In Corridors of Blood, Boris Karloff plays an empathetic doctor obsessed with alleviating pain during surgery. It is the early 1800s and the most compassionate surgery is fast and shocking to patients. Dr. Thomas Bolton knows he can revolutionize the medical industry if he can just get his fellow doctors to support his efforts to create a medical vapor to eliminate pain or even consciousness during surgery.
This stylish black and white film is grounded in a pervasive sense of Realism, like a darker Dickens’ novel. There are always signs of life outside of Dr. Bolton’s story. The streets are filled with people going about their daily life, oblivious to the struggles of a compassionate doctor willing to put his own life at risk to alleviate pain during surgery. The operating theaters are always full for any procedure, autopsy to amputation. The laboratory always has something moving, bubbling, or turning to gas, turning the whole world into a living organism worthy of salvation.
Corridors of Blood is effective not because it is scary but because it’s believable. Dr. Bolton is quickly cast as a compassionate figure even if science is destined to drive him mad. His peers applaud his skill as a surgeon. He even runs a weekly free clinic for the citizens who cannot afford proper hospital care. The streets are filled with poor people struggling to get by and the camera never lets you forget how privileged Dr. Bolton, his family, and his fellow surgeons really are.
At the same time, a group of his free clinic patients that run a boarding house choose to take advantage of him. They know Dr. Bolton is a generous man and prey on his empathy to turn their business into a medical supply store for autopsies. A mysterious man with a scarred face (a small but impressive performance by Christopher Lee) smothers boarders with a pillow while the various tenants convince the good Doctor to visit the poor sickly boarders in their bed; by the time he arrives, the boarder has always just passed. A death certificate is awarded and the landlords sell the body back to the very hospital Dr. Bolton works at.
The dueling narratives center on the same theme. No one person can ever alleviate all the pain and suffering in the world. They can make a difference, but they can never cure everyone. No method, no ideology, no revolutionary no treatment will ever convince all of the skeptics to adopt it as the answer to human suffering. The darker side of humanity prevents goodness, no matter how strong and authentic, from ever truly coming out on top. Eliminating pain in surgery doesn’t eliminate the suffering before or after the same way going out of your way to please everyone will undoubtedly force you to lose focus on your own well being.
Corridors of Blood is a surprisingly subtle look at obsession, greed, and the fight for innovation at any cost. The horror comes not from any individual events onscreen but the accumulation of disappointment and suffering from a man trying to do everything right. Even the best among us can be ruined by opposition rooted in familiarity, tradition, and pure greed.