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Top Ten Tuesday – The Best of Boris Karloff

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Article by Jim Batts, Dana Jung, and Tom Stockman

No other actor in the long history of horror has been so closely identified with the genre as Boris Karloff, yet he was as famous for his gentle heart and kindness as he was for his screen persona. William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, in Camberwell, London, England. He studied at London University in anticipation of a diplomatic career; however, he moved to Canada in 1909 and joined a theater company where he was bit by the acting bug. It was there that he adopted the stage name of “Boris Karloff.” He toured back and forth across the USA for over ten years in a variety of low-budget Theater shows and eventually ended up in Hollywood. Needing cash to support himself, Karloff landed roles in silent films making his on-screen debut in Chapter 2 of the 1919 serial The Masked Rider.  His big break came when Howard Hawks cast him as a creepy convict in THE CRIMINAL CODE in 1930. Producers at Universal were looking for an actor to play the monster in their upcoming adaption of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Their main horror star Lon Chaney had died the year before and Bela Lugosi, starring in their hit DRACULA, turned down the role, so Karloff was offered the part. FRANKENSTEIN became an enormous success for the studio, and for its newest star whose name was not revealed until the final credits of the picture, and then only as “KARLOFF”. The role made Karloff a major box-office draw, the king of horror, heir to Lon Chaney’s throne, and he followed it up with THE MUMMY, THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, THE OLD DARK HOUSE, THE GHOUL, TOWER OF LONDON, and of course two sequels as the monster: BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. His star never faded and for the next several decades he reigned as Hollywood’s undisputed horror king. In the 1960′s, he teamed up with Roger Corman , Vincent Price and Peter Lorre for THE RAVEN and with Price and Lorre again for COMEDY OF TERRORS. Karloff continued working up until the very end, even while physically impaired and infirm, often performing from a wheelchair or with a cane. His last involvement of consequence came in 1968 with the critically acclaimed TARGETS. Karloff was well known as a genuinely kind and gentle soul off the screen.

Boris Karloff appeared in over 200 films in his five decades as an actor and here, according to We Are Movie Geeks, are his ten best:

10. THE DEVIL COMMANDS

One of Karloff’s least-known films until it became a staple of late-nite TV–and DVD – decades later, this taut thriller also boasts one of his most compelling performances.  In THE DEVIL COMMANDS, Karloff portrays Dr. Julian Blair, at first glance a “mad scientist” type whose personal tragedy leads to experiments combining scientific method and the occult.  But in Blair’s obsession to communicate with his dead wife, Karloff once again creates a character who is at once extremely sympathetic and a bit scary.  And unlike similar roles requiring tons of makeup, here Karloff wears none, so the intensity of his anguish, and yes, his madness, becomes almost heartbreaking.  Even though it was a Columbia B-feature, DEVIL COMMANDS rarely shows it. Director Edward Dmytryk (who later moved to the A-list to direct Bogie in THE CAINE MUTINY and Gable in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE), working with a solid supporting cast, fills the spare 65 minute running time with eerie narration and hypnotically creepy laboratory scenes.  By the time the villagers storm the castle– I mean, home– of the scientist, we know we’ve been treated to Hollywood studio production at its best, with one of the great unsung performances by a screen legend. 

9.THE SORCERORS

Boris Karloff was 80 in 1967 when he starred in THE SORCERORS, his last film shot in his native land of England. The story, adapted from John Burke’s novel, follows an aging couple, Marcus and Estelle Monserrat (Karloff and Catherine Lacey), inventors of a device that allows them to control the minds of others and vicariously experience the world through their eyes. They focus on a swinging young Londoner Michael (Ian Ogilvy) to experiment on. As the Monserrats play audience to his living scenarios, they soon add violence and crime to the mix. As Estelle goes crazy with power; she begins making Michael steal furs for her, then leads him to murder. Karloff’s Marcus is the film’s moral center and the actor delivers his last great starring performance. Ancient, arthritic, stumbling on a wooden cane behind white hair and wild eyebrows, he is sadly forced to watch as his device is perverted by the woman he loves. Despite the film’s low-budget, its hip psychedelic Swinging Sixties look provides some definite eye candy (and Susan George in a mini-skirt). The mix of 60′s period atmosphere and music with sci-fi concepts is exciting and the shocks are frightening. THE SORCERORS was directed by 23-year old Michael Reeves and while his next film, the Vincent Price classic WITCHFINDER GENERAL, is considered his masterpiece, THE SORCERORS is outstanding as well, though a bit tough to find (it’s MIA on DVD in the U.S.). In February of 1969, just nine days before director Reeves died of a (possibly intentional) drug overdose at age 25, Karloff passed away at 81.

8. THE RAVEN

“I like to torture!” says Bela Lugosi in THE RAVEN (1935), a great film full of painful devices, secret rooms, disfigured murderers and damsels in distress. Lugosi plays Dr. Richard Vollin, a famed plastic surgeon obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe. Boris Karloff is Edmond Bateman, a criminal that comes to Dr. Vollin for a change of appearance. Vollin disfigures him in order to blackmail him into helping torture another doctor. THE RAVEN runs just 61 minutes hardly lets up for a second, from the car crash which sets the plot in motion, to the exciting climax which takes place in Vollin’s torture chamber. Though the gruesome make-up gave Karloff another monstrous role, THE RAVEN really belongs to Lugosi and the great joy of the film is watching the glee with which the Hungarian actor relishes the sadism in the role. Whether pining for a lost love, skinning his nemesis alive, or using his devices like the pendulum and the room where the walls start closing in, Lugosi is arrogant, imposing, and insane and it may be his most unhinged performance. Karloff, unusually, is the weaker of the duo this time out. His Bateman is a slow-witted, relatively dim, character. It is sad that Lugosi’s career started its slow downfall after THE RAVEN and that he was overshadowed by his “rival” Karloff, due to his own limitations and poor career choices. Karloff would go on to star in another film called THE RAVEN in 1965 opposite Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, a Roger Corman-directed film that just barely failed to make this list. 

7. THE MUMMY

Noted German cinematographer (METROPOLIS, DRACULA) Karl Freund made his American directing debut with THE MUMMY, a classic tale that, unlike Universal’s other monster films, had no literary origins.  Influenced in part by its horror predecessors, but more so by the huge popularity of anything Egyptian at the time (the excavation of King Tut’s tomb had been completed just a few years earlier), THE MUMMY remains one of Karloff’s greatest roles.  Already so popular he was billed on the movie’s poster by last name only (as “Karloff the Uncanny”), his performance as Imhotep is one of horror cinema’s most accomplished creations.  Even hindered by strenuous full-body makeup that took up to 8 hours (!) to apply, Karloff’s physicality exudes an otherworldly menace in his scenes as the title character. And as the unbandaged Imhotep, his penetrating gaze and understated delivery overcome  lesser but no less restricting makeup applications to make the character almost sad in his desperate attempts to reclaim his lost love.  Due in large part to Karloff’s haunting portrayal, the Mummy character proved so popular that it spawned not only many sequels from Universal , but a Hammer Films series, an Abbot & Costello entry, several Mexican films (remember the Aztec Mummy?), and the recent trilogy. 

6. BLACK SABBATH

Boris Karloff served as the master of ceremonies for the memorable 1963 anthology BLACK SABBATH and performed as a vampire in the film’s third and final vignette. In “The Wurdulak“, Karloff is excellent as Gorka, the vampire-hunting patriarch in rural Russia who returns home just minutes after his self-imposed deadline for being allowed to live. But his family loves him too well to kill him, much to their peril, and they soon fall victim to his thirst. The suspense in this moody and atmospheric story, directed by Italian horror maestro Mario Bava (his sole collaboration with Karloff), builds steadily as it proceeds, and there is an ever-increasing sense of inevitable doom. Bava throws in a lot of mist, baying dogs, glowing color,and creaking doors here, all splendidly amplified at the proper moments to add to an increasing sense of claustrophobia. In his only role as a vampire,, Karloff created one of his more memorable characters which, at this late phase in his long career, demonstrated his professionalism and commitment to the horror genre. The DVD of BLACK SABBATH available from Anchor Bay is the original Italian language version (“I Tre volti della paura“, which means “The Three Faces of Fear” ) which not only has the three stories in a different order than the American release but the viewer is unable to hear Karloff’s real voice (dubbed here). But unlike the U.S. cut, it ends with Karloff atop a phony horse facade as Bava withdraws from a closeup to a startling wide shot of Karloff surrounded by props and a group of small Italian men waving phony tree branches past his face. Bava was offered BLACK SABBATH after the success of BLACK SUNDAY (1960), his first big hit for American International Pictures, and Karloff was part of the deal. BLACK SABBATH is almost 50 years old but it still has the power to terrify.

5. TARGETS

In TARGETS, his last American film role, Karloff comes the closest to playing himself.  As the retiring (and similarly-named) horror actor Byron Orlok, Karloff radiates a warmth and sincerity in every scene, whether dealing with fans, friends, or snarky business people.  Written (with uncredited help from Samuel Fuller) and directed (his debut) by Peter Bogdanovich, TARGETS is actually two stories that rather brilliantly converge at a drive-in theatre.  In one half of the movie, Bogdanovich uses a stark, documentary-style– with no musical score – ”to portray the modern horror story of a Charles Whitman-inspired sniper killing random innocents.  The other part of the film is more or less a loving tribute to Boris Karloff, using clips from his films CRIMINAL CODE and THE TERROR, along with references to his long and storied career.  Much has been written about the film’s themes juxtaposing the greatest horror movie icon against the violent real-life monsters of today, but in the end, as the London Times stated, it’s a movingly appropriate farewell to a great star.

4. THE BODY SNATCHER

With this performance Karloff proved that he didn’t require an elaborate make-up job to portray a truly scary, sinister character. Of course he’s aided here by the inspired direction of Robert Wise and the expertise of producer Val Lewton ( this, along with Karloff in  ISLE OF THE DEAD and BEDLAM, would be the final jewels in Lewton’s horror legacy at the RKO Studios that began with THE CAT PEOPLE ). The film is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson and very much inspired by the story of Burke and Hare, the legendary grave robbers. Karloff is John Gray, a cabman who moonlights as a procurer of corpses for medical study, exclusively for “old pal ” Dr. MacFarlane. Gray is seething menace as he taunts ‘Toddy’ on his nightly visits to the kindly physician’s practice. Seems Gray never gave up Toddy’s name when he was arrested and served time many years ago for his special services. Now the old ghoul will never let the doc forget it! And if there’s not enough of the newly deceased to collect, then John’s got no problem taking the initiative. In one of the great Lewton/ Wise sequences, Gray’s coach clip clops down the cobble road toward a blind street singer. Out of frame, the hoof beats stop, and her voice is abruptly silenced. Later the doc’s simple-minded servant Joseph ( Bela Lugosi ) unwisely decides to blackmail Gray. A friendly drink becomes a great cat-and-mouse game as Gray entertains Joseph by singing an old melody with a killer finish. This would be the last time the two horror icons ( and some say rivals ) would share the screen. Karloff would continue on through the horror rebirth of the 1960′s, while Lugosi, after donning his Dracula cape in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, would end his days as the big draw in Ed Wood, Jr. low-budgeters. The entire cast is superb, but this is a real showcase for Boris.  In THE BODY SNATCHER, Karloff is the ultimate bogey man in one of his last truly great horror films of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

frankenstein

3. FRANKENSTEIN

Ah, the film classic that made Karloff an over night sensation ( this after more than 70 screen appearances ). And he’s not even listed in the cast credits ( ” The Creature…? ). No photos of him in makeup were released prior to the film’s opening save for a publicity still of Karloff ( his visage hidden by a burlap sack ) being lead to the set, hand in hand, by the guru of grease paint, Jack Pierce. And what an impact he made in the finished film after slowly turning to the camera ( followed by close-up jump-cuts ). No wonder there were reports of patrons fainting in the aisles. But then Karloff’s acting skills truly kicked in. He was able to connect emotionally with audiences. They looked past the putty and powder, the bolts and scars, and sympathized with this flat-topped, pathetic hulk. The monster reaches for the sunlight like a curious child before being tormented by the cruel Fritz. This was a creature more worthy of pity than fear. That is until he lashes at those who would harm him, to the point of punishing his creator, Henry Frankenstein ( Karloff’s so powerful that most people assumed that the monster’s name was simply Frankenstein ). With the film’s restoration in recent years, we see the monster’s despair at the conclusion of the lakeside scene with the little girl and her daisies. Director James Whale along with Pierce created an immortal movie monster and  firmly placed Boris Karloff  in the pantheon of screen icons. 

2. THE BLACK CAT

This tale of American honeymooners (David Manners and Julie Bishop) trapped in the Hungarian home of a Satan- worshiping priest has nothing to do with Edgar Allen Poe’s story. THE BLACK CAT (1934) is about evil, madness, necrophilia, and obsession.  It’s the first and best of the eight collaborations between Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and both actors are at the top of their game here. This is one film where both actors dish out pure magic and madness for the fans, and there’s not one moment of disappointment anytime either of them are on screen. Every moment they are shown together is intense, whether it’s in the strange, cruel dialog or the brawl between the two in the finale. In 65 minutes, Edgar G. Ulmer proves his potential as a fantastic visual director (his next most famous film was the 1945 noir DETOUR). The introduction of Karloff and Lugosi’s characters (Hjalmar Poelzig and Vitus Werdegast – those names!) is brilliant, as are the secrets that are revealed as the film progresses. For a very long time, you’re not sure which one of them is good or crazy, or if both of them are in fact, completely insane. The scene of Karloff walking through his dimly lit dungeon lair underneath his mansion is the most eerie moment in THE BLACK CAT. The actor walks slowly, holding a black cat firmly in his arms petting it ever so gently, going up to each glass coffin staring at his female corpses as if they were the most beautiful forms of art ever conceived. With its unique art deco design and costumes, THE BLACK CAT is one of the very best from Universal’s Golden Age.

1. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN

” Warning! The monster demands a mate “, so screamed the movie posters. But truthfully, audiences demanded a sequel  to the 1931 classic. And boy, did Universal ( with original director James Whale at the helm ) deliver! Colin Clive was back as the tortured Dr. Henry Frankenstein, and, more importantly, so was his lumbering creation played by Karloff ( that’s how he’s listed in the credits, no Boris, but it’s quite a step up from ” ? ” ). The fire from the previous film’s finale has taken its toll on the creature, and makeup wizard Jack Pierce augments his classic original designs with several painful-looking burn scars. This may amp up the audience sympathies for the monster even as he murders an old enemy in the film’s opening scenes. Soon pathos is emphasized over horror as the creature embarks on a series of encounters in the forest ( particularly a long stay with a lonely, blind hermit who educates him ). This leads to another of the poster’s tag lines, ” The monster speaks ” ( supposedly Karloff was none too keen on this development ). Soon those pesky villagers and constables destroy his peace and capture him ( there’s much crucifixion imagery as he’s subdued ). Later he meets the delightfully wicked Dr. Pretorius ( the great Ernest Thesiger ) , who promises to make a mate for him if he helps persuade poor Henry to collaborate ( they even enjoy a couple of cigars ). Then the monster becomes an enforcer ( as he would continue to be in many lower-budgeted follow-ups ) until he meets his bride. Her rejection of him shocks the creature ( his attempts to connect with her by caressing her hand are heart-wrenching ). Ultimately his nobility shines through in the explosive final scenes. Although he would wear those bulky boots on screen one more time, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN was Karloff’s greatest performance as the creature. And the film is on the short list of the very best sequels ever produced. 

 

 

 

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