Movie: Black Friday (1940)

Let’s get this out of the way.  I know you came to this review thinking this 1940’s horror film was about the terrifying sales on the day after Thanksgiving.  Unfortunately, it is about something far less scary.

Really, this vehicle isn’t much of a horror film at all, which is odd, as it stars Boris Karloff and Beli Lugosi.  Perhaps to circumvent the draconian restrictions of the production code in its nascent years, this is more of a mix of the sci-fi and crime genres.  And yet, seemingly in defiance of that production code, this picture curiously lacks a hero.

The film starts on Karloff being taken to the electric chair.  As he passes the reporters gathered in the observation room, he stops at the only one he believes has been most fair to him.  Karloff gives the man a diary he’s been keeping. 

The reporter appears to read the entirety of this lengthy journal while waiting for the execution to begin, which seems to indicate this man reads crazy fast or it takes a very long time to set up an electrocution. Maybe both. 

Using the passages this guy is reading from the journal, we keep going back to those events in flashback.  The film keeps jumping back to the journal rather unnecessarily.  When this happens, it does that “spinning newspaper” effect that was so widespread in pictures of the time.  This is accompanied by a loud sound effect that is meant to be jarring, but which quickly become unintentionally hilarious.

The first event in the diary, and our first flashback, takes us back to…bum bum bum buuuum…Friday the 13th.  On that day, a professor friend of Karloff’s (Stanley Ridges) is run down by a gangster in the course of a firefight between two speeding cars, the other containing the members of a rival gang headed by Lugosi. 

Ridges ends up in a coma.  The gangster who was behind the wheel of the car that hit him is paralyzed.  Karloff comes to the inevitable conclusion any reputable doctor would come to in 1940, using the most dependable and widely-used process of the time: a brain transplant.  Wait…what?!  And Karloff’s intentions aren’t exactly altruistic.  He’s after the 500 grand the gangster left behind, and which nobody can find. 

Now here’s where things get really goofy (as if they weren’t already).  Even though Karloff did a brain transplant, and so his friend now has the gangster’s brain in his cranium, Ridges somehow has both his memories and those of the gangster.  It was at that point I just decided to roll with this; otherwise, the entire movie is null and void.

Karloff takes Ridges to New York City, telling his friend’s wife it would be beneficial for his recovery if the two men went to another location, one there isn’t anybody he might recognize.  The gangster’s memories start surfacing in the mind of Ridges as he is put up in the deceased man’s old hotel room. 

The appearance of the gangster’s mole also jars some memories.  Needless to say, she has trouble reconciling the idea of the brutal killer now residing in the body of a professor.  I like to think she’s disappointed to discover this new body has an even smaller wang than the one she was familiar with.

The movie gives us a visual clue for which personality Ridges has at any given time, and that is simply taking off his glasses.  I couldn’t stop wondering how a different personality would correct a person’s vision.  Maybe my lifetime of nearsightedness is attributable to what a shit I’ve been.

Black Friday is essentially “Jekyll and Hyde”, but with the trappings of the era in which the film was made.  Perhaps the most unexpected element is Karloff and Lugosi both taking a backseat to Ridges, an actor I don’t recall having seen in anything before.  Admittedly, Ridges delivers a fantastic performance in such a deeply ridiculous plot.  But fans of Karloff and Lugosi will rightly wonder why such top-drawer actors are seemingly sidelined in a picture with their names above the title.

Dir: Arthur Lubin

Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Stanley Ridges

Watched as part of Shout Factory’s Universal Horror Volume 1 blu-ray box set