The Drums of Jeopardy is a 1931 American horror thriller that is very much in the then-popular vein of the Master Criminal movie, with a sinister figure committing murders while being tracked by the police.
As such, it is more a thriller than a horror film, but as with the Fu Manchu stories, the film contains enough elements of the macabre to be classed as borderline horror.
The master criminal here, however, is a more complex character than most. Rather amusingly named (given the actor who would become a star a year later in Frankenstein) Boris Karlov, and played by Charlie Chan star Warner Oland, he is actually a somewhat sympathetic figure to begin with, driven to vengeance after his daughter, who kills herself after a doomed love affair with a Russian aristocrat. The film pretty much implies that he is right to hold the family of the man responsible for the girl’s death, even if his vengeance is perhaps a bit excessive.
The title refers to a piece of jewellery that was given to Karlov’s daughter, and which he now uses to warn his next victim of their impending doom. After the Russian revolution, the family flees to America to escape the ‘curse’ of Karlov, but he is one step ahead of them. While trying to escape from him, one of the Petrovs is saved by a young woman and her instantly annoying aunt (Clara Blandick). Karlov manages to capture his intended victims and kill them in the sort of long-winded mad scientist ways that only a super villain would consider practical – but the police, and the never-stops-talking aunt, are in hot pursuit.
And entertaining melodrama, the film is very enjoyable, if somewhat insubstantial. Oland has a great deal of fun hamming it up as Karlov, who remains a curiously likeable villain throughout – you rather want him to succeed with his revenge!
Naturally, the film is full of plot holes – it’s never made clear just how Karlov moves from grieving father to megalomaniac villain (with seemingly unlimited resources), for instance – but it’s fast paced enough for you never to worry about such trifles.
The film is based on a novel by Harold McGrath and was previously adapted into a 1922 Broadway play and 1923 film.
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA