“When I first met Karloff, I felt this incredible wave of sadness. His eyes were like shattered mirrors. Whatever his pain was, it was very deep and very much a part of his soul. I never intruded and he was always a perfect gentleman.” Zita Johann on Boris Karloff.
After the death of the silent star, Lon Chaney, The King of Horror crown was up for grabs. It was Universal Studios contract actor Boris Karloff who inherited Chaney’s mantle, and reigned supreme as horror’s newly christened patriarch.
Karloff was not the studio’s first pretender to Chaney’s throne. Bela Lugosi starred as the screen’s most iconic vampire in Tod Browning‘s Dracula, released at the beginning of 1931, nearly a year before Karloff’s star-making performance in James Whale‘s Frankenstein (also 1931). With the premiere of Karloff’s monster, Lugosi and his vampire alter-ego were usurped.
Lugosi often told the tale of how he turned down the role of the monster, thus gifting Karloff his career-making role. Lugosi’s version of the casting switch has made the rounds, becoming part of Hollywood folklore, but, as is often the case, it is pure myth. Lugosi was wanted by neither the new director (James Whale, replacing Robert Florey) or producer (Carl Laemmle, Jr.). Lugosi’s career and life quickly deteriorated, catapulting the Hungarian actor into parody, abject poverty, drug addiction, and pathos. In 1956 Lugosi was buried in his vampire’s cloak, forever merging actor and role. On the face of it, Lugosi should have reigned supreme in the genre. He seemed to really believe in all that malevolent nonsense. However, he lacked Chaney’s sense of humanism, thus paving the path for a better actor.
In sharp contrast to Lugosi, Karloff celebrated unabated success until his death in 1969. Since Karloff’s passing, Lugosi has exacted posthumous revenge on the thespian who stole his crown. Lugosi’s cult status has risen considerably, far surpassing that of Karloff. This turnabout is, in part, due to the increasing faddish (and increasingly dull) obsession with vampires, and with Lugosi’s more colorful biography compared to the workaholic Karloff. Justice, it would seem, has been served, except that the revisionist take is dead wrong. Karloff’s genteel nature and cultured leaning rendered him a vastly superior artist. The studio heads were correct in preferring Karloff to Lugosi: Bela was not in Boris’ league. Karloff triumphed because he approached his craft with an intelligence and insight that Lugosi simply did not possess. Karloff was also more pragmatic, calling the monster: “The best friend I ever had.” Lugosi, oddly, resented his genre typecasting. Karloff embraced it, knowing it won him hard earned security. Astutely, Karloff referred to his film work as “fairy tales,” as opposed to “horror.”
While Lugosi was capable of marvelous deliveries with his idiosyncratic mangling of the English language, more often than not, language was a handicap, as opposed to an asset. In contrast, Karloff was gifted with one of the most beautiful voices in the whole of cinema. That voice, equipped with an alluring, mellifluous lisp, put Karloff in the company of excellent, fellow voice actors, such as Claude Rains, James Mason, Edward G.Robinson, and Orson Welles. It was not for no reason that Karloff worked with directors and producers as celebrated as Whale, Edgar G. Ulmer, Howard Hawks, Karl Freund, Michael Curitz, John Ford, Val Lewton, Roger Corman, Robert Wise, Mario Bava, Michael Reeves, Peter Bogdanovich, Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin, Jr, and Chuck Jones. Vincent Price, Karloff’s only real successor, was likewise, a gifted voice actor. Although Price had a more pronounced tongue-in-cheek approach, he almost certainly modeled Karloff and consequently achieved a similar success.
Even before Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) catapulted the 45-year-old Karloff into super-stardom, the actor had been noticed for his character work in Howard Hawk’s The Criminal Code (1931) and Mervyn Leroy’s Five Star Finale (1931). Karloff ‘s beautiful pantomime performance as Frankenstein’s monster aptly stemmed from the best of silent cinema (Karloff had been acting in film since 1919), rivaling the likes of Lon Chaney. Like Chaney, Karloff was a consummate professional, enduring the physical demands and challenges of the role without complaint. Despite the inaccurate and ungenerous portrayal of Karloff’s relationship with Whale depicted in the elegiac Gods and Monsters (1998), the actor and director worked off each other well, delivering the quintessential film and performance of Mary Shelly’s creation.
Karloff died a classic cinematic death as Gaffney in Howard Hawks original Scarface (1932- the phenomenally inferior remake is a dour indication of contemporary banality). The actor was back with Whale in the The Old Dark House (1932) playing the malevolent, mute butler among a cast of delightful eccentrics including Ernest Thesiger (“have a potato”), Eva Moore (“no beds”), Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, and the late Gloria Stuart. It is the quintessential film of its type.
Karloff’s enjoyment in chewing scenery is contagious in Charles Brabin’s pulpy Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), but the actor also recognized and enjoyed authentic artistic experiences, such as Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932) (essentially, a rethinking of Dracula). In his role of Imhotep, Karloff imbues the character with startling eroticism. The Mummy sequels and remakes go a considerable distance to prove the superiority of this original. The star worked closely with legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce, Freund, and co-star Zita Johann. Later, Karloff later cited this film as an exciting experience of ensemble collaboration.
Following The Mummy, Karloff dared to rebel against Universal’s efforts to put him in lesser, assembly line films. In protest, the actor departed for London to star in T. Hayes Hunter’s uneven cult film The Ghoul (1933).
He gave a hammy performance as a religious zealot for John Ford in the Lost Patrol (1934) and played the evil anti-Semite in Sidney Lanfield’s House of Rothschild (1934). Karloff received critical accolades for these non-horror roles, resulting in a considerable increase in his stock. He was soon back at Universal for his first (and best) co-starring vehicle with Lugosi in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934). Poelzig is one of Karloff’s greatest roles; the actor utilizes his entire body to manipulate the sense of sexualized dread. Here, Karloff again delved into the challenges of artistic collaboration. Ulmer and Karloff engaged one another, while the jealous Lugosi, feeling left out of conversations clearly above his head, fumed on the sidelines. Lugosi’s only recourse was to vehemently complain about Karloff’s routine tea breaks.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) remains the quintessential Universal Horror film and has such a pronounced, individualistic texture, that, for some, it remains the last great horror film. It is a sophisticated, witty, and black sequel that surpasses the original. Although Karloff objected to his beloved monster speaking, he wisely deferred to the director’s wishes. The film was an enormous success with audiences and critics at the time, and its reputation has endured.
Lew Landers’ mildly enjoyable, crass hokum, The Raven (1935), caused a furor in Great Britain, resulting in a brief ban on films containing “horrific elements.” The ban did little damage to Karloff. The same could not be said for his Raven co-star, who gave an insanely over-the-top performance in the film.
The Black Room (1935) was the first of several films for Karloff did for Columbia. This Roy William Neill Gothic melodrama cast Karloff in a dual role, which the actor relished. The Invisible Ray (1936) brought the actor back to Universal and co-star Lugosi in a subdued science fiction curiosity directed by Lambert Hillyer. Lugosi had a secondary role and did it well ( he was actually directed, for once); but, oddly, it was Karloff whose ham meter went into overdrive here. He fared better in Michael Curtiz’ The Walking Dead (1936), injecting genuine menace in this nearly forgotten film, directed with atmospheric flair.
The Man Who Changed His Mind AKA The Man Who Lived Again (1936) was the first of Karloff’s “mad doctor” series for Columbia. Karloff literally burned the nitrate as a chain-smoking loony tune scientist, but the star’s next film of decent quality was Roland V. Lee’s The Son of Frankenstein (1939) which returned the actor to his beloved, pantomime monster. However, co-stars Lugosi and Lionel Atwill walked off with the acting honors; Karloff was given little to do, and Basil Rathbone delivered an embarrassing performance. Whale’s sardonic touch is missed, but Karloff managed to give his monster a departing dignity in several memorable scenes.
The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) was the second of Columbia’s agreeable-enough entries, but Karloff’s meatier role was that of the bald, clubfooted executioner Mord The Merciless in Roland V. Lee’s Tower of London (1939). The film was hardly Shakespeare, but it looked gorgeous and is enjoyable for a number of colorful performances (including a surprisingly straight-laced Vincent Price).
Karloff’s role as Valder in the non-horror British Intelligence (1940) is a gem in an underrated film directed by Terry Morse. The actor followed that with two more 1940 entries in the Columbia series: The Man With Nine Lives and Before I Hang. He also gave a serviceable performance with a secondary role in Universal’s mediocre Black Friday (1940), filling out an alarmingly busy year.
Dissatisfied with what he was being offered, Karloff jumped at the opportunity to play Jonathan Brewster in the stage version of Arsenic and Old Lace. The part was slyly written for the actor and the character’s murderous tendencies come to the surface when he is told, “you look like Boris Karloff.” Touring with the play, Karloff essentially disappeared from the screen for three years, the sole exceptions being the final Columbia picture, The Devil Commands (1941) and the best forgotten You’ll Find Out (1942).
Due to contractual problems, Karloff was, regrettably, unable to play the part of Brewster in the film version of Arsenic, although he starred again in a 1962 teleplay with Tony Randall. It was thought lost, but has been made available through pirated copies in recent years. Karloff’s first color film was 1944’s The Climax, Universal’s bastardized semi-sequel to its 1943 remake of Phantom of the Opera. The Climax was as good as its predecessor, which is saying little.
Feeling Frankenstein’s monster had become a parody, Karloff admirably refused to play the part again, but this did not stop him from appearing as a mad doctor in Universal’s all-star monster mash-up, The House of Frankenstein (1944).
Beginning in 1945, the actor’s work with Val Lewton reinvigorated him. The first of these, The Body Snatcher (1945), was the best of Karloff’s trilogy at RKO. Directed by Robert Wise, Karloff gave a remarkably nuanced performance as body-snatching cabman John Gray. Karloff’s interaction with co-stars Henry Daniell (incisive) and Lugosi (poignant) challenged all three actors, and they each responded with some of the best work they ever did.
This was followed by Mark Robson’s Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946). Although Robson’s style was inevitably too literary, flatly directed, and lacked the poetry found in the best of Lewton’s oeuvre, Karloff relished his roles, elevating the films, which would not have worked without him. Lewton was initially reluctant to utilize Karloff and resisted RKO’s efforts to hoist “the Horror Star” onto the producer. After meeting with Karloff, who expressed artistic enthusiasm, Lewton was won over. The harmonious working atmosphere on the Lewton set was artistically rewarding for the actor, so much so that a comedown was inevitable.
The years immediately following Karloff’s work at RKO were unsatisfactory for the actor. He mainly appeared in character roles and television. Although Karloff flat out refused to spoof his monster, he had no problem spoofing himself. After turning down Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) he ill-advisedly appeared in Abbott and Costello meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949). Far more rewarding was the remarkable success the actor enjoyed in the 1950 play Peter Pan. Karloff dazzled critics and audiences alike with his dual roles of George Darling and Captain Hook (the play co-starred Jean Arthur with music composed by Leonard Bernstein).
The Strange Door (1951) re-teamed Karloff with Old Dark House co-star Charles Laughton, but this Gothic Robert Louis Stevenson tale was uninspired in direction. Worse, Karloff’s hamminess was actually subtle compared to Laughton’s antics. Another humdrum Gothic meoldrama was at hand in The Black Castle (1952), co-starring Lon Chaney, Jr. If Karloff’s working relationship with Lugosi could be tense, his relationship with Chaney Jr. bordered on hostility. Karloff actively disliked his younger peer, and probably for valid reasons. Karloff was back with the second rate Laurel and Hardy act in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), which is more bearable (not by much) than the 1949 entry.
Again, television primarily occupied the actor until 1958’s The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood, both directed by Robert Day. In the second film, Karloff co-starred with new generation horror star Christopher Lee. While neither film was up to the standards of classics directed by Whale, Freund, or Ulmer, both were semi-literate and refreshingly old school. The same could not be said for Frankenstein 1970 (1958), which had a promising enough start, but floundered badly.
His duties as host of the Thriller TV series occupied Karloff from 1960 to 1962. High points of the series included “The Incredible Dr. Markesan,” which Karloff memorably acted in, and a trio of episodes directed by Ida Lupino. In 1963, Karloff narrated and starred in Mario Bava’s Gothic anthology, Black Sabbath. The final and best episode featured the actor in an excellent performance as a Wurdalak preying upon his own family. The film quickly became a cult favorite.
Karloff had another success the same year, starring with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in Roger Corman’s horror comedy The Raven. This marked a new, playful phase in Karloff’s career, even if the follow-up film, The Terror (1963), is aptly named, despite Karloff’s standout endeavor. The Comedy of Terrors (1963) was slightly better. It quickly became a cult favorite, with Karloff stealing virtually every scene, despite a brief role.
The trio of Corman films led Karloff to fun TV guest appearances in “The Wild, Wild West,” “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E,” “I Spy,” and voice work as the rat in Rankin and Bass’ The Daydreamer (1966). This effort was soon surpassed by Karloff’s classic voicing of the Grinch in Chuck Jones’ perennial favorite “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1966). In this period Karloff had even starred in one of the first H.P.Lovercraft screen adaptions—the unimaginatively titled Die Monster Die (1965)—but this adaptation of the classic chiller “The Colour Out of Space, co-starring teen heartthrob Nick Adams, was a considerable disappointment.
Rankin and Bass’ Mad Monster Party (1967) was what the Universal monster mashes should have been.
The Sorcerers (1967) is an unjustly forgotten surreal film made by the tragically short-lived Michael Reeves.
Karloff topped that achievement with what should have been his final film, Targets (1968), directed by Peter Bogdanovich. The aging actor plays horror icon Byron Orlock whose last personal appearance, at a drive-in-cinema, is interrupted by the true horror of a crazed sniper. Targets is a flawed, but compelling and intelligently penned film. Unfortunately, Karloff himself did not have as memorable a send-off as Orlock did. He had been in poor health for several years, suffering from a deadly combination of crippling arthritis and the emphysema that killed him. Wanting to die with his grease paint on, the actor bravely signed a four-picture deal with producer Jack Hill. Due to budgetary restraints, location shooting was primarily centralized in Mexico with Karloff’s parts filmed in Hollywood. The Jack Hill films were all released after the actor’s passing. Their execrable reputation is well-earned and have justifiably been largely forgotten. In between these four films, Karloff also appeared in the bizarre Cauldron of Blood (released, 1970) and Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), which co-starring Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele. The amazing horror cast was completely wasted.
Despite a less than stellar bow, Karloff’s legacy has remained stain-free. Karloff, the Uncanny and Karloff: The King of Horror are superfluous labels. Karloff was not merely a great horror actor. He was and remains on of the great actors of the silver screen. Period.