Boris Karloff – The Top 10 Films

For generations of horror fans, Boris Karloff is one of the most beloved figures in the genre. The combination of his gaunt appearance, menacing glare, and musically sinister voice made him an iconic movie villain, but it was his ability to find the soul of every character that rendered his performances  timeless.

Karloff elevated every movie he in which he appeared, from mundane B programmers to yesterday’s five honorable mentions. Today, we look at the ten films that, in my opinion, represent the best.

 

My Top 10 films of Boris Karloff

 

  1. The Ghoul (1933)

Karloff plays a professor of Egyptology who appears to have more than simply an intellectual curiosity for his subject, returning from the grave like a mummy to seek revenge on those who stole a jewel he believes is imbued with the power of the ancient gods.

If not marred by a terrible, banal ending, The Ghoul would be higher on this list. The film is among the most eerie and atmospheric of the era, and it benefits from a delightful cast (including Ernest Thesiger and Cedric Hardwicke), grim humor, and well-paced direction from T. Hayes Hunter.

 

  1. Targets (1968)

In one of his most nuanced performances, Karloff plays a fading horror star who finds his talents are now lost on a society where real-life horrors like the Vietnam War, political assassinations, and rapid cultural upheaval have made the gothic films on which he built his reputation seem quaint and anachronistic.

Targets is an astute, smartly self-aware film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who went on to earn acclaim for 1971’s The Last Picture Show.

 

  1. The Body Snatcher (1945)

Producer Val Lewton is legendary for his nourish psychological horrors of the 1940s. With future A-list director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still) at the helm and a multi-dimensional performance from Karloff as the grave robber implied in the title, viewers are treated to a superior film.

Like most Lewton films, The Body Snatcher isn’t exactly action packed, but it boasts one of the eeriest climaxes in the classic age of horror cinema.

 

  1. The Old Dark House (1932)

Part comedy and part horror film, The Old Dark House is a grim delight from the pre-code era. The plot, concerning a group of stranded travelers who must shelter in a scary old mansion, is merely a set up for darkly humorous interplay between a smart cast that includes Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, and Gloria Stuart. Not a whole lot happens, but James Whale’s stylish and atmospheric direction somehow ladles on the suspense anyway.

 

  1. The Black Cat (1934)

Once again, stranded travelers find themselves seeking refuge at a home inhabited by Boris Karloff. This home isn’t some gothic fairy-tale mansion, however, but a sleek, art-deco chamber of horrors. And Karloff isn’t a hairy brute this time but a war criminal with some rather disturbing hobbies. Among the visitors happens to be Bela Lugosi, who would love nothing more than to seek brutal revenge on the host for his wartime transgressions.

Owing to its subject matter, The Black Cat is one of the tonally darkest films of the classic era.

 

  1. Isle of the Dead (1945)

In another pairing of Karloff and producer Val Lewton, the actor plays a Greek general quarantined on an Island with a group of strangers as a plague ravages the land. However, not everyone agrees it’s a plague. Some of the locals believe a soul-stealing vampire called a “Vorvolaka” is on the prowl.

It’s a toss-up where to put most of these films on a Top-10 list, but of one thing I’m sure: Karloff’s descent from the voice of reason to a violent paranoiac is conveyed through one of his very best performances.

 

  1. The Mummy (1932)

Universal was really hitting ‘em out of the park in the early 1930s, weren’t they? The Mummy may be the most subtle, elegant film of the studio’s major horror classics, and Karloff’s presence is felt throughout its entirety, despite his relatively limited screen time.

Honestly, there’s almost no action, yet viewers are left feeling they’ve seen the unforgettable. It might have something to do with that awakening scene.

 

  1. Black Sabbath (1963)

Perhaps it’s strange to place a film that came so late in Karloff’s career, when he was relegated to doing mostly B movies, among the top three. But these are horror films we’re talking about, and Black Sabbath is without a doubt the scariest he ever made. Not since his portrayal of Poelzig in The Black Cat had Karloff been so malevolent in a role.

This film terrified me so badly when I was a kid that … well, nothing, I loved every minute.

 

  1. Frankenstein (1931)

It’s not often a star is born while going unbilled and acting without dialog under 10 pounds of make-up. It’s also not often that Boris Karloff, James Whale, and make-up FX genius Jack Pierce collaborate on one of the best horror films ever made.

Although the plot veers widely from that of the book on which the movie was based, Frankenstein captures the two most important aspects of Mary Shelley‘s literary classic: the tortured relationship between the monster and his maker, and the sheer horror of the tragic events that unfold. Naturally, by today’s standards the film the film isn’t actually frightening, but Whale’s groundbreaking direction, Pierce’s creature design, and Karloff’s impassioned performance are nevertheless the makings of timeless cinema.

 

  1. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Trying to top an original cinematic masterpiece with a sequel is generally a hopeless endeavor. You’re working against everything that makes an original masterpiece what it is: something new that captivates and surprises audiences and ripples with influence and change across the entire film industry. You can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice.

Usually.

Usually you don’t have the boundless creativity of James Whale, Jack Pierce, and Boris Karloff to draw upon. usually you don’t add that one perfect element that wasn’t there before (Ernest Thesiger in the role he was born to play). You don’t dream up one of the most instantly iconic characters in movie history (The Bride). And no one says, “You know what we should do? We should do a sequel to a gruesome, bleak, pure horror movie, but make a dark fairy tale instead.”

The Bride of Frankenstein is arguably the greatest sequel in horror history and, therefore, takes its rightful place as Boris Karloff’s best film.

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The Best of Boris Karloff – 5 Honorable Mentions

If you’re an actor, an artist, a musician, a writer, or even an over-age college student seeking inspiration amid the desperation, look no further than Boris Karloff.

Running away from the family business, so to speak, young William Henry Pratt left England for North America in 1909. He worked odd jobs while developing a taste for acting and eventually took the stage name “Boris Karloff.” Even the most casual of movie fans today recognize Karloff as a horror icon, but few realize he toiled for two decades in traveling theater and silent films, often in low-paying bit parts portraying thugs and swarthy-foreigner types.

Outside of producers and casting agents, hardly anyone knew who the heck Boris Karloff was in 1931 when the 44-year-old actor landed the part of “The Monster” in Frankenstein. The rest is legend, of course, but the takeaway is that he never quit. Karloff went on to amass over 200 film and TV credits.

Boris Karloff starred in some of the greatest films in horror history, and it wasn’t because he lucked into it. It’s because he believed in himself and never gave up. None of the honorable mentions below would be the films they are without him.

 

The Walking Dead (1936)

The Walking Dead, a film about an executed man who returns from the grave to seek revenge on the people who framed him, is not a masterpiece, but it may be the most underappreciated film in Karloff’s oeuvre. And that is largely thanks to its star (with an assist to director Michael Curtiz for some nicely atmospheric moments)

Karloff’s anguished, sympathetic portrayal of the undead killer elevates this movie well above its station. It’s a perfect example of how the actor was able to take what should have been a generic, foot-dragging zombie character and imbue it such humanity that viewers continue to feel for his plight long after the film ends.

 

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

The third film in Universal’s Frankenstein series can’t hope to exist on the same plane as the first two, though it’s quite a bit better than any of the sequels that came after it.

Son of Frankenstein might have squeaked onto tomorrow’s Top-10 list if Karloff had had a bigger role, but the monster is given too little to do. Rather, Bela Lugosi steals the movie with a brilliant performance as the vengeful Ygor. If I ever do a similar post for Mr. Lugosi, look for this one to make another appearance.

 

House of Frankenstein (1944)

By the mid-40s, Universal was cranking out these horror shows with minimal regard for story or art, notwithstanding the hard work of the actors and craftspeople involved. House of Frankenstein is unintentionally a metaphor for the monster himself, as it’s stitched together from ill-fitted story threads and disconnected characters. Still, Karloff’s early scenes with John Carradine and J. Carrol Naish are loads of fun and easily the best thing about the movie.

 

The Raven (1963)

American International Pictures took Edgar Allan Poe abuse to new heights of cruelty with this silly yet highly entertaining tale about rival wizards, talking birds, and magic spells.

The Raven is a charming movie with a great cast (which includes Jack Nicholson and Hazel Court), but the hilarious banter between Vincent Price and Peter Lorre is the main reason to watch it. Though Karloff is fine as Dr. Scarabus, it’s a relatively insubstantial role for him, thus relegating the film to honorable mention status.

 

The Sorcerers (1967)

Directed by cult filmmaker Michael Reeves of Witchfinder General fame, The Sorcerers is more grown-up than the most of Karloff post 1940s work. Karloff plays a variation of his mad doctor character, but this time laden with metaphor that can be read several ways. I view his Dr. Monserrat as a stand-in for old, corrupt politicians who profit from exploiting of the young and the poor, a not-uncommon representation amid the cynicism of the late 1960s and early 70s.

It’s a good film that, at the same time, I don’t find particularly entertaining to watch (in keeping with my ongoing struggle to get into Reeves’s films). I can’t deny it is a substantive movie and worthy of whatever critical analysis it receives.

Tomorrow: My Top 10 Boris Karloff Films!

2-minute Blu-Ray Review: THE SLAYER (1982)

Released on Blu-ray with DVD and booklet by Arrow Video, August 29, 2017

Specs: All Region, 1080p HD, mono

Genre: Unstable Female Protagonist Horror (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Rosemary’s Baby)

Story: Kay (Sarah Kendall), a painter haunted by harrowing nightmares and exhibiting neurotic behavior, is dragged by her husband and another couple to a beach house on a scenic but lonely island so she can clear her head. But once a storm hits and the murders start, it becomes clear their plan is backfiring.

The movie: The Slayer plays like a slasher flick until we realize Kay’s nightmares may be more than simply the product of anxiety. There are a couple of realistic kills, but the appeal of the film for me is the sense of desolation, both in the stark island setting and in Kay’s increasing paranoia.

The somber music score is unobtrusive but eerie, and the lack of dopey teen characters is a welcome change from other early ‘80s horror entries. If you’re looking for a polished, action-packed Hollywood production, this is not your film. If you dig the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic of micro-budget horror like I do and value creeping unease over spectacle, you may discover yourself a hidden gem.

Video: Not surprisingly, there’s a fair amount of grain, especially in the indoor scenes. Unless JJ Abrams wants to come along and restore each frame like he did with Phantasm, this is as good as it gets for independent productions shot on location without digital cameras or the controlled lighting of soundstages.

That said, there’s no apparent degradation of the original negative or print damage. As with other Arrow Blu-rays, you’ll discover all kinds of details and textures you never noticed before (like how hideous the characters’ sweaters are). The color EQ leans slightly toward pinks and oranges, but not in a way that’s distracting. Overall, this Blu is a vast improvement over any previous version.

Audio: What do you think this is, one of them fancy websites where they talk about compression and comb filtering and shit? The disk sounds fine. [disclaimer: my hearing is shot]

Extras: 2 commentaries, a documentary, interviews, a location visit, and the other fun stuff you always get with an Arrow release.

Verdict: Exactly what I expected