Sunday, July 25, 2010

November 23, 2009: The 10 Essential Performances of Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff was born on this day in 1887, and to commemorate the man’s 122nd birthday, Frankensteinia has organized a “Boris Karloff Blog-a-Thon” comprising nearly 100 bloggers. We will be penning the praises of Horror’s most looming legend all week.

Karloff the Uncanny deserves all this and more, but considering he was a guy who made more than 150 films— many of them unworthy of his talent— where does the Karloff novice start? Fear not, because I’ve assembled a selection of Karloff’s ten most worthy performances.

On second thought, maybe you should fear.

1. The Monster in Frankenstein (1931)

The long-standing cliché has been that the Frankenstein Monster is a robotic walking-prop that does nothing but grunt and stomp around with its hands stretched outward like a somnambulist. This has nothing to do with Boris Karloff’s career-defining work as the title creature in James Whale’s Frankenstein. In the 1931 classic, Karloff gives a sensitive, complex performance. The monster is both a murderous brute and an abandoned child, and it is the monster’s desire for direction and understanding that most informs Karloff’s work. As terrifying as that first jump-cut close-up on his horrific face is (and that shot remains terrifying despite the fact that that face has since been pasted on everything from T-shirts to paper plates), the sight of the Monster groping at sunbeams yearningly is heart-rendering. The tenderness that Karloff brings to the scene in which the Monster sits by a pastoral riverbank to toss daisies into the water with a little girl makes his accidental murder of her all the more disturbing and infinitely sadder. Karloff famously refused to play the Monster again after his third go-round, surmising that it was on its way to becoming the walking-prop most people remember. Of course, he was right. Like all the greats, he went out on top, and no one has ever or will ever usurp his status as cinema’s greatest interpreter of the Frankenstein Monster.


2. Imhotep in The Mummy (1932)

Imhotep is the most romantic of the classic Universal monsters. He knowingly commits a fatal sacrilege in order to resurrect his dead love, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, and is mummified and buried alive for his crime. But that does not stop him. Revived by an ancient curse (aren’t all curses ancient?), he crosses oceans of time to find his reincarnated lady friend… so he can kill her again and have her join him in eternity. Well, that last part isn’t so romantic, but no one ever mistook Karloff for Valentino. His performance in The Mummy is more slow-burn than blazing passion, which perfectly suits the desiccated ghoul he portrays. But there are moments of real fire, as when he shows Ankh-es-en-amon images of her past in the reflection of a sort of enchanted hot tub and when he squirms in terror while being mummified. The latter is among the most discomfiting scenes in a classic horror film thanks to Karloff’s affecting work.


3. Hjalmar Poelzig in The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat was the artiest of Universal’s classic horrors, and it boasts the first and most memorable pairing of the studio’s two most iconic ghouls: Karloff and Bela Lugosi. For one of the very few times in his career, Lugosi was the good guy… albeit a good guy with a penchant for torture. Sporting the severest widow’s peak in history, Karloff is utterly Mephistophelian as Hjalmar Poelzig, with his yen for human sacrifice and macabre chess games. Poelzig is an architect, Satanist, and war criminal responsible for the deaths of 10,000 soldiers during World War I. As was his style, Karloff underplays the role, relying on his piercing gaze and lulling voice to convey Poelzig’s smoldering evil. His relishing delivery of “He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats” is among the most memorable line readings in the Universal horror cannon, as is Lugosi’s observation, “Supernatural, perhaps; boloney, perhaps not.” Watching these two dark stars face off makes for one of the studio’s most delicious pleasures.


4. The Monster in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Karloff’s performance in Bride of Frankenstein deserves a spot on this list independent of Frankenstein because the Monster is a very different one here. In keeping with the tone of the film, he’s more comedic and more romantic. The Monster’s quest for a friend is quite touching, as are his two pivotal scenes in the film: a doomed encounter with a blind hermit and his heart-breakingly failed attempt to woo his new bride. The Monster has also developed the ability to grunt a few terse but profound phrases (“Love dead, hate living!”), a new facet of the character that so displeased Karloff that he insisted the Monster return to muteness in Son of Frankenstein. The actor was wrong to resist the more talkative incarnation of his most famous creation: the Monster’s ability to speak imbues him with extra depth and pathos, which Son makes all the more obvious as the Monster is basically a prop in that film, and for one of the few times, Karloff is actually upstaged by Lugosi, who gives his best performance as Ygor.


5. Dr. Julian Blair in The Devil Commands (1941)

Boris Karloff brings considerable emotional weight to The Devil Commands. It’s probably his best mad scientist role, and he plays against stereotype by making Julian Blair more sad scientist than mad scientist. As The Devil Commands begins, Blair is a perfectly happy fellow even though his odd experiments on brainwaves raise the suspicion of his peers. Blair goes off the rails when his beloved wife is killed in a car accident early in the picture. He then becomes obsessed with the idea of communicating with her from beyond the grave, which he does so by employing the help of a creepy Medium and some goofy-looking head gear. Most other actors in the Horror pool would have turned this part into an excuse for the kind of hammy scenery-munching that defined most mad doctor performances. Karloff plays it with total commitment to emotional truthfulness, making The Devil Commands an unexpectedly moving B-movie.


6. John Gray in The Body Snatcher (1945)

The Body Snatcher is all about great collaborations. There’s the unfailing team of producer Val Lewton and Robert Wise (a combo I personally prefer to the more celebrated Val Lewtion/Jacques Tourneur pairing), and yet another memorable meeting of Karloff and Lugosi. Lugosi’s part is considerably smaller here than it was in previous films that matched him with his more bankable counterpart, but he still does a nice job as the doomed simpleton, Joseph. Karloff, however, gives a career performance as the grave-robbing cabman John Gray. Never had he been allowed so much room to stretch himself as an actor, never before had he been afforded a role so divorced from the mad scientists, sleazy gangsters, and mute monsters for which he was known. Gray is one of those villains that must be an utter joy to play: completely enamored with his own lack of scruples, utterly charming in spite of his wickedness. Karloff digs deep into his bag of tricks, singing lines of dialogue, allowing his richly expressive face to convey Gray’s unspoken plotting, his fears, and his pleasures. At times Karloff’s innate niceness seemed at odds with the nasty characters he portrayed. Sometimes this really added extra-dimensions to his roles, as it did in the Frankenstein pictures. Sometimes he just seemed miscast. In The Body Snatcher, the guy is simply acting his ass off, and it’s truly a thing of awe.


7. Master Sims in Bedlam (1945)

Karloff’s performances in Universal’s Monster Movies are unfailingly wonderful, but he seemed to deliver a completely different caliber of work in Val Lewton’s films. Perhaps it was the more literary dialogue he was allowed to speak. As he did in The Body Snatcher, he rolls his tongue over his lyrical lines in Bedlam with fluid zeal. Bedlam is an unusual film for Karloff as it is a powdered wig drama with period language that is more florid than the dialogue he was accustomed too in his horror pictures (several of which did not require him to speak at all!). Even out of his usual element, he rose above the rest of the cast— which is very good— as the unctuously despicable Master Sims, the overseer of a madhouse who gets off on humiliating and physically abusing his inmates. Even though Bedlam isn’t a horror movie, per se, Karloff was rarely so horrific.


8. Gorca in Black Sabbath (1963)

Black Sabbath is rich with Mario Bava’s mastery of color, atmosphere, and grotesquery, but Boris Karloff’s work is just as integral to the film’s power. He does double duty as the narrator of this terror trilogy (recalling his role as the host of the “Boris Karloff’s Thriller” TV series a year earlier) and as the perversely evil Gorca in the second segment of the film, “The Wurdalak”. Throughout his career, Karloff got the chance to play many major-league monsters— the Frankenstein Monster, a mummy, Jekyll and Hyde—but I believe this is the only time he played a vampire, and no previous vampire portrayer did a better job of conveying the crazed hunger of such a creature. The scene in which he snatches his young grandson from the boy’s mother and sneers, “What’s the matter, woman? Can’t I fondle my own grandson?” is likely to draw snickers from modern audiences because of the unfortunate word choice, but it’s also pretty horrifying in its animal desperation. In fact, Gorca may be Karloff’s only role that still stands up as truly scary.


9. The Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Boris Karloff may have achieved his greatest fame for playing a gruesome menagerie of hulking monsters, mad doctors, and crazed criminals, but his grandfatherly demeanor and soft, melodious voice also won him a huge following of children. His children’s role closest to the Karloff persona was his turn as the voice of Baron Boris von Frankenstein in the 1967 Rankin and Bass animated feature Mad Monster Party, but his most timeless one was surely his dual roles as the narrator and the title humbugger of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Karloff’s is the one of the few voices of this everlasting holiday classic by Dr. Seuss, and his lip-smacking voicing of the Grinch is as deeply linked to holiday pop culture as that of Burl Ives in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.


10. Byron Orlock in Targets (1968)

Targets is Karloff’s last film released during his lifetime, and it’s appropriately elegiac. It’s also Peter Bognodovich’s first picture, and the director wrote a lovely part for Karloff. Byron Orlock is an elderly actor tired of playing ghouls in B-movies. Bogdonovich plays Sammy Michaels, the young director tasked with convincing Orlock to remain in Hollywood’s talons. There’s a parallel story about a psychotic sniper terrorizing the town, which makes explicit Hollywood’s shift from the Gothic monster films of Karloff’s generation toward the neurotically violent direction horror movies (and real life) started taking in the ‘60s. But the main treat of Targets is the opportunity to see Karloff shedding the monster make-up to play a thoroughly human character that is clearly based on himself (there are numerous clips of his old films scattered throughout the picture). The scene in which Orlock and Michaels spend a drunken night together talking about film, their careers, and their personal lives is funny and moving and quite revealing. It’s nice that Karloff got a chance to play a role like this before his death in early 1969. It puts his career in perspective and context, and allows his legions of fans the rare chance to really see the man behind the monsters.

Photo of a big bunny rabbit!
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