“The Climax” (1944)
by A.J. Hakari
As the case usually is with dealers in cinematic dread, Universal Pictures just couldn’t let sleeping monsters lie. When the studio remade the Lon Chaney classic Phantom of the Opera as a Technicolor musical in 1943 to great success, work began almost immediately upon resurrecting the masked crypt-kicker for a sequel. Unfortunately, due to story disputes and central members of the creative team being unavailable, plans for a direct follow-up were scrapped, and the project was retooled to become a stand-alone shocker. This resulted in 1944’s The Climax, which, on paper, sounds like a vintage horror fan’s dream come true. Not only was Boris Karloff recruited to serve as the chief villain, the picture reunited The Wolf Man director George Waggner and screenwriter Curt Siodmak. Alas, The Climax failed to light up the box office upon its release, and while audiences balked at the lack of scares in comparison to the surplus of song-and-dance performances, it’s a snoozer of a film for a host of other reasons, too.
Vienna lost one of its finest voices when rising opera star Marcellina (June Vincent) vanished without a trace. She disappeared just as her career was taking off in a big way, leaving the world clueless as to her whereabouts. Little does the public know that the horrible answer to this question lies with Marcellina’s physician and lover Dr. Hohner (Karloff), who murdered her for the crime of daring to share her talents with the world. Not only that, but ten years after the incident, it seems as if history is about to repeat itself, for homicidal memories are stirred when Hohner hears young music student Angela Klatt (Susanna Foster) perform. Her pipes strikingly similar to those of Marcellina’s, Hohner resolves to claim them for his ears and no one else’s. The doctor proceeds to put Angela underneath his hypnotic thrall and sabotage her debut as a lead, but luckily, our girl has back-up. Her devoted fiancé Franz (Turhan Bey) senses something fishy from the get-go, taking immediate steps to find out just what’s going on and snap his beloved back to normal before she becomes Hohner’s slave forever.
Despite boasting Phantom star Foster and equally lavish art direction, The Climax just couldn’t replicate the same financial success. Bey himself went on record as saying this was because of Universal shirking the Phantom brand, yet while I’m certain that the absence of the monster’s name in the title didn’t help its receipt, there’s no shortage of other factors contributing to the flick’s overall downfall. For one, the movie’s suspense lacks the grand, theatrical style that’s applied to its sets, costumes, and musical sequences. Anyone hoping to see frights on the scale of crashing chandeliers or gruesome murder sprees are in for a rude awakening, as the best The Climax has to offer is one strangulation and a lot of Hohner casting evil eyes in ingénue Angela’s direction. In the studio’s pursuit of creating a classier horror alternative to something like its cheapie Kharis series, it ends up sanding off nearly all the edges of a story that should be teeming with obsession, passion, and murder in spades. Such little regard is given to the macabre here, Angela falls under Hohner’s spell at their very first meeting; never mind the credibility that hypnosis is already stretching as a plot device, but that the process isn’t allowed to be gradual is a huge missed opportunity to institute an element of mounting fear. As pretty as the movie looks and sounds (even if some of the tunes feel more appropriate for Ziegfeld’s follies than the Vienna stage), it’s all for naught without a remotely haunting atmosphere to balance things out.
The Climax isn’t scary by a long shot, but that’s not everything when it comes to horror, right? Much can be forgiven when the main story and its characters are interesting, but unfortunately, Waggner and company falter in this department, as well. The decision to make Hohner a more explicitly evil entity than Claude Rains’s sympathetic opera ghost has fleeced him of almost all dimension possible. Karloff tries like hell here to give the doctor some depth, using his voice and commanding gaze to help him come across as a victim of the madness that’s gripped him for so long, not to mention a guy who could easily conquer a young woman’s psyche. But in the end, Hohner is just a by-the-numbers villain with a clichéd modus operandi, no less a trope than Jane Farrar’s snooty and inconsequential opera diva. To the film’s credit, though, Foster fares just as well here as she did in Phantom, her voice a stunner and her ability to sell Angela’s daze upon being subconsciously captivated by Hohner a great boon to the production. She and Bey also simply look great standing beside one another, although while the latter’s performance is fine, Waggner pushes Franz’s love for Angela to a comedically aggressive extent, only to elicit more angry sighs than laughs. Appearances by other Universal Horror stalwarts are in short supply, but at the very least, fans can appreciate seeing veteran actress Gale Sondergaard strut her stuff as Hohner’s suspicious housekeeper.
It’s incredibly easy on the eyes, but The Climax does little to grip the imagination. The film overdoses on lovey-dovey qualities and gives but scraps to its spooky side (a shrine to Marcellina’s corpse is about as grisly as it gets), hoping to compensate with visual pizazz and churning out a rather hollow venture in the process. The Climax might be one of the most dapper additions to Universal’s famous horror canon, but it’s also one of the least memorable.