How much do you know about Boris Karloff? Did you know that his birth name was William Henry Pratt? That he had a successful stint on Broadway? And that he was involved in the creation of the Screen Actors Guild?
Boris Karloff: The Man Behind The Monster is a fine biography that paints a picture of a warm gentleman who, while having his flaws, was nothing like the iconic monsters he portrayed in films such as Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932). Beginning with his renaissance in the 1960s and his appearance in Mario Bava‘s Black Sabbath (1963), the film immediately talks about how beloved he was through the eyes of several interviewees, before then understandably focusing on his portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster. It looks at his immediate career at that time, with important roles in films such as The Criminal Code and Graft (both 1931), and then talks about how Karloff was chosen to replace Bela Lugosi as the creature.
The picture mixes archive audio and video with talking heads; we see Guillermo Del Toro talking about how seeing the monster appear in the film was akin to a “religious conversion”, while Frankenstein was the first film that Dick Miller – who starred with Karloff in The Terror (1963) – saw in the cinema. It also talks about Karloff’s protests at throwing the young girl in the lake in the film, a moment which was cut out of the picture for many years, and how it caused a schism between Karloff and director James Whale. The film isn’t complimentary to Whale and talks about Karloff having back problems from the scene where he carries Frankenstein up to the windmill, with Whale apparently insisting that he carry actor Colin Clive instead of a dummy, and also that no one invited Karloff to the premiere showing of Frankenstein.
It’s not until half an hour in that we zip back to learn about Karloff’s family and early years, with his daughter Sara stating that he originally would lie about his parents dying when he was a child so he could avoid recalling the trauma of the period. We then go somewhat chronologically, with films such as The Mummy, The Black Cat (1934) and the classic Bride of Frankenstein (1935), where we learn he did not want the monster to talk. More interviews come from John Landis, Ron Perlman, silent film expert Kevin Brownlow, and we’re told about his role for actors’ rights that led to the creation of the Screen Actors Guild, where he was assistant secretary, and that he had a successful stint on Broadway in Arsenic and Old Lace, although in the 1944 film version his role was played by actor Raymond Massey because the play’s producers thought the removal of Karloff for the film would hurt their box office.
Karloff seemed to go over several bumps in his career but always seemed to find interesting pathways. One of these was his collaborations with the great Val Lewton in the mid-1940s which produced The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead (both 1945), and Bedlam (1946) in a period which saw Karloff have great respect for Lewton as an artist, especially compared to what had happened at Universal with their monster jamborees (although he did manage to appear in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1952). But other pursuits than film caught his eye, and he returned to the stage, playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan and being nominated for a Tony award for The Lark, which also featured Christopher Plummer.
Television became a prime outlet, with Thriller (1960-62), a macabre anthology in the vein of The Twilight Zone that Karloff introduced, while also appearing in several episodes as an actor. Karloff also appeared in skits on shows such as The Dinah Shore Chevy Show (sponsored by car manufacturer Chevrolet), which saw the icon singing deadpan to a skull, which is suggested was the influence for Bobby Pickett’s classic hit ‘Monster Mash’. TV also saw Karloff pick another beloved role, that of the narrator and Grinch in the 1966 animated special How The Grinch Stole Christmas, although curiously there is no mention of his voice work for the following year’s Mad Monster Party?, a stop-motion film by Rankin/Bass that has become a cult classic.
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With the twilight of Karloff’s career, we’re told about his work with Roger Corman on The Raven (1963) and Corman regales us himself about how he kept the actor over a few days so he could shoot footage for The Terror, which could then be built around with further footage. Classic Corman. We also hear from the late Peter Bogdanovich about his film Targets (1968), one of Karloff’s final pictures, and how Karloff was very impressed by the young director, which showed even that late in his career the icon still cared about the craft.
Sadly Karloff eventually died in 1969 from pneumonia as a complication of emphysema, but we see from not only the interviewees but also clips from his appearance on This Is Your Life in 1957, which also includes footage of Jack Pierce, who made up Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster and The Mummy. And from this, Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster makes abundantly clear that Karloff was, as is often, not just a lumbering guy in makeup, but a wonderful actor who had great respect for creativity in whatever field necessary, as well as his fellow craftsmen. And he deserves a lot more recognition than just being a monster, although he did that very, very well.
Boris Karloff: The Man Behind The Monster premieres on Shudder on 27th January.