Although Boris Karloff appeared in more than 160 films in varied roles, the huge success of Frankenstein (1931) permanently fixed his career. The most famous of all horror films begot the best-known of all horror stars. No surprise, then, that 10 of the 14 features in Film Forum’s retro are classic fright flicks.
The black sheep of a staid English family, Karloff immigrated to Canada, entered films in 1916, and got his first big break in Howard Hawks’s prison drama The Criminal Code (1931). He steals the film as the taciturn plug-ugly convict turned killer. Karloff caught the eye of director James Whale, who was casting Frankenstein at Universal; he soon became the best-paid monster in Hollywood. Much of the film’s power derives from his dignified performance, great gift for mime, and emotional depth—he plays Frankenstein’s creation as a lonely child whose parents have rejected him, at once terrifying and pathetic. (He may have been drawing on personal resources—there is some evidence that his birth was the result of an affair his mother had with an Egyptian friend during a visit to the Suez Canal. It appears that the family, further shamed by his passion for acting, exiled him to Canada.)
Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), the wittiest and most elegant film in the series, casts him as a wild-eyed, whiskered, and lecherous brute of a butler in a spooky mansion lost in the Welsh mountains. One of the most disturbing exercises in Grand Guignol followed: Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), the first of several pairings of Karloff with Bela Lugosi, both at the top of their forms. As Poelzig, necromancer and necrophiliac (based on the notorious Aleister Crowley), Karloff, his hairline pointed down to the center of his forehead to make him look like the devil himself, conducts the first group satanic ritual in American cinema.
As much quirky black comedy as horror flick, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is a magnificent exception to the rule that sequels are inferior to originals. It’s the high point of Whale’s career—and of Karloff’s. The resurrected monster (even more humanized here, as a sort of noble savage in search of an identity) discovers friendship with another outcast, a blind hermit, and guzzles wine with bitchy mad scientist Dr. Pretorius— an impishly camp performance by Ernst Thesiger. Karloff is irreverently apotheosized as a Christ figure, raised on a cross by a lynch mob of rabid townsfolk.
Karloff enjoyed an artistic resurgence working with creative producer Val Lewton at RKO. Karloff appeared in three Lewton pictures, the best of which is Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher (1945), a period thriller set in 1930s Edinburgh. Here, he’s a jolly demon, a cabman by day, by night a grave robber who filches cadavers for a medical school. It’s the finest of his un-made-up performances.
Another enlightened producer, Richard Gordon, worked with his friend Karloff on two of the actor’s more memorable later films, The Haunted Strangler (1958) and Corridors of Blood (1963). (Gordon will be at Film Forum for the 6:20 show of Strangler on February 9.) A few years before he died, I was given the signal assignment of interviewing Karloff in his London home. Although not in good health, he was warm, urbane, gracious, and hospitable. In spite of various afflictions, the striking physique he had built up when, during his early days in Canada and California, he worked as a ditchdigger, truck driver, coal shoveler, and horse trainer was still evident. He opened up on a number of subjects. Karloff turned out to be a literate intellectual, a bit of an anarchist, and a civil rights fighter who, in the mid 1930s, had been a core organizer of the Screen Actors Guild, at a time when it was actually dangerous. He annotated his career a bit, but spoke with more enthusiasm about his vast library. An avid bibliophile, the great love of his life was Joseph Conrad—the shelves were groaning with Conrad’s works, not only in English, but in a dozen different languages. Who knew?—the monster turned out to be a first-editions freak.