Spotlight On: Boris Karloff

Born in London in 1887 as William Pratt, the man known the world over as Boris Karloff has become a film icon. His looks and soft distinctive voice is instantly recognizable to movie buffs. The actor got his start in bit parts, the biggest being a gangster in Scarface. While working at Universal he was discovered by director James Whale who cast him in the horror classic Frankenstein which would forever tie Boris Karloff to the genre. His tenure saw him work with many other luminaries of scary films like: Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Lon Chaney Jr. Peter Lorre, and more. With his charm and urbane nature, Karloff was the perfect ambassador for horror to the mainstream crowd. So today we turn a spotlight on one of horror’s biggest icons, Boris Karloff. 


Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (1931 &1935): The role of Frankenstein’s monster is singlehandedly responsible for the actor’s big break. After toiling away for years in different bit parts and supporting roles, legendary director James Whale, reportedly saw Boris Karloff at the Universal lot and immediately thought he would be perfect for the monster. Karloff would often wonder if he should be offended that the director instantly thought of a monster when he saw him, but due to the boost it had on his career it could not hurt that bad. In 1931, Frankenstein was released to blockbuster success and rather than a name in the credit’s Boris Karloff was credited merely as a question mark to maintain the mystique of Frankenstein’s creation. That was not the case when the acclaimed sequel the Bride of Frankenstein was released in 1935, as he was now so famous his last name alone was enough to sell tickets. Bride went on to be just as successful as the original flick and today is still recognized as one of the greatest American films ever made.


The Mummy (1932): Boris Karloff had the honor of playing two of the legendary Universal Monsters during career, not only was he Frankenstein’s creation, he was also the Mummy. Though he only wore the trademark bandages we associate with mummydom in the opening of the film, the actor still has a very distinctive look in this film thanks to the weathered and aged make-up fx from Jack Pierce. Karloff was the first actor to portray Imhotep the undead being obsessed with bringing back the love of his life, even if it means murder. His performance is one that is filled with subtlety which proved the perfect way to go in creating this eerie character.


The Black Cat (1934): During the 1930’s, Karloff and his colleague Bela Lugosi were the two biggest names in horror, so it made sense in 1934 for Universal to bring them together. Under the helm of legendary director Edgar G. Ulmer, the genre’s biggest stars matched wits in a nightmarish Bauhaus-style mansion.  Boris Karloff plays the sinister Hjalmar Poelzig an architect who has earned the wrath of Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast. Trapped in a cat-and-mouse game between Poelzig and Dr. Werdegast, is a young couple on their honeymoon who may become victims to these two men. The Black Cat also features a role reversal of sorts as this time; Karloff is playing a more sinister character while Lugosi is the one playing the more sympathetic one.  This is arguably the most underrated horror movie of its era with; great acting, unique set pieces, and an ending which still gives the chills.


The Body Snatcher (1945): In a match made in horror heaven, Karloff played the lead in a film produced by the master of psychological horror, Val Lewton. Inspired by a Robert Louis Stephenson story, Karloff plays Graves, a cab driver who secretly steals cadavers to sell to the doctor of a local medical school. Graves sees this as a means to finally have a grasp of power which he absolutely relishes. The movie is notable because it was the third feature directed by Robert Wise who would go on to become a filmmaking legend behind classics like: the Day the Earth Stood Still, Sound of Music, and West Side Story. Bela Lugosi is also touted on the movie poster, despite being in a cameo role. Yet the scene he shares with Boris Karloff is one of the most memorable moments in flick.


Bedlam (1946): Every so often in moviedom a movie which should be a B-flick is made with the quality of an A-flick. Such is the case in Boris Karloff’s supremely underrated Bedlam. Though it was a box office failure upon it’s release, Bedlam is now critically acclaimed for being so far ahead of its time. Karloff’s character of Master Sims relishes his evil nature as a sadist charged with running St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum who abuses the inmates by having them perform shows for an aristocrat. When an idealistic young man tries to put an end to it, Sims has this perfectly sane man committed into his horrific asylum.


How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966): As far as holidays go, there is no shortage of Karloff at Halloween; but he also appears at Christmas as well. In this beloved adaption of the Dr. Seuss classic, Boris Karloff lends is distinctive vocals to narrating the tale as well as voicing the Christmas-hating mean one himself, the Grinch. He finds the right balance between malice and heart in his performance as the iconic character evolves throughout the movie. Even now half a century later How the Grinch Stole Christmas is still a holiday classic which is watched  by countless people who have grown up with this beloved special.


Black Sabbath (1963): Directed by the godfather of giallo, Mario Bava, Black Sabbath is a classic anthology of horror. As a legend of the genre Boris Karloff is the perfect choice to serve as host to these macabre entries. The actor proves to be both menacing and comedic in this role. He even delves into the fun in the segment entitled, “the Wurdalak” where he plays a vampire who preys on the family of the family he was once served as the patriarch of. In a movie filled with strong horror stories, “the Wurdalak” is often cited as the best in Black Sabbath, largely due to Karloff’s performance.


Targets: During the 1960’s horror films began to transition; no longer were classical monsters stomping around Europe or radioactive monsters scary enough. Filmmakers like George A. Romero and Alfred Hitchcock moved the terror into the real world where the monster could be the boy next door. The breakthrough film from the now-legendary Peter Bogdanovich, Targets is a movie which took an unflinching look at this genre evolution. This film sees Karloff play a hyper realized version of himself in Byron Orlok, an aging star of the Golden Age of Horror who sees the way the genre is going and has opted for retirement.  At the same time a troubled Vietnam veteran is randomly murdering people with a sniper rifle, bringing fears which were far too real in this era right to the forefront. These two threads of the movie finally collide in a drive-in theater where the bullets start flying as Orlock watches his swan song on the big screen. Fittingly this role was Boris Karloff’s final serious performance and easily one of his best as you can clearly see glimpses of the man within his character.