Corridors of Blood/The Doctor from Seven Dials (1958/1963) **
With a title like Corridors of Blood, you’d really expect some excitement, wouldn’t you? Well in that case, I suggest you go out and make your own movie called Corridors of Blood, because excitement certainly wasn’t high on Richard Gordon’s agenda when his Producers’ Associates company (the same bunch of twerps who just about put my ass to sleep with First Man Into Space) put this one together. It’s easy to see why it sat on the shelf for five fucking years before PA’s US partners at MGM decided to release it here— despite the high quality of the film from a technical standpoint, its creators’ motto seems to have been “Ever a Dull Moment.”
It’s also easy to see why Producers’ Associates went to MGM’s British division to rent studio space for shooting Corridors of Blood. The movie contains the same uneasy mix of skittish, overly polite horror and overwrought historical melodrama that characterized most of the American company’s own fright films. Doctor Thomas Bolton (Boris Karloff) is a respected surgeon living in London in 1840 (“Before the invention of anesthesia...” as a caption portentously tells us). Bolton is a compassionate man, and his lifelong dream is to find a way to alleviate the suffering of his patients when they go under the knife. His colleagues think he’s crazy, of course. As one of them, a certain Dr. Blount (Gaslight’s Frank Pettingell), is fond of saying, “pain and the knife are inseparable.” Then again, Blount also thinks Bolton’s free clinic in the filthy Seven Dials slum is a waste of his time and energy— the poor, presumably, ought to be beneath the notice of gentleman doctors like Blount and Bolton— so a certain amount of complacency in the face of human misery is probably to be expected from that fat, smug bastard. Even Bolton’s son, Jonathan (Francis Matthews, from Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Rasputin the Mad Monk), a doctor himself, thinks Dad’s big idea is a bit out there. Bolton, however, is undeterred, and every night, after returning home from the hospital or the clinic, he heads up to his attic laboratory to experiment with chemicals that might ease the agonies of surgery.
The first thing he comes up with that seems like it might actually work is a gas he makes by combining nitric acid with a zinc oxide solution. Those of you who paid attention in chemistry class will know what’s going on even before Bolton starts laughing like a madman and stumbling around his laboratory, knocking things over and bringing his live-in niece, Susan (Horror Hotel’s Betta St. John), running to see what all the ruckus is about. That’s right— the good doctor has stumbled upon the curious (and still mostly unexplained) psychoactive effects of nitrous oxide! He must have taken a huge-ass drag of the stuff, though, because he’s completely out of control. Susan does eventually manage to restrain him, but by then, Bolton has already gashed open his hand on one of the flasks and bottles and things that he’s been smashing by accident. But considering the reason for his experiments in the first place, this is actually a good thing. You see, as bad as the cut is, Bolton didn’t feel a thing.
Bolton immediately arranges for a demonstration of his new anesthetic for the medical faculty of his hospital and their students, picks out a patient on whom to perform that demonstration, and spends the week or so before the big day fine-tuning the dosage that will be required to put his chosen patient under. But the man Bolton means to operate on dies just hours before his appointment, and the surgeon must scramble at the last minute to find a replacement. The man he chooses is a big, gruff, vigorous patient from his free clinic, who has an abscessed cut on his left arm, which will need to be lanced and cleaned before gangrene sets in. The man is certainly in good enough health otherwise that he will not be endangered by the nitrous, but he’s apparently a good deal bigger than Bolton’s original patient, and the dosage the doctor so painstakingly arrived at over the past week isn’t strong enough to do the trick. The patient regains his senses just seconds after Bolton begins to cut, and he wigs out, trashing the operating theater and beating up the spectators until Blount puts him out with a solid whack to the head. “You may resume your operation, Mr. Bolton,” Blount remarks snidely, “He’s quite unconscious now!”
So Bolton goes back to the drawing board, looking for something more powerful. He begins experimenting with opiates, which certainly means he’s on the right track, but because Bolton is his own guinea pig, that also means he’s taking some mighty big risks, here. He takes to roaming the streets of London by night in an opium daze, remembering his travels only as cloudy dreams. Eventually, he ends up at a Seven Dials boarding house run by a man called Black Ben (Francis De Wolff, from Devil Doll and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll), where he gets himself into an enormous amount of trouble. Ben and Bolton have met before, you see. The innkeeper once had Bolton come over and sign a death certificate for one of his lodgers, who had succumbed, or so said Ben, to a high fever. Really, though, the lodger was suffocated to death by a friend of Ben’s, a grave-robber turned murderer known as Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee, in his first major role since The Curse of Frankenstein put him on the horror movie map). Joe, Ben, and Ben’s wife, Rachel (Adrienne Corri, of Vampire Circus and Devil Girl From Mars), then sold the man’s body to the hospital— to Dr. Blount, as a matter of fact— and split the proceeds among themselves. When one of Black Ben’s lodgers pickpockets Bolton, relieving him of an expensive watch and his experimental notebook, Ben has a wonderful idea. He’ll blackmail Bolton into signing more phony death certificates for him by threatening to destroy the notebook!
Actually, that’s not even the worst of Bolton’s problems right now. All that opium he’s been smoking late at night has started to have an effect on him. His hands are getting shaky, he’s starting to feel sick and fatigued during the day, and his concentration is completely shot to hell. The breaking point comes when he tries to operate on a little girl while dope-sick, and practically lets her bleed to death as he bumbles his way through the surgery. At the insistence of Blount and Jonathan, Hospital Superintendent Matheson (Finlay Currie) orders Bolton suspended before he destroys the hospital’s reputation with the public.
As it happens, Bolton’s suspension also means that he no longer has access to the dispensary, and that, in turn, means he can no longer get the chemicals he needs to continue his experiments— or service his addiction. He’s finally forced to go to Black Ben, who sends Resurrection Joe with him to the dispensary after hours to break in so that the doctor can steal the drugs he needs. But a policeman catches them in the act, and Joe kills the cop while Bolton ransacks the dispensary shelves. Bolton understandably doesn’t go back to his place after this, but stays on with Black Ben instead. The murder of a cop is a serious matter, though, even in the notoriously lawless slums of Victorian London, and inevitably brings the whole situation to the attention of the authorities, represented here by Inspector Donovan (Nigel Green, from Countess Dracula and The Masque of the Red Death). And when the pharmacist figures out what was taken from the dispensary, Bolton himself becomes the most obvious suspect, especially after Jonathan and Susan tell the police that they believe the old man to be addicted to his own drug. Meanwhile, a concurrent investigation into some dodgy-looking death certificates (the ones Bolton signed for Black Ben, naturally) points the police in the direction of Ben’s pub— the place where all the recipients of the suspect certificates died. Before you can say “Burke and Hare,” Ben’s place is surrounded by cops, and we long-suffering viewers are treated to some real action at last.
It’s hard to imagine how a movie about a dope-addicted surgeon being blackmailed into cooperation with a murder-for-profit racket could be boring, but Corridors of Blood is exactly that. Watching the movie, it’s easy to get the feeling that somebody involved in its creation found the film’s premise rather embarrassing, and was struggling desperately to take a non-exploitation approach to the subject matter, when shameless exploitation is exactly what Corridors of Blood needs. Despite all the talented people involved, the only times this movie really works are the operating-room scenes, which force you to contemplate the notion that up until the comparatively recent past, surgery was distinguishable from torture only because of its different underlying aim. Before the mid-to-late 19th century, the actual experience of the person on the operating table was little different from that of the person in the Inquisition’s torture dungeons. Either way, you were in for excruciating pain, and either way, there was a better than even chance that you would slowly die from your infected wounds even after it was all over. When the movie waves that ugly reality in front of the audience’s faces, it can be pretty effective, but its creators were too squeamish to do very much of that, and most of what they gave us instead amounts to listless period melodrama of the sort whose fans would never allow themselves to be caught buying a ticket to a film called Corridors of Blood.