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!