Remembering Boris Karloff

Feature Sarah Dobbs 31 Jan 2013 - 06:58

As the anniversary of his passing approaches, Sarah looks back over the career of Boris Karloff - one of cinema's true icons...

If there’s one classic movie star I’d love to have met, it’s Boris Karloff. Now, he’s mostly remembered for his breakthrough role in Universal’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein: if you close your eyes right now and imagine Karloff, chances are it’s in green face paint with bolts in either side of his neck. But there was a hell of a lot more to him than that.

Karloff was an amazingly talented actor who brought something special to just about every role he played, and it would have been amazing to get the chance to sit down and talk to him about his life and career, to get his perspective on fame, Hollywood, horror, acting, and all the rest of it. Unfortunately for me, though, Karloff died long before I was born. He passed away 44 years ago, at the age of 81. The only consolation, really, is that he made a hell of a lot of films before then, and many of them are fantastic.

Obviously, Frankenstein is brilliant. Though it takes some fairly major liberties with the plot of Mary Shelley’s novel, it does a pretty good job of nailing the major themes: the hubris of science, the search for identity, the pain of isolation. Some of James Whale’s other Universal monster movies are a bit too silly for their own good, but here, the humour is kept to a minimum, and it’s all the better for it. It’s beautifully shot, scary, and genuinely affecting.

Frankenstein is so good that I want to say it hasn’t dated, but that’s clearly not true. I think what I mean is that its emotional core is still intact, and watching it now is still as striking an experience as it must have been at the time. And a lot of that is down to Karloff’s performance. He’s so dignified, even when he’s playing a creature made up of bits of corpses, that he imbues the character with real humanity.

Frankenstein’s Monster has become a character that we’re hyper-familiar with now; the character design has been used all over the place, from boxes of Mr Kipling’s Halloween-themed cakes to children’s board games. And they’re all based on Karloff in Frankenstein. His face, his body language, combined with Jack Pierce’s incredible makeup work, made an unforgettable impression. 

Karloff reprised his role as the Monster in Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) and Son Of Frankenstein (1939), and throughout the 30s he was basically Universal’s go-to guy for horror movies. His credits from that era include The Old Dark House, The Invisible Ray, and The Mummy, the last of which is actually surprisingly good.

From the title, you’d expect an Egyptian flavoured re-tread of Frankenstein, but in many ways it’s more similar to Dracula. Karloff plays Imhotep, a revived Egyptian priest determined to resurrect his dead lover (who, unhelpfully, has been reincarnated several hundred times over and doesn’t fancy being turned back into a mummy). Karloff is, again, brilliant in the role, bringing something relatable and tragic to the part even while he oozes menace.

I don’t want to talk too much about Bela Lugosi, or we’ll be here forever, but now I’ve mentioned Dracula it’d be rude to avoid mentioning him entirely. The two iconic horror stars made several movies together over the years; not all of the films are good, but there’s something about watching the two of them together that’s irresistible anyway. Karloff is clearly the better actor, but Lugosi is always worth watching, and movies where they face off against one another, like The Black Cat, generally manage to be fun even when they make little to no goddamn sense. 

Oddly, though he did end up in a few more monster-y roles (like the scarred criminal in The Raven), Karloff played a lot of mad scientists, too. His association with Frankenstein led to a lot of type-casting, but at least he got to play the doctor almost as often as he played the monster.

(There’s also a weird trend, throughout the 30s, of Karloff playing Chinese characters like Fu Manchu and James Lee Wong. I have to hold my hands up here and admit I haven’t seen any of those movies, but going by the images of Karloff in them, um, they look pretty racist. That might be best put down to “it was a different time” and glossed over, though if anyone’s seen them and wants to tell me about them in the comments, you know where they are!)

By the 1940s, Karloff had become a bit disenchanted with the Universal style of horror. Monster movies were becoming campy and silly, with half a dozen monsters thrown into every film in a misguided attempt to keep audiences interested – and let’s face it, there are probably only so many times a person can get slathered in latex and made to lurch around in the dark before it gets tedious.

He briefly left Hollywood for Broadway, appearing in Arsenic And Old Lace in a role written for him (he played a character who’d had plastic surgery and ended up looking like Boris Karloff, amazingly). When he returned to movie-making, he signed a three-picture deal with RKO, a studio that was busy making a different kind of horror movie. 

RKO might not have had much budget for special effects or lavish sets, but it had something of a creative ace up its sleeve: producer Val Lewton. Given a set of titles and allowed to get creative, Lewton was producing thoughtful, atmospheric, beautiful horror movies; RKO wanted Karloff for his star power, but Lewton recognised his acting ability, and the three films they made together are brilliant.

In The Body Snatcher, Karloff plays a deeply creepy cabman who attempts to blackmail the doctor who’s been illegally buying corpses from him; in Isle Of The Dead, he’s a scarily fastidious general trapped on a plague-ridden island; and in Bedlam, he’s the spectacularly evil master of a horrible asylum. All three are villainous roles, but they’re complex characters in interesting movies. Finally, it felt like Karloff was getting material that was worthy of his talents as an actor.

Sadly, that didn’t last. Over the next couple of decades, he made dozens of films, but most of them are pretty silly. So he appeared in movies like Abbott And Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff, which played on his sinister reputation without really giving him much to do. Or he made vaguely serious dramas like Corridors Of Blood, which let him flex his acting muscles, but got marketed like the campy monster movies he’d tried to escape. It’s frustrating now to look back and see how often he was too good for the movies he appeared in; God knows how he must have felt at the time. 

The 60s look like a particularly bleak period, Karloff-wise, but there are still a couple of gems worth seeking out. Mario Bava’s 1963 anthology Black Sabbath stars Karloff as himself, introducing the stories with his tongue firmly in his cheek, and also as yet another monster in the segment The Wurdulak. It’s not the most original monster story ever, but Karloff, as always, gives it his all and creates a properly scary villain.

My favourite of the later Karloff movies – so I’m gonna say it’s the best, because why not? – is The Sorcerers. Karloff plays yet another in a long, long, long line of mad scientists, but what differentiates this performance from almost all of his others is that it’s entirely sympathetic. Karloff’s Prof. Monserrat creates an elaborate gadget that allows users to piggyback on the sensations of other people; he imagines housebound elderly people being able to experience the joys of sport, movement, even pleasure cruises by hooking themselves up to younger proxies. His motives are almost completely innocent – it’s his wife who persuades him that the gadget is actually a great way to commit crimes without getting caught.

Karloff’s performance as the increasingly horrified, increasingly weak professor in The Sorcerers is genuinely moving. It’s not quite his last film, but it kind of feels like it ought to be. It certainly feels like a more fitting end to a long and frequently brilliant career than the handful of cheap films he made afterwards. 

Although it’s hard to sum up a career that involves more than 200 IMDB credits, one key theme of Karloff’s oeuvre is transformation. From dead to alive, from human to monster, from doctor to drug addict, from old to young. Maybe Karloff’s biggest transformation, though, occurred off screen. Because he wasn’t really “Boris Karloff” at all.

Despite his foreign-sounding stage name, Karloff was English. He was born in Camberwell, in 1887, and his real name was the fantastically Victorian-sounding William Henry Pratt. He was the son of a diplomat, and Karloff was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, but instead he decided to pursue acting. He changed his name because he thought “Pratt” might be an unfortunate one for an actor, while the Slavic-sounding “Karloff”, which he claimed was an old family name, gave him an air of mystery that probably helped with getting so many horror roles. (Although not in the original Frankenstein, where he was credited, rather obnoxiously, as “?”)

He also shed some physical impediments, including bow-leggedness and a stutter, though arguably he never quite managed to entirely get rid of his lisp, giving his otherwise perfectly crisp accent that recognisable softness. (People just don’t sound like that anymore, do they?) Through decades of hard work, the very British William Henry Pratt became Boris Karloff, a Hollywood legend. 

It’s always risky to speculate about the character of someone who’s long dead and whom you never met, but from what we know, it seems like Karloff was a genuinely nice guy. When he appeared on This Is Your Life in 1957 he was described as a “one of the kindest, most warm-hearted men among us.” Reportedly, he used to dress up as Father Christmas to visit ill children in a Baltimore hospital from 1940 onwards; there’s an adorable story from the set of Frankenstein that has Marilyn Harris wanting to hold his hand and travel to the set with him, even though he was in full Monster get-up.

In interviews, he comes across as thoughtful, polite, and eloquent. He could be outspoken, too, when the occasion called for it; he was one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild, and vigorously campaigned for safer working conditions for actors.  

Although the studios at the time played up the rivalry between Karloff and Lugosi (and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood emphasised it even more) there doesn’t seem to have really been any bad blood between them, or at least not on Karloff’s side. Actually, no one seems to have had a bad word to say about him; he even got along with Jack Pierce, despite the makeup artist’s reputation for being bad-tempered. He seems to have really, genuinely, been a lovely person. 

Last year, I went on a mini pilgrimage to pay my respects at Karloff’s grave. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but since Bela Lugosi’s grave in Los Angeles  is often littered with roses, fake blood, and other Dracula-related junk, I expected there to be something horror-y around Karloff’s final resting place. But there wasn’t. Instead, it was marked with a modest plaque, underneath a red rose bush (which, when I was there at the end of October, bore just one withered flower).

Maybe that’s better; it’d feel disrespectful to leave tiny Lego Frankensteins or something there. But maybe he wouldn’t have minded. I wish I could’ve asked him.

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