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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.