I would love to be one of those movie geeks who explain that the first time they saw a Hollywood legend like Boris Karloff was in a movie only five people have seen for years, and I explain the details of the plot and make you feel bad for not having watched it and give you some impression of my knowledge of movies because you have yet to see it or can’t even find it. But no. My first time ever coming close to Boris Karloff’s insane greatness was during “The Grinch That Stole Christmas.” Yes, it was “The Grinch,” a half hour animated movie animated by Chuck Jones that played on television every single year. Not very impressive? I don’t care.
When we were kids my brother and I used to get in the spirit of the holiday and would watch the Christmas specials played on television every year and one of them was Dr. Seuss’ special which was one of the few times a year we heard The Uncanny Karloff riff about the green ogre who stole Christmas from people who didn’t need material possessions to enjoy the holiday. Watching them enjoy the day even without the gifts showed him Christmas was about much more than presents and decorations and it was Karloff who taught me that every year.
For a long time Boris Karloff lived on through clips from television shows and movies until years later well in to my movie fandom that I was finally able to see “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein,” arguably two of the greatest horror films ever made, both of which were headlined by Karloff who managed to take what isn’t entirely a faithful variation on the monster and turns him in to a tragic and menacing individual forced in to a world he wanted nothing of, and slowly realized throughout both films that the world is filled with people much scarier and violent than he is.
I love the story of Karloff going to lunch on the Universal lot in his monster costume only to scare and upset many of the customers at the food court. It’s amazing how much monstrous make up has evolved. When you look at it now it’s not very disturbing, but Karloff implemented much of his own skill and acting prowess to give the monster that added personality that would make him a being of carnage who you empathized for but stepped lively around. As we was in “Frankenstein” in the famous drowning sequence, the Monster is without knowledge of his own strength or the limits of humanity, so while he is a dangerous and murderous being, he’s that way because he really doesn’t know better.
Only when he experiences human cruelty can he manage to understand that every action has a consequence and he begins to obtain an intelligence and awareness about him that make him an even deadlier force of nature that Dr. Frankenstein is incapable of comprehending. The Frankenstein Monster is something of a self-loathing being who is truly aware of how ugly he is and hopes for the world to be accepting of him. When he learns he’s impossibly unfit for a world filled with monsters as gruesome as he is he devises his own form and becomes something of a thinking villain who orders Frankenstein to build him a bride. It’s when this ugly creation rejects him, does he really know that the only solace he can seek is death, a darkness that once cradled him like a womb before being horribly pushed in to our own where he never asked for entrance.
He also learns that you simple can not build or create love no matter how god-like you may be, because like him and his doomed bride, it is unnatural. “The Bride” is arguably the better of the Universal films, and I consider it better than its predecessor if only because it allowed Karloff to emote more as the monster where another actor would feel confined in the make-up. The speaking, the emoting and the invoking of emotions feel like Karloff working his way in to this beast.
It has yet to be topped or as defined within the hands of Karloff. Oddly enough the role, as many know, was turned down by Bela Lugosi who dismissed the potential for the monster as being too quiet and not dramatic enough.
Years later he regretted this decision when he saw that the best actors can take a great role of any ilk and turn it in to an iconic presence. Though Bela Lugosi was a skilled theatrical performer, his hubris was his own undoing in potentially portraying two truly iconic horror monsters. Sadly it was too little too late once he portrayed the Monsters in “Frankenstein vs. The Werewolf.” Boris Karloff was always a man in the same vein as Vincent Price and Lon Chaney, a man of many faces and ranges and personalities who could portray eccentric, menacing, and tragic whenever he pleased, and still be able to retain much of his gravitas on screen.I often get lambasted for saying so, but I’m not really a fan of “The Mummy,” another iconic role from Karloff in a variety of many that gave the man an opportunity to be both the villain and the monster at the same time.
As Imhotep he was a crafty and slimy madman, and as the mummy he was a manifestation of that evil that blossomed in to a role that would forever influence future incarnations and was later taken on by Lon Chaney Jr. While Chaney was yet another truly legendary performer, he could never really capture the air of class Karloff instilled in his villains, nor could he properly mimic the personal stamp Karloff placed on the Mummy. As many know, Karloff went on to star in a gallery of Edgar Allen Poe movies, and continued winning the hearts of horror and Goth buffs with his depictions in movies like “The Raven,” and “Die, Monster, Die!” and of course also went on to one of the best horror anthologies ever made, “Black Sabbath.”
His role as the commanding patriarch of a farm family who comes home completely vampirized and demanding of his children’s allegiance even after admitting to being hungry for their blood is a very morbid story of true loyalty and weakness in the face of undeath. In an already horrifying horror movie, Boris Karloff’s final segment stands out among the strong stories possessing a power and mercilessness with a new evil he’s fully embraced and is intent on taking the innocence of his family around him at the mercy of his hunger. And while also considered one of the weakest of the Abbot and Costello outputs, I had a blast with “Abbot and Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff,” if only for the allusions toward a latter day confrontation between a horror heavyweight and the two bumbling friends after “Meet Frankenstein” where the monster was played by Glenn Strange.
The Frankenstein never quite maintained his humanity and depth once Strange took hold of the mantle, and not even Christopher Lee could hold a candle to Karloff’s own portrayal of the monster. I enjoyed Karloff attempting to hypnotize Freddie Phillips in to throwing himself out of a window, and failing colossally. In a world where horror icons are slim and relegated to shelve cloggers on video stores that are easily forgotten by the masses, Boris Karloff is one of the more enduring iconic faces who possesses a sense of menace to him while also offering a gentlemanly quality to him that keeps him someone you’d want at arm’s length. All the while, Karloff implements much of his talents for critical acclaim, the theater, and the occasional amusing event such as “The Grinch.” Don’t knock it, it introduced me to Boris, and I owe a debt to it for opening the door to the Uncanny Boris.
Happy birthday, Boris.