“I wanted to prolong life, but I’ve taken it. I’m a murderer.”
Dr. John Garth (Boris Karloff) is sentenced to hang for the mercy killing of a friend. At trial he says he was researching a cure for aging. Unable to complete his work he awaits his execution. While on death row the warden, (Ben Taggart), with the urging of the prison doctor Dr. Ralph Howard (Edward Van Sloan), allows Dr. Garth to continue his experiments. Using the blood of an executed murderer they succeed in developing what they believe is a serum that will reverse the aging process.
Dr. Garth experiments on himself. When, at the last moment, Dr. Garth’s sentence is commuted to life imprisonment he realizes that if the serum works he will be in prison longer than he ever expected. He then collapses. When he wakes up he notices that he indeed looks younger. When he goes to try the serum on Dr. Howard he is overcome by an urge to kill. He kills Dr. Howard and another prisoner. Dr. Garth doesn’t remember killing anyone. The death of Dr. Howard is blamed on the prisoner and the death of the prisoner is attributed to Dr. Garth as self defense. Dr. Garth is given a pardon. He returns home with his daughter Martha (Evelyn Keyes) and continues his research.
Dr. Garth wants to experiment on three of his friends by giving them the serum. One of them, Victor Sondini (Pedro de Cordoba) finally agrees. When Dr. Garth is about to give him the injection he again goes homicidal. Dr. Garth continues to revert to Mr. Killer whenever the impulse overcomes him. Now even his daughter sees that his behavior is erratic. Something is definitely wrong with the doctor.
Finally the doctor himself begins to realize that the blood of the condemned murderer has tainted his serum. He visits one of his other friends, George Wharton (Wright Kramer). He wants to confess his crimes but he wants George to be his final test subject. His final experiment. Wharton freaks and tries to call for help. Garth kills him. And the impulses won’t stop.
“Before I Hang” was released in 1940 and was directed by Nick Grinde. At only 62 minutes long it is a short movie. It’s fast paced. For the most part, it is your standard “Mad scientist” low budget “B” movie produced by Columbia pictures. Lots of them were pumped out by Columbia and every other production company. This one has an advantage of have Boris Karloff as the lead. Nobody does homicidal maniac as calmly as Karloff.
I liked the movie but there was a plot point I had trouble with. If Dr. Garth knows that he is a murderer and it is because of his serum, why does he want to inject his friend George with it? I can see that Garth wants his discovery to be preserved, but he needs some untainted serum if he wants to get the credit he believes he deserves. The blood and/or tissue as memory plot point is not real science, however, in horror movies everything and anything is possible. If it were true, all those Red Cross bloodmobiles would be out of business fast.