Monday, October 8, 2012

King Of The Monsters: Boris Karloff's 10 Greatest Horror Performances

The name KARLOFF is synonymous with cinematic terror. No other actor has created as many indelible creations as that of William Henry Pratt, a quiet, English gentleman who was plucked from showbiz obscurity in 1931 to star as The Monster in James Whale's Frankenstein, thus ushering in a whole new era of movie horror. He followed this film up with several unforgettable performances, often buried under layers of makeup. His combination of grotesque makeups and sensitivity made him the ideal successor to the late Lon Chaney Sr., who was a friend and hero of the actor.
This list does not intend to list the best films the actor made, for surely The Old Dark House(1932), The Lost Patrol(1934), The House of Rothschild(1934) and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty(1947) would be present. Rather, the intention is to focus on his performances, and particularly those several fine ones he gave in his prime genre, the horror film.
By no means, is this list a definitive survey of the actor's many wonderful screen roles, but hopefully, as with several of my lists, serve as a guideline to those who wish to learn more about this great performer, and may even provoke seasoned film fans to return to past treasures, of which there are many in the career of the man known as Hollywood's king of horror.

1. Frankenstein(1931)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke

Frankenstein is not just one of the most influential and greatest films of the horror genre, but one of the finest motion pictures ever made. While rough around the edges, Frankenstein still manages to overcome the problems associated with early talkies, such as lack of a music score, by being one of the most deceptively complex films ever made. Whale simplifies Mary Shelley's masterpiece, by retaining the same primal power and that theme of Prometheus has seldom been as brilliantly realized, especially in the characterizations of Clive as Frankenstein and Karloff as the Monster.
Karloff's Monster is one of the great performances in the history of the cinema and the single greatest in the horror film, rivaled only by Chaney's Phantom of the Opera. It manages to walk that fine line between being horrifying and creepy, and also sympathetic. The Monster is a victim and as terrifying as Karloff's cadaverous appearance may be, especially in that most iconic of movie makeups, created by the great Jack Pierce, we never really see him as a villain.
It's a tribute to Karloff's talents that he made his performance that much more than a "monster." Amazingly, Karloff conveys all this power without a line of dialogue, using body language and those eyes, the most expressive since Chaney and Keaton. Few can forget the moment when the Monster reaches for the light like a child, perplexed by the new discovery, a scene which has also been interpreted on more spiritual levels as well.
The ultimate tragedy displayed in that scene and the Monster's subsequent moment with the little girl at the lake, which seals his fate, is that this creature is less a Monster and more a man.
I'd have to imagine that Mary Shelley would have applauded this version, differences aside, for among it's many welcome attributes, including the wonderful Gothic scenery, the snappy direction and a good cast(worth repeating) is Karloff as the most iconic of all movie monsters.

2. The Body Snatcher(1945)
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, Bela Lugosi

For my money, Karloff should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in this Val Lewton produced horror classic, the first of three the actor made with the legendary producer. His character of John Gray, the body snatcher,  is one of the most compelling in the horror film and a truly great performance, able to inject menace and even subtle bits of pathos and humor. The verbal duels he has between Henry Daniell(who is incredibly underrated here) are the best moments in the film, as is that ending, one of the most bone chilling ever.
The film has an added layer of poignancy, as this was the final pairing of Karloff with that other king of horror, Bela Lugosi. It's not as dynamic a part for Bela, but the key scene that he shares with Boris is perhaps the standout of the film and one of the best the two actors ever had together. It's also a sad metaphor for the way Karloff's career had (literally) snuffed out Lugosi's by this point in time.
The Body Snatcher is arguably the finest horror film of the 1940s and is one of the most popular ever made, along with being one of the "purer" Gothic horror adaptions, for few have been able to duplicate the atmosphere of classic Victorian horror prose as eloquently as this masterful film demonstrates.

3. The Mummy(1932)
Director: Karl Freund
Cast: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, Edward Van Sloan

One of Karloff's great hidden treasures is this remarkably restrained horror film from 1932. Not at all like it's follow-ups or remakes, this film is a sensitive Gothic that focuses on a tale of undying love and presents Karloff with more than just another great makeup job. Rarely has Karloff's voice been used to such haunting effect as it is here. His character reminds one of Dracula, but in effect, has a certain nobility to him and that makes him all the more tragic.
The opening segment, one of the best horror scenes, is an exercise in restraint. Karloff, clad in one of the great monster makeups, awakens from his tomb and steals the scroll of Thoth, after Bramwell Fletcher does what all movie archaeologists should never do, which is read it.
Karloff actually sports two great makeups in this one, not just the famous mummy in the sarcophagus, but also as his "human" alter ego, Ardeth Bey, which is very effective and creepy.
While, not always considered scary, I was always scared of Karloff's glowing eyes, which Freund, master cinematographer, focuses on in eerie fashion and in close-up.
The Mummy is a wonderful and neglected masterpiece of the golden age.

4. Bride Of Frankenstein(1935)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger

The apex of the classic horror cycle and a genuine candidate for the finest horror film of all time, Bride of Frankenstein is a superior sequel that actually manages to improve upon the already great original film. Karloff's monster is given even more dimensions than in the original film, even gaining the ability to speak, which he learns in one of the most poignant moments in any genre film: the scene with the Blind Hermit(O.P. Heggie). It's a wonderfully warm and funny scene, and despite the humor inserted throughout by director James Whale, the Monster is given dignity and a noble stature, climaxing in that beautifully dark conclusion, where Karloff, rejected by his Bride(Elsa Lanchester) pulls the lever that turns everyone into atoms.
Rarely has a horror film been given such free artistic reign as this one. This film offers so much for the viewer, from it's rich, twisted plot and characterizations, to the great set designs and camerawork, that many argue the merits of this film as a horror film.
That's a testament to this film's enduring appeal as a film able to transcend it's genre limitations. It's also in no small part to the great performances, led by Karloff in the second performance of his most famous role.

5. The Black Cat(1934)
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners

Karloff was often known for portraying sympathetic characters throughout his career, but not in this one, his most downright terrifying character, Hjlamar Poelzig. He portrays an Austrian architect and satanist, who had previously sold out his entire company to the Russians in World War One and stole hid friend's wife, before killing her and later marrying his friend's daughter. Too bad for him that his friend was Bela Lugosi, who also in a change of pace, portrays the closest thing to a hero in this dark and dreary picture.
Karloff is a sadistic, evil presence, much like what Lugosi was often cast as. The big difference in the approach was the restraint, coupled with his odd, angular look and weird wardrobe, that helped create one of the most diabolical of movie villains.
The line readings are genius, such as his soliloquy to Bela as he explains the similarities between them and likens it to they're war experience, or even simpler lines, such as, "The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead." 
None more menacing.
His ultimate fate at the hands of Lugosi's hate maddened, Vitus Werdegast, is perhaps the most shocking ending of any of the 1930s horror classics. This film is doubly rewarding for offering the two kings both great roles to perform in and the chance to play something other than they're well established personas.

6. Targets(1968)
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Boris Karloff, Tim O' Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich

Karloff would make four more(terrible) films in Mexico, but for many fans, this is his cinematic swan song. Targets marked the end of an era, more or less marking the end of the Hollywood horror film, as newer and grislier horror films began to become the norm. This film juxtaposes a story about an aging horror actor named Byron Orlock(Boris Karloff, with the actor more or less, playing himself) and a mad killer who obtains an arsenal of weapons and begins a killing spree, ending in a drive-in where Karloff's final film is being premiered.
Targets is a brutal film with it's depictions of realistic violence, still disturbing and reflective of the horror of modern society and the relative safety of the sort of escapism that Karloff's type of horror represented. Karloff adds warmth and real sense of world weariness, well aware that the world around him is fast becoming a darker and crueler place, ultimately accepting his role as a master of escapism, much like he would in real life. Few performers were ever afforded as good of a last film, as Karloff is here. Bogdanovich's debut is still powerful and relevant and it's a wonderful introduction to one of the genre's most important figures, making a gallant exit from our theater screens.

7. The Black Room(1935)
Director: Roy William Neil
Cast: Boris Karloff, Marian Marsh, Robert Allen

One of Karloff's most underrated roles is this 1935 Columbia historical horror, where Karloff portrays a dual role of two brothers, Gregor and Anton, who are separated from one another, due to an ancient family curse that predicts that the younger brother(Anton) will murder the older one. They grow to adulthood and Gregor controls the estate as a tyrant. Anton is the opposite, a benevolent and kindhearted man, reflective of Karloff's offscreen personality. Unfortunately, after a council decides to evict Gregor from the area after a nasty scandal, the murderous brother does in his younger sibling and usurps his role...but the curse catches up with him.
The Black Room is a stylish and fast-paced Gothic, reminiscent in spots, of James Whale's fantastic work at Universal and probably the only one of the Golden age horrors that reflects that feel. Despite, a low budget, the film appears lavish and carries with it a wonderful, fairy tale atmosphere that makes it stand out from any other contemporary thrillers. Karloff's performance is a triumph, getting to portray both hero and villain in one and his Gregor is one of the most devious and malevolent characters in the actor's long career. It's a great indicator for those that believe only Lugosi was capable of that lurking, seductive evil.

8. The Walking Dead(1936)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Boris Karloff, Edmund Gwenn,  Marguerite Churchill

For years, this Warners Bros. horror was largely unavailable, until it was thankfully released on DVD, a few years ago. The Walking Dead is a clear cash-in on Frankenstein, but is actually a fairly subtle and poignant horror film, a sort of mix of Universal horror and Warners gangsters. Karloff portrays a wrongfully accused man who is executed and brought back to life by Kris Kringle himself, Edmund Gwenn, who tries to figure out the mysteries of the afterlife. The film is designed like a revenge flick, with Karloff going after the gangsters who sent him to die, but there's a twist; Karloff never lays a finger on them. Rather, he merely acts as their guilty conscience and causes each man to die, his very presence like the angel of death.
It's a great role for Karloff and contains one of his finest and saddest moments in his career, as he attempts to reveal the secrets from beyond. Curtiz was an ideal director for such a moody picture and Karloff, the ideal actor, for this most unusual of 30s horror films.

9. Bedlam(1946)
Director: Mark Robson
Cast: Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House

Many critics(myself included) do not consider Bedlam a true horror film. So, that raises the question, why include it? Maybe it's because there's enough horror content to warrant it's inclusion, from the Gothic setting to the atmospheric and shadowy direction from Robson, and of course, Boris Karloff as one of the most memorable villains of his career. Karloff excels as Sims, the sadistic master of a sanitarium, where he treats it's inmates with brutality and menace. Anna Lee(in a very ahead of it's time performance) stars as the strong willed heroine, who matches wits with the crafty Karloff.
Bedlam reflects a different kind of horror than others Karloff was known for. This horror is one spawned by indifference and societal prejudice, which really are the monsters at hand here. To a modern audience, Bedlam is a truly revolting place, a far cry from today's sanitariums and institutions. Karloff portrays Sims as a egomaniac, who only cares about his place in society and the torture he inflicts on his inmates. Yet, somehow, in the climatic moment when Sims pleads for his life before the hostile inmates, there's a measure of sympathy that only Karloff could reveal. It was the magic of his ability to penetrate the soul of a monster.

10. The Man Who Changed His Mind(1936)
Director: Robert Stevenson
Cast: Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, John Loder

This is probably the most forgotten film on this list. Out of all the mad scientist roles that Karloff portrayed throughout his career, this would probably rank as his finest. It's not as one note as his Columbia characters or as tongue in cheek as Fu Manchu. Karloff's Dr. Laurience is a complex figure, a reclusive scientist who has developed an amazing invention(the ability to transfer the soul!) but is faced with ridicule. This leads to his turn as a true mad doctor and Karloff shines. He's supported by a good cast and impressive production values, for what was a low budget film. Most fans remember The Ghoul(1933) better, when discussing his British work in the 30s, but this is vastly superior, with a better script, complete with dark humor and a truly sad ending, one of Karloff's most impressive.
I've always listed this as one of the great underrated horror films, even outside of examining Karloff's horror output. It's a fine film, overall, and still remains a thoughtful and imaginative picture, nearly 80 years later.

There will likely never be another Boris Karloff. Few actors were able to penetrate that unreal world of the psyche and that cosmic universe of fear, as deftly as Karloff did. Ray Bradbury commented at the time of the actor's death, that Karloff's purpose was to help people deal with the inevitably of death. Like Chaney before him, his characters were reflectio of our deepest fears and our own societal outsiders. No matter how monstrous the part, there was always a touch of pathos, a bit of humanity that made them more than just mere villains. Many fine actors have appeared in this most underrated of film genres, most that deserve far more praise than I could write here, but Boris was special. Few actors have carved such an indelible niche in film history as the king of horror could claim his own. We could only wish that the great actor had lived long enough to understand the importance his gallery of grotesques played on the history of the cinema.
Long may the spirit of the Monster linger in the memory of the filmgoer.


  1. Great list. I also like "The Walking Dead" and his turn as villian in "Charlie Chan at the Opera" and "Dick Tracy" but "Black Sabbath" was scary as hell to a teenage me.

  2. I am an avid Karloff fan, so thank you for bringing THE BLACK ROOM to my attention.