Before I Hang (1940)


The movie Before I Hang (1940) is an American horror film released by Columbia Pictures¹. The film was directed by Nick Grinde and starred Boris Karloff¹. The plot revolves around Dr. John Garth (Boris Karloff), who is on trial for murder after performing a mercy killing on an elderly friend¹.

Dr. John Garth, portrayed by Boris Karloff, finds himself in the courtroom, accused of ending the life of an elderly friend out of compassion. His defense is based on his ongoing research into halting the aging process, a project that was still in its infancy when his friend’s suffering became too great to bear. Despite his pleas for understanding, the court shows no mercy and condemns him to death by hanging in three weeks.

While awaiting his fate, Dr. Garth is granted permission to continue his work, thanks to the support of the prison warden, Ben Taggart, and fellow scientist Dr. Ralph Howard, played by Edward Van Sloan. They manage to create a serum using the blood of a recently executed prisoner, which they believe can reverse the aging process. They decide to test it on Dr. Garth just before his execution. However, as he is being led to the gallows, the prison receives a call commuting his sentence to life imprisonment. At the same moment, the serum takes effect, causing Dr. Garth to collapse.

Upon regaining consciousness in the prison’s medical ward, Dr. Garth discovers that the serum has indeed reversed some signs of aging, including his graying hair, facial wrinkles, and physical fitness. Encouraged by these results, he decides to test the serum on Dr. Howard. However, as he prepares the injection, he is suddenly overcome by a murderous impulse, a side effect of the executed murderer’s blood in his system. He strangles Dr. Howard, and in the ensuing chaos, also kills a wandering prisoner.

When the prison authorities discover the scene, they conclude that the wandering prisoner killed Dr. Howard and attempted to kill Dr. Garth. As a result, Garth is hailed as a hero and granted a full pardon. He returns home to his daughter, Martha, played by Evelyn Keyes, and continues his research on the anti-aging serum.

Eager to further test the serum, he approaches three of his aging friends to be his test subjects. They initially refuse, but one of them, Victor Sondini, portrayed by Pedro de Córdoba, later agrees after a visit from Dr. Garth. Just as he is about to administer the serum, Garth is again overcome by the murderous impulses of the executed prisoner and strangles his friend. Realizing the gravity of his actions, Garth visits another friend, George Wharton, played by Wright Kramer, to confess his crimes and request that he be his final test subject before he turns himself in. Wharton tries to call for help, but Garth kills him before he can do so.

As the body count rises and Dr. Garth’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, his daughter Martha begins to suspect something is wrong and confronts her father. Garth pleads with her to leave as he continues to struggle against the murderous impulses, but she refuses and he lunges at her. She faints and Dr. Garth flees. In the final scene, Dr. Garth, now pursued by the police, returns to the prison where he was once incarcerated. The warden lets him in, but Garth immediately makes aggressive movements toward the armed guard at the gate. The guard shoots him, and as he lies dying, the doctor confesses that he committed suicide to prevent himself from killing anyone else.


  • Boris Karloff as Dr. John Garth
  • Evelyn Keyes as Martha Garth
  • Bruce Bennett as Dr. Paul Ames
  • Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Ralph Howard
  • Ben Taggart as Warden Thompson
  • Pedro de Cordoba as Victor Sondini
  • Wright Kramer as George Wharton


The film was shot in the house later used in the 1945 title The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) starring Hurd Hatfield [2].

The shooting lasted from June 27-July 12, 1940, and the film was released on September 17 [2].


“While Before I Hang lacks the unique setting of The Man with Nine Lives or the crazy revenge scheme of The Man They Could Not Hang, it is still entertaining.” [3].

“This movie makes a bona fide serial killer out of a fundamentally good (if perhaps ethically compromised) man, and it never once flinches from the implications of doing so.” [4].


[1] Wikipedia
[2] IMDb

Last updated byCody Meirick on November 29, 2023