Boris Karloff (1887-1969) was born William Henry Pratt, and is best known for his portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster, or as he is widely known in popular culture, simply “Frankenstein.”
Karloff was the youngest of nine children into a family of politicians and diplomats. He was expected to follow his siblings into the foreign service, but in 1909, he abruptly left college and sailed to Canada, where he worked his way across the country as a day laborer. He fell in with a theater troupe in 1911, and adopted his stage name at that time. For the next decade, he acted in repertory troupes and did manual labor in between plays in order to make ends meet. The grueling labor left a permanent strain on his back that only worsened as he aged. By 1919, he’d made his way to Hollywood and spent several years in bit parts, small roles, and eventually a slew of serials. In 1931, he starred in Howard Hawkes’ film version of The Criminal Code, wherein he played a gangster. He was offered the role of Frankenstein’s monster when Bela Lugosi refused to play the part. And that was that.
Karloff acted in over 80 movies before being “discovered” by James Whale. After the role, which took a physical toll on him due to the costume and make-up, he got busy making other Universal films such as The Mummy (1932) and The Old Dark House (1932), and these roles quickly established him as a master of the macabre, so much so that for many years at Universal, he was billed only as “Karloff,” because you didn’t need to know anything else about the movie but that. His name was used to connote murder and the macabre for the rest of his career, and he lent his name and likeness to books, comics, and television and his unmistakable voice—well, if you’ve ever belted out “Monster Mash,” sung by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers, then you’re a Karloff fan and you didn’t even know it.
Karloff was able widen his repertoire in ways that fellow horror icon Bela Lugosi could not, and his success was a sticking point for Lugosi; despite that, they starred together in 7 films together and more often than not brought out the best in one another. Karloff embraced his public persona and happily played a variety of sorcerers, cultists, madmen, psychopaths, and monsters in a career that lasted into the 1960s. But nothing else he did left as big an impact on popular culture as Frankenstein.
Sporting Jack Pierce’s iconic flat-head make-up, Karloff only played role three times, but those performances informed not only every other actor’s portrayal throughout the 30s and 40s, but became the de facto Frankenstein version in the minds of everyone, extending into comics, television, advertising, toys, and all other echelons of popular culture, so much so that several attempts to return the monster to his literary roots were always met with indifference by the public, because they couldn’t accept Dr. Frankenstein’s creature without bolts in his neck. Together with Lugosi, their depictions of Frankenstein and Dracula established the first shared world “universe” and remain relevant to the horror genre gestalt to this very day. Having already covered Frankenstein on a separate Top 5 list, this list focuses instead on other performances by the great Karloff, several of which stand apart as among his best, most memorable roles.
5. The Raven (1963)
Dr. Erasmus Craven, a 16th century sorcerer (Vincent Price) is busy mourning the loss of his wife, Lenore, when a raven interrupts his reverie. This turns out to be fellow sorcerer Adolphus Bedio, who begs Craven to turn him back into a human again. Once reverted, Bedio tells Craven he’s seen Lenore’s ghost in Scarabus’ castle. Their mutual rival, Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff), is only too happy to invite them into his castle—the better to put the thumbscrews to them both. With Craven’s daughter and Bedio’s son tagging along, what follows is a comic send up of all of the Gothic Poe movies that director Roger Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson made popular in the last few years.
And who better to write and direct The Raven than Matheson and Corman, respectively? The movie is weighted more towards comedy than terror, but there’s still s a lot to like about this mystical farce. The plot is full of twists and turns, and Karloff as the heavy seems to be enjoying the work with Price and Lorre. You’re not watching The Raven for an accurate reflection of Poe’s classic poetry. The veteran stars are the real draw, here, along with a young newcomer, Jack Nicholson. He’s good in this. I think he’ll have a pretty good career in front of him. Peter Lorre nearly steals the movie with several ad libs that reportedly threw Price and Karloff off their game. That may be why Karloff seems genuinely menacing as Dr. Scarabus.
The Poe content, what there is of it, is as scant and glancing as the other films in the series, but that’s a moot point when there’s all this fine scenery to be chewed. The Raven is a great warm up for heavier fare if you’re doing a series of classic horror films.
4. The Sorcerers 1967)
An aged hypnotist (Karloff) has invented a machine that will control the minds of others. He and his wife decide to test it out on one of the bored, bourgeoisie British hipsters that he happens across (played by Ian Ogilvy). He and his wife convince him to be a guinea pig for the inaugural test, telling him it’s a “new experience,” which is what the club rat craves. Not only does the machine work as advertised, rendering the test subject completely subject to their whims, it also allows the elderly couple of voyeuristically experience every sensation the young lad has, with some interesting and ultimate creepy repercussions.
The Sorcerers was co-written and directed by Michael Reeves, who would go on to direct Witchfinder General in 1968 and then tragically die of a booze and pill overdose the following year. This short career with a steeply pitched trajectory has lent a storied, if not mythic, aura to his movies, as a promise unfulfilled—but this, his sophomore outing as a director, shows a lot of polish and keeps the story moving briskly along. Karloff, in one of his last roles, gets to have an interesting turn in this movie that you don’t see from his other works, and it’s pretty cool to watch. You just have to swallow a ludicrous premise featuring technology that makes the Dr. Who Tardis set look like the interior of the Millennium Falcon.
The film is otherwise firmly entrenched in the swinging 60s London psychedelic scene, as we are treated to a groovy band and two musical numbers within the latest happening place. Dig it. And yet, Reeves seems to be making a point about choices without consequences, without decrying hippie subculture entirely. The ending of The Sorcerers is not entirely unexpected, but the last twenty minutes of the film will likely stay with you and whoever else you’re watching the movie with as an interesting conversational topic.
3. The Ghoul (1933)
Noted and seemingly controversial Egyptologist, Professor Morlant (Karloff) is dying, and he’s acquired an ancient gem from an Egyptian Tomb called “the Eternal Light.” He’s got this idea about a sacrifice to Anubis in exchange for immortality. However, a bunch of other people have plans for that jewel, which cost Morlant most of his fortune to obtain. Everyone has their reasons for wanting it back; Mahmoud, for instance, just wants to return it to the tomb from which it was pillaged. Other people in Morlant’s life—relatives, rivals, etc. want the gem because of its great value. When Morlant’s specific burial instructions are not followed to the letter—the gem is pilfered—he comes back from the dead as a ghoul to wage war on those who betrayed him.
Karloff had a brief contract dispute with Universal in 1933, and while it was getting ironed out, he hopped over to the UK and filmed this quick and dirty horror movie, a kind of belated homecoming for him. It performed well in the UK and not so good in the US, and due to the vagaries of Great Britain’s cavalier attitude towards film, was thought to be lost for many years. A copy of the negative was found in the 1980s and restored, including adding in 8 minutes of footage that was excised at some point in the film’s storied lifespan. The intact and restored version is now readily available.
Karloff appeared in this movie after he starred in The Mummy, which is interesting because of the heavy dose of Egyptology in the film. Karloff seems to straddle the line, performative speaking, between Frankenstein and Kharis the mummy, but that may just be in service to the story, which was taken from the book by Frank King, which was also adapted into a stage play. The title of the movie certainly applies to Karloff, but all of the people lurking around, waiting to rob the old man of his fortune, might also be evocative of grave robbers, as well. There’s a lot of pulpy goodness in The Ghoul to keep the pacing up and the hi-jinks of the would-be robbers interesting.
2. The Black Room (1935)
In the 18th century Austrian alps, Baron de Berghman receives a disturbing prophesy about his twin sons: the younger brother will kill the older brother in The Black Room. Hoping to forestall his son’s demise, he orders the room bricked up and sealed away. Flash forward to some years later, and the older brother Gregor (played by Karloff) has become a tyrannical despot, while the younger brother, Anton (also played by Karloff) has spent years wandering Europe and generally being an all-around swell guy. He’s returned home from his travels, refusing to believe the stories he’s heard about Gregor, only to find that not are they true, but the peasantry much prefers him to the evil baron—go figure. Without giving too much away, Gregor comes up with a masterful plan to both abdicate the throne and continue to rule—and it involves the newly-rediscovered Black Room.
An original story, not cribbed from Poe or any pulp authors, The Black Room has a larger footprint than many other Universal films of the era. Maybe it’s the medieval setting and the Gothic overtones that give the story a bit of “once upon a time” storybook charm, not unlike that of the Brothers Grimm. There’s also a giant mastiff hound named Tor in the movie. He’s got a small but important role, too.
While not being particularly scary, The Black Room is nonetheless very effective at being tense, creepy and more than a little surprising at times. Karloff is brilliant, effortlessly playing both brothers with some clever camera work and no doubt enjoyed a make-up-free performance that shows off his acting chops. The Black Room isn’t as sexy as The Black Cat, or as sensational as his classic Universal monsters, Frankenstein and the Mummy, but it’s one of the better films of the period with great technical direction by Roy William Neill and a unique set of characters for Karloff to sink his teeth into.
1. The Black Cat (1934)
A young, bright, American couple on their way to (wait for it) their honeymoon in Hungary share a train car with Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who is traveling to see an old friend. Werdegast, played by Bela Lugosi, explains that he’d been interred in a prison camp for the past fifteen years. When the young bride, Joan, is injured on the road, Werdegast takes the couple with him to the home of his friend, the architect Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Boris Karloff.
I won’t spoil where things go from here, but I will tell you that the title of the movie, and the credit listed for the author, is the only thing that is remotely related to the Edgar Allan Poe story. Instead, what the movie has going for it is as follows: It’s the first and best pairing of Lugosi and Karloff in the same movie, satanic cults, psychological torture, black magic, a dash of necrophilia, German Expressionism’s last gasp, human sacrifice, and the creepiest chess game ever played, and that’s all I can list without giving anything cool away. You have to see this film to believe it.
Critics’ reactions were mixed when the movie premiered but audiences loved it; The Black Cat was Universal’s highest grossing film that year, largely thanks to the teaming up of Lugosi and Karloff, two of the biggest films stars of the decade. This movie is the kind of bonkers that will leave you shaking your head at what they managed to cram into the movie, and what they got away with onscreen. One of the more gruesome scenes in the movie is accomplished with mere suggestion and it’s incredibly effective. The Black Cat is a fantastic example of Universal’s non-monster-centric horror output.