Boris Karloff: King of Classic Horror Movies

Feature Jim Knipfel 10/18/2014 at 9:03AM

If you only know Boris Karloff for Frankenstein, you're missing out on his amazing career in horror cinema. Join us as we celebrate him...

Horror has its share of icons: Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, even more contemporariy types like Bruce Campbell. But they’re all mere princes, all pretenders to the throne when compared with Boris Karloff. No other name is more universally recognized as the undisputed king of horror, Boris Karloff.

Born in England in 1887, William Henry Pratt moved to Canada in his early 20s and began acting in low-budget theater. Given the kind of roles he usually ended up playing, he adopted the name Boris Karloff, correctly thinking it had a little more zing to it than “William Henry Pratt.” Ten years later he moved to LA and worked as a truck driver while picking up small movie roles as he could.

Karloff was an intelligent, extremely cultured, well-read, kindly, funny English gentleman of the highest order. A man obsessed with cricket, and a man who was (depending on your perspective) either blessed or cursed with a face and voice that never let him stray too far from the genre that made his name one of the most internationally recognized in film. From the silent era until three years after his 1969 death (and is that really a surprise?), he appeared in over 200 films and TV shows,most of them either horror or giving a nod of some kind to his inescapable reputation.

Instead of trying to summarize his entire career, I thought it might be easier to simply pluck out about thirteen of my favorites, give or take. But even that’s a tricky business, as no matter how crappy the film around him might have been, he was always so very, very good, even if he wasn’t taking much of it all that seriously.

Through the 1920s Karloff played a string of Mexicans, Arabs, Asians, and lord knows what else in a double handful of small supporting roles. But things started turning around in ‘31 with Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code. He’d had a small role in Hawks’ Scarface a couple years earlier, but The Criminal Code was the first film to give him much screen time, offer him a few lines, and really capitalize on that sinister face of his.

Of all his 1931 films though, my personal favorite remains Five Star Final. It’s an Edward G. Robinson newspaper picture, but Karloff’s performance here deserves to be linked together with any of his more famous, more traditional horror roles. Robinson plays the once-respectable editor of a once-respectable newspaper who’s been forced to turn it into the sleaziest of tabloids. To this end he brings in Vernon Isopod (Karloff, with one of the greatest character names EVER). Isopod is a tall, cadaverous man who tends to dress like an undertaker and gives the willies to everyone in the office. He’s also a man for whom the terms “too low” and “too sleazy” have no meaning. He has a knack for swindling the darkest, most humiliating secrets out of people, information that somehow finds its way into the next morning’s edition. It’s among the blackest of pre-code black comedies (the film ends with a double suicide), and Karloff’s sinister supporting role gave a strong hint of what was to come.

As the story goes, it was around this same time that director James Whale spotted Karloff in the Universal cafeteria. Perhaps recognizing how well Karloff’s sunken cheeks, heavy brow, and angular features would work with the planned makeup (he looked half dead already), Whale approached and asked him to be in his next movie. Although he jumped at the offer, it’s said Karloff was mildly offended given that the role called for heavy makeup and he felt he’d been looking his best that day.

Now, what’s really left to say about ‘31’s Frankenstein? The stories are endless. There was all the pre-release secrecy surrounding Jack Pierce’s monster makeup, and even after the film’s release there was some mystery surrounding who actually played the creature (credited as he was in the film merely as “?”). The latter was a sly marketing gimmick that worked in Karloff’s favor. Although he’d been in dozens of films before Frankenstein, it was only recently that he was starting to become a recognizable character actor. It wasn’t like a huge star was hidden under all that makeup. not before the film, anyway. But the mystery got people speculating, and once his identity was revealed he became, as they say, an overnight sensation.

The film did take its toll, though, as the makeup, the costume, and the stunts (especially the scene in which he has to carry Colin Clive up a hill) combined to leave him with a serious back injury. After three surgeries, he would never be able to walk without a cane or leg braces again, and would live with pain for the rest of his career.

It’s still a brilliant, childlike, silent performance, and given how cliched a cultural icon the film has become it’s easy to forget how very good it really is. Do people even go back and watch the whole thing anymore? It’s fast, it’s smart, and for viewers at the time it really was quite shocking. Not only are the dead resurrected and children murdered, but even small details like the sound of dirt thumping onto the lid of a coffin was something audiences at the time had never seen before. Plus it’s got the great Dwight Frye.

Four years later in ‘35, after making a few other humdingers in between, Karloff re-teamed with Whale for the even better, wilder, and at times overtly gay Bride of Frankenstein. A lot had changed in the interim. The monster’s makeup had been revised (in part to reflect the scarring from the fire that ended the first film), and more importantly he could speak. Karloff was not happy with that move, thinking the creature was more effective as a mute, but his simple broken lines led to some of the films most memorable bits of dialogue (“I love death...Hate living”). Yeah, along with being able to speak we learn the monster’s grown a little bitter and pushy over the past couple years. Bride of Frankenstein is much funnier and certainly more surreal and complex than the original, and my god the academics have had a field day analyzing its sexual politics. Me, I’m still trying to figure out the little people in the bottles. Plus there’s Dwight Frye again, this time doing what sounds like a deliberate Karloff impression.

Another four years after Bride of Frankenstein, Karloff returned once again to play the creature for the last time in Son of Frankenstein. Although a number of actors would take on the role during the classic Universal run (including Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr.), the only other actor to play the monster three times was singing cowboy-turned-stuntman Glenn Strange. But they would all be considered anomalies, with Karloff forever remaining the one true monster.

During that initial, classic Universal horror era, none of Karloff’s films were more bizarre, troubling, or despised than my personal favorite, The Black Cat. The studio brought in low-budget filmmaker Edgar Ulmer, another German emigre who’d worked on Expressionist films, and handed him the Poe story. The film already had a built in sure-fire draw: it would be the first time Karloff and Lugosi appeared in the same film. Combine the two reigning kings of horror with a Poe story and it was clear they had another franchise on their hands. So Ulmer, having been given the chance of a lifetime, a movie that couldn’t miss, did the obvious thing and made a movie about genocide.

There was no makeup, no mad scientists, no spooky gothic castles, and no monsters apart from the human kind. Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) is the cool, Satanic, former commandant of an Eastern European death camp (this was five years before the start of WWII). Lugosi plays a camp survivor who tracks Poelzig down intending to kill him, not only for murdering all those people, but for stealing Lugosi’s wife and daughter as well.

Poelzig lives in a strange and ultramodernist Deco mansion built atop the graves of thousands. He also keeps some perfectly preserved bodies in glass cases in his basement and holds weekly meetings of the local Satanic coven. Oh, things get complicated, but very slowly and very quietly. There’s a chess game involved. It’s all deeply unnerving, has nothing at all to do with the Poe story, and ends, yes, with Lugosi flaying Karloff alive.

It was not a popular film, and did not lead to any sequels. Upon its release Ulmer suddenly found himself working for the Poverty Row studios, where on the bright side ten years later he would make the noir classic, Detour. His Black Cat, though, will always be at the top of my list. Although the bitter rivalry between Karloff and Lugosi was well known (mostly coming from Lugosi’s side), they would go on to make at least half a dozen more pictures together, quite a few of them pretty good.

By 1942, Karloff was so well established as a horror icon that he could afford to start poking a little fun at his image in wacky comedies like The Boogey Man Will Get You. He’d played more than his share of mad scientists up to this point, but here he plays a very nice mad scientist who’s simply trying to sell his rambling (and crumbling) old house in the country. An enthusiastic young woman wants to buy it and turn it into a charming, rustic hotel. Karloff agrees on the condition that he be allowed to finish his experiments first. Unfortunately his efforts to use a secret ray to create a race of “super-supermen” haven’t been going too swell. He’s fast running out of subjects, so teams up with the local quack/coroner/constable (the always great Peter Lorre) to try and round up a few more.

Karloff and Lorre are clearly having fun with their roles, and as a genre mixing screwball comedy mad scientist film it still holds up pretty well, if you’re in a mood for such a thing. Interestingly, Boogey Man cropped up at the end of another stretch of films in which he gave a bit of a twist to the mad scientist theme.

In most of his straight mad scientist roles he played men whose diabolical experiments (and the inevitable string of murders they required) were aimed at gaining some form of wicked personal glory. He wanted his own unstoppable zombie army, say, or the means to destroy those critics who had laughed at him and called his ideas “insane,” or he just wanted to rule the world. But around 1940 he starred in a cluster of films in which his mad scientist character wasn’t mad at all, but was only trying to do what he could to benefit all mankind. Unfortunately these sane and noble doctors more often than not found they were working in a mad world, and were destroyed for their efforts. They make for rare instances in which the King of Horror plays a sympathetic role and it is the world around him that’s the real monster.

In the first of these, 1939’s The Man They Could Not Hang, Karloff plays a medical researcher who devises a new form of anaesthesia. By covering the body in ice cubes, see, and using a mechanical heart to pump cold liquid through the veins, it’s possible to reduce the body’s functions to nil—essentially killing the patient—while still being able to revive the patient at some later point without any tissue damage. This would mean a great leap forward for surgery. Operating on a living body, he explains, is a bit like trying to fix a car engine while it’s still running. But if you shut the engine off, you can take it apart, fix what needs fixing, put it back together and have it running as good as new. Same with working on an ostensibly dead patient.

(I’ve always been a sucker for the pseudoscience in early horror films, and in this batch it’s more interesting than usual.)

Unfortunately, his first human trial of the technique (with an eager and willing assistant as the experimental subject) is interrupted when his meddling nurse (also the subject’s fiancee) runs to the cops to report that the doctor is murdering someone. Well, the experiment is ruined and Karloff is put on trial, convicted by a stupid lawyer and stupider judge and jury, and sentenced to hang.

Following his execution Karloff is revived using his new technique. Instead of using that evidence to prove the validity of his theory to the world (or even using this second chance to further his research), he goes into hiding and turns his old house into a giant mousetrap which he then uses to exact revenge against all those who convicted him. Which I guess is what you get.

Following the success of The Man They Couldn’t Hang, Karloff returned in 1940 in a similar role in a similar film—even playing a doctor with a similar theory. In The Man With Nine Lives, however, instead of using low temperatures as a kind of anaesthetic, he argues that if you freeze cancer patients solid, the process itself will shrink and effectively kill tumors while leaving the surrounding tissue unharmed allowing the doctor to revive a perfectly healthy patient (using blankets and coffee) at some future date. Once more his theories are ridiculed by the short-sighted medical community, forcing him to carry out his experiments in secret on a small island in upstate New York.

Well, things happen and Karloff is frozen in an ice cave in his basement along with a lawyer, doctor, and constable from the mainland, as well as the angry and suspicious son of his latest patient. Ten years later they are all revived by a curious doctor from New York. Even after learning that his theories have come to be widely accepted in the ten years he’s been on ice, Karloff’s first and only goal upon being reawakened is to kill those people who were trying to persecute him.

That same year in Before I Hang, Karloff is again convicted for losing a patient upon whom he was trying an experimental treatment. This time while in prison he’s allowed to continue his experiments. Testing a youth-restoring serum (love that term, “serum”) on himself he finally discovers the formula he’d been looking for. The clear and obvious benefits it offered all of mankind lead the state to parole him. Unfortunately, the serum was distilled with the blood of a mad killer, which in the end leves Karloff a little kookoo bananas in fits and starts, and so the killing begins again. Nevertheless, it was a splendid idea so long as the serum is made with, you know, non-killer blood.

All three films, though penned by three different screenwriters, were directed by the prolific B-film maestro Nick Grind. Grind was never known for his horror films, which is why it’s difficult to call these horror pictures. More accurately, they’re mystery thrillers with a pseudoscientific backdrop. The evil that Karloff undertakes is always made clear and understandable and sympathetic. It’s very human. He was trying to do something good and noble, until he was stopped by ignorant morons who refused to see the possibilities of a world beyond what was at hand. And let’s face it—they deserve to be killed for what they destroyed. Karloff didn’t stop with Grind, however. Once more in 1940 he played a doctor who was trying to do the right thing and was sent to the chair for his efforts.

In Arthur Lubin’s Black Friday, Karloff, a brain surgeon, tries to save a close friend’s life by using an illegal experimental procedure to transplant a new brain into his body. Unfortunately he chooses the handy brain of a gangster (he has got to be more careful with how he picks his donors). When he learns the ganster had a half-million in stolen loot stashed somewhere before he died, Karloff decides to probe his friend’s new brain to see if it remembers where the loot is hidden. After all, that money could be used to build a new research facility to help other people with brain problems. Unfortunately the gangster brain (as is so often the case with brains) has other ideas, mostly involving the murder of all of his old cronies and keeping the loot for himself. Throughout, it’s clear Karloff’s intentions are quite noble, but he finds himself in over his head dealing with a Jekyll/Hyde case and a gangland war. In the end it’s Karloff who gets the chair for putting a stop to all the madness.

These were all good, tight, clever, entertaining films (The Man With Nine Lives can even boast some very striking and beautiful cinematography) and despite the fact that Karloff was playing against type as a good guy trapped by ignorant circumstances, they were popular with audiences as well. One has to think that Karloff himself must have found the roles a bit of a relief. Although he never denied that he owed his career to playing Frankenstein’s monster, as a cultured and sophisticated man himself, he must have found something in these characters to latch onto. Like the doctors he played, he was a very intelligent and skilled man working in an often short-sighted industry controlled by dullards.

Karloff gave three of the finest performances of his career (I keep saying that but dammit it’s true) after hooking up with priducer Val Lewton for three grim pictures in 1945 and ‘46. The Body Snatcher, the first of the lot, as well as the first film directed by Robert Wise (The HauntingThe Day the Earth Stood Still), remains the best. Based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story which, in turn, was loosely based on the Burke and Hare case, Body Snatcher also re-teamed Karloff and Lugosi yet again. Here Burke and Hare are combined in Karloff, a slimy cabman who earns a few extra bucks on the side by delivering fresh corpses to a local anatomy professor to use for research and educational purposes. If that extra income requires robbing a few graves or killing a few blind peasant girls well, what’re you gonna do?

In many ways reprising his Vernon Isopod role from Five Star Final, Karloff can turn on the dirty, sleazy charm if need be, then instantly slide into cold menace when he doesn’t get what he wants. It’s as terrifying a performance as any of his monsters or mad doctors, and the film itself, like all Lewton pictures, is rich, beautifully shot, and a little grimy. There have been an awful lot of Burke and Hare films over the years, some more accurate than others, but none of them can top this one.

In his subsequent Lewton films, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam, he plays (in turn) a career military man trying to cope with the plague and the cruel administrator of a notorious 18th century asylum. In one particularly great moment toward the end of the latter, as the inmates are bricking a supposedly dead Karloff up in the wall, we see his eyes flicker for just an instant, letting audiences know that he’s still quite alive. It’s really something, and a wonderfully quiet bit of acting.

Then throughout most of the ‘50s and ‘60s Karloff concentrated on television, doing guest shots and anthology dramas, at least a few of which allowed him to take on non-horror roles. But every once in awhile he dipped back into more traditional features, and the results were usually interesting. AS time went on he seemed to glance back at earlier roles more and more often.

In 1958 he once again played a doctor on the verge of easing some of mankinds pain only to be doomed for his efforts in the deceptively titled Corridors of Blood. Although marketed as a horror film, the great Robert Day’s stark picture is more a grim historical drama combining several actual events and characters into a story about the horrific state of public medicine in 18th century England, where the surgeon’s mantra is “ pain and the knife are one.” Karloff stars as Dr. Thomas Bolton, a surgeon who refuses to accept that mantra and devotes himself to finding an effective anaesthetic, much as he was doing in those films from the early ‘40s. Here, however, the circumstances are much more pressing and the results are not nearly so tidy. Enter a pair of Burke and Hare doppelgangers and well, things just get complicated.

After experimenting on himself at home, Dr. Bolton discovers the benefits of nitrous oxide in a frenzy of hysterical laughter and smashed glassware. Deciding to push his experiments further, the well-intentioned doctor soon finds himself addicted, and his addiction leads to nothing but trouble. It’s a real tour-de-force performance for Karloff.

While neither the first film about drug addiction nor the first historically-based drama about the search for painless surgery, Corridors of Blood remains among the most striking and effective films about the perils of trying to help mankind. Although Bolton dies having yet to find the solution he was searching for, he at least dies knowing he’s laid the groundwork and that the solution will be found. Better still, he didn’t even have to murder all those short-sighted hospital administrators first. After Corridors of Blood, Karloff, having tried one last time to save the world, returned once again to more traditional horror films, some quite good , some less so.

Sadly, the English version of Mario Bava’s 1963 horror anthology Black Sabbath (distributed in the states by AIP) is extremely hard to come by these days. Legally, anyway. Although the uncut Bava version, I Tre Volti Della Paura, is much better, you lose Karloff’s voice, which is a pisser given that he’s the host, and stars in the film’s most memorable segment, "The Vurdulak." Cobbled together from several different sources (including Bram Stoker), "The Vurdulak" has been cited as possibly the greatest vampire film ever made, and Bava’s craftsmanship also makes it one of the most beautiful.

Karloff plays a man who returns from a journey not feeling quite himself anymore, and not in a good way, either. He’d warned his family this sort of thing might happen, and sure enough. Now they don’t know what to do about it. It’s kind of a moot point, though, given that before long they start dropping like flies (then standing up again). Karloff’s entrance here is one of his best since Frankenstein, and it’s been noted that he was the first movie vampire who actually resembleed Bram Stoker’s description of Dracula. It’s atmospheric, it’s disturbing and genuinely scary, and was one of the first films to take a close look at what a bad dose of vampirism can do to the familiy unit. Taken as a whole, Black Sabbath is one of Bava’s very best, and perhaps his most perfect color film. Plus the Italian version ends with a grand joke as the camera pulls back from the set and Karloff steps out of character. But I’ll leave it at that.

During the production, Karloff contracted a bad case of pneumonia which seriously damaged his lungs. So now along with the pain and the braces and the arthritis, he was forced to rely on an oxygen tank. But he continued working as much as ever.

In 1965 he starred together with Nick Adams in what was probably the best of AIP’s H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, as well as the one with the most irrelevant title. Die, Monster, Die was based on Lovecraft’s story, The Colour Out of Space, and director Daniel Haller actually did a decent job of capturing the atmosphere of decay.

Adams plays Stephen, a young man who travels to a small English village at the inbvitation of his college sweetheart. But as you can expect, none of the inbred superstitious townsfolk will give him directions to “The Whitley Place,” let alone drive him there. So he grumbles a lot and walks, and as he draws closer to the crumbling old estate he finds that everything on the grounds is gray and dusty and dead.

Well, the wheelchair-bound Mr. Whitley (Karloff) tries to throw Stephen out but no one listens to him. And Mrs. Whitley, bedridden and surrounded by mosquito netting in a darkened room fills Stephen with strange and vague murmurs about curses and illnesses and earrings. There are whispers about a dark family history and demonology and there are strange noises at night and the greenhouse (with some of the best special effects AIP has ever pulled off)is just plain crazy.

While much of the film seems to be following the same, tired old family curse/haunted house path we’ve seen in so many other AIP and Hammer films, there are enough odd details along the way to keep interest up, and for once, unbelievable as it may seem, the payoff is worth it. Karloff is great as ever (he actually has a character arc here), and I love the fact that so many questions are left to the viewer’s imagination, just as they were in Lovecraft’s stories. And for those keeping track, a lot of Die, Monster, Die’s climax can be traced back to Karloff’s 1936 film, The Invisible Ray.

The following year brought How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and like Frankenstein, what more need be said? It’s impossible to imagine now the Grinch being voiced by anyone else. There simply is no other Grinch. For millions of kids this is likely their intriduction to the world of Karloff, and it’s probably the way he’d like it.

A year after the Grinch he did some more voiceover work, this time for what turned out to be the best damn thing Rankin/Bass ever did. In Mad Monster Party, Karloff plays Baron Boris von Frankenstein, voicing a puppet that looks just like, well, Boris Karloff. Having invented a potion that can destroy matter, he decides to hold a party with all his monster friends to announce his discovery as well, as his retirement, as the president of Monsters, Inc. When his guests (Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, Phyllis Diller, etc.) learn he plans to announce his successor, well, the vicious backbiting begins.

I mean, maybe it’s just me, but what kid in his right mind would want to see dumb sappy crap like Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town or Rudolph’s Shiny New Year when there are monsters afoot? It’s the smartest and darkest and most subversive of the Rankin/Bass holiday specials, and far from just a kid’s special. Why, it’s a geek’s wonderland, with impersonations of old actors, horror movie in-jokes, some honestly funny dialogue (“Take to the air, zombie birdmen!”), a finger-poppin’ jazzy score, even a bit of sly and nasty sexual innuendo. And much to my amazement, it even has a surprising and dark (well, in Rankin/Bass terms) twist ending.

Karloff was clearly having fun winking at his reputation, but at the time things around him were changing. His kind of horror was fast growing outmoded when the newspapers were full of Vietnam body counts and killers like Richard Speck. In 1968 he looked at that squarely in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, essentially playing himself as he considers his position in the modern world, contemplates retirement, and deals with a mad sniper.

After making the simply awful The Terror with Jack Nicholson for AIP, Karloff still owed Roger Corman two days’ work. So, Corman offered his assistant Peter Bogdanovich a chance to direct his first picture. Here was the deal: Bohdanovich was to use 20 minutes from The Terror, shoot new footage of Karloff for 2 days, then shoot about 45 minutes of something else to tie everything together. It was a tricky business, but Bogdanovich’s solution was pretty ingenius. Hed been consideringdoing a film about Charles Whitman (the sniper who shot up the University of Texas campus in 1966), so he intertwined a fictionalized version of that story with a storyline featuring Karloff-as-Karloff, known here as “Byron Orlock." (According to Bogdanovich, the final version of the script was actually rewritten by Sam Fuller, who refused to take a credit.)

After watching The Terror in a screening room with a bunch of AIP executives, Orlock announces his retirement. This catches everyone by surprise, especially Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich) the young director who was about to start shooting Orlock’s next picture. Orlock explains that he’s a relic, an anachronism in the modern world, and was tired of the play acting.

Meanwhile a seemingly normal middle-class All-American kid is buying an awful lot of guns. He lives with his wife and his parents in a small suburban house, and he’s clearly (maybe even understandably) slipping toward something bad.

Meanwhile Orlock cancels, then uncancels a personal appearance at a drive-in theater and he and Sammy get drunk and discuss film history while a clip from The Criminal Code plays on the TV.

Meanwhile, in a fantastic long tracking shot our All-American boy kills his entire family before setting up on a ledge over the freeway and shooting up random cars. Then everything comes together at the drive-in.

It’s not only another one of Karloff’s best performances as he steps completely away from the persona, but it’s one of my personal favorite films, period. I’d never been a big fan of Peter Bogdanovich, but winging it on a tight budget (with a little help from Sam Fuller) he made something very different and smart. It not only speaks to film geeks (I do love a movie with a drive-in scene), but it has something to say about the nature of horror while being darkly funny at the same time. Plus it has a great and telling last line.

Although it was an AIP film, it was picked up by Columbia for distribution. Then the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy gave the studio cold feet. As a result, it would be years before most people had a chance to see Karloff’s last great performance.

What Targets had to say was true, though. By the late ‘60s Karloff’s brand of character-driven horror was an anachronism as horror films came to be dominated more by special effectts and gore. As much as he had continued to work, in the public’s mind he was a figure from the ‘30s and ‘40s and didn’t matter anymore.

He died in 1969 after making three quick Mexican cheapies that were released after his death. As a final insult, when Karloff died, the photo that accompanied the wire service obituary that appeared in thousands of newspapers around the world was of singing cowboy-turned-stuntman Glenn Strange in the Frankenstein makeup.

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