balderston, Sidney Gilliat, L. du Garde Peach. Starring: Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, John Loder, Frank Cellier, Donald Calthrop, Cecil Parker, Lyn Harding. Music: Hubert Bath. Cinematography: Jack E. Cox. Editing: R.E. Dearing, Alfred Roome. Art direction: Alex Vetchinsky. Costume design: Molyneux. Makeup: Roy Ashton. Sound: Bill Salter. Produced by Michael Balconfor Gainsborough Pictures.