Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review: 'Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration'

With the release of Ed Wood in 1994, “Karloff! That Limey cocksucker!” quite nearly replaced “I never drink…wine” and “The children of the night…what music they make” as the go-to phrase when doing a bad Bela Lugosi impression. Tim Burton’s movie hipped the larger film-going public to some of the real-life seething that went on during the filming of such Lugosi/Boris Karloff collaborations as The Black Cat and The Body Snatcher. However, Burton’s superb yet cartoonish film provided little of the complexity behind this classic Hollywood “rivalry.” For that, one would have to take a trip to the local Waldenbooks and pick up a copy of Gregory Mank’s Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration.

Originally published in 1990, the over 350-page book attempted a more nuanced view of a relationship that couldn’t simply be boiled down to a venerated horror star and a jealous, drug-addled also-ran. Swelling with an additional 250-or-so pages in 2009, the now Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration went into even greater depth with additional information and interviews. By Mank’s analysis, Lugosi and Karloff may have enjoyed a rather friendly working relationship while making Son of Frankenstein, and the alleged hatred Lugosi felt for Karloff may have really been directed at a Hollywood system that constantly ground the vampire under its merciless stake.

Karloff is not completely without blame in this mostly one-sided clash of titans. While he never had an explicitly nasty thing to say about Lugosi, his patronizing insistence on referring to his co-star as “poor Bela” in private and public could not have endeared himself to the actor who could be quite proud despite demeaning himself in Poverty Row and Ed Wood pictures.

Mank’s valiant attempt to uncover how Lugosi and Karloff really felt about each other was doomed to go without a definitive answer, but that barely matters when the rest of the story is so fascinating and well told. Mank goes deep into the movies they made together with nearly scene-by-scene analyses without neglecting the most important pictures they made without the other. So we get very satisfying histories of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and other key films, as well as quite a bit of information about other key players in those films such as James Whale and Colin Clive.

Last updated nearly a decade ago, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration is now enjoying a new printing though not another updating. That’s generally fine since there probably haven’t been many new revelations about the Karloff/Lugosi rivalry in recent years since so many of their other collaborators have died. Mank’s incessant leching over Lugosi and Karloff’s female co-stars is more than a little dated and brings nothing but discomfort to the storytelling, but if you can get past that, you will find that Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration remains one of the great studies of classic horror films.
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