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October 1, 2011

The Mike's True Heroes of Horror (1/10) - Boris Karloff

Narrowing down the list of people that I feel represent what is best about the horror genre to only ten people is one of the more difficult tasks I've ever given myself at FMWL.  Alas, my list now includes ten names and - though I'm sure I've neglected someone and insulted someone else - I'm holding myself to these ten names, which I will present to you, one at a time, throughout the month of October. Starting now.  With.... 
Boris Karloff.
Who is Boris Karloff?
The man we know as Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on the 23rd of November, 1887 in London, England.  He began acting on stage in Canada at the age of 22, first appeared in Hollywood around 1919, but didn't become a household name until 1931 - when he appeared as the "monster" in Frankenstein.  Karloff would continue his career in film (and later TV) through his death at the age of 81 in 1969 - and in fact was still appearing in newly released films through 1971.
Karloff is most known for....
Though his career spanned parts of seven decades, the lasting image of Karloff is, of course, the image of Frankenstein's monster.  Though the generally well-spoken actor was restricted to mumbling and roaring through the film behind a layer of makeup, his turn as the monster has become one of the most iconic images in the history of cinema.  
Other Horror Hits....
Karloff's fame from Frankenstein quickly put him into several heavy horror roles in the early '30s.  Most famous was his turn as The Mummy, but Karloff also wowed in classics like The Old Dark House and The Mask of Fu Manchu.  His career with Universal Studios grew into the 1940s, as Karloff appeared in several Frankenstein sequels (Bride of Frankenstein being the good one) and a few thrillers opposite Bela Lugosi before Karloff signed a deal to make three films with horror producer Val Lewton.  The most famous of these is 1945's The Body Snatcher, which was the last film to feature Karloff and Lugosi together.

After a lot of radio and stage work - including another iconic villain role in the Halloween night comedy Arsenic and Old Lace - Karloff's horror star rose once again with several films for American International Pictures and/or Roger Corman in the 1960s.  My favorite of these is certainly the madcap romp The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, but it was increasingly clear that Karloff was tiring of the Gothic horror scene.  His last great film - which might even be my favorite of all his films - was 1968's Targets, in which he gives an almost autobiographical performance as an aging horror icon who knows his time has passed.
So, why's Boris Karloff here?

I'm not ranking these heroes from first to worst or anything - it kills me enough to have to whittle this thing down to ten names - but from the moment this idea was born the name Boris Karloff was in the front of my mind.

Considering my age - Karloff had been dead for over a decade when I was born - it's safe to say that I see Karloff differently than audiences of the 1930s did.  And I'm sure I'm not alone.  Like me, most folks under 40 might have first encountered Karloff - probably without knowing it - by hearing his voice work in How The Grinch Stole Christmas.  Sure, I quickly learned that this guy was known for being a villain in horror films, but the ability to look back at his work gives everything this innocent kind of glow.  I know that the man was something to be afraid of...but it's really hard to see that in retrospect.

But one thing I did know, even at a young age, is that the Frankenstein Monster looked like Boris Karloff.  And that movie came out FIFTY years before I was born.  We're at eighty years past Karloff's first performance now, and if you walk in to any store in America this month you'll probably find something that resembles that bolt necked creation of a mad scientist in a Halloween display. 
Legend says that the audiences who saw the original Frankenstein were vomiting in the theaters and running in fear at the sight of Karloff.  That women and children screamed when the actor - out of makeup - walked down the street.  He became more than a man - sometimes billed as "Karloff The Uncanny" - and towered over others on a daily basis.  But the truth is a bit different, and we can see that as we look back at the man who showed his playful side more often as his career neared an end.

Boris Karloff lives on as a true hero of horror because he was the life force behind one of horror's most iconic demons, because he starred in many other great horror films throughout his career, and because he is still one of the most recognizable faces in horror history.  But he's also a hero to me because he represents something horror needs more of - an intelligent and self-aware leading man who understands when the genre needs to adapt to changes in society.  As I look back at Karloff's career I see an icon who was relevant (even if it was occasionally in spurts) from Frankenstein to Targets - a 37 year span - and a man who was willing to adapt to whatever horror needed.
So here's to Mr. Karloff, for inspiring fear in a generation and remaining an ambassador for horror - in good times and in bad - throughout his life in cinema.  I doubt we'll ever see another horror star quite like him.


A hero never dies said...

Wonderful tribute to a true legend, surely no one can argue with the inclusion of Karloff in the list? Great post !

JohnBem said...

The Mike, I am forever indebted to you for turning me on to The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. Karloff is a great start to your list.

Jose Cruz said...

Wonderful, wonderful start to a list that I am assured will only bring more awesomeness. #karloffisagod

Anonymous said...

Great post! I agree. He embodies so much of the true nature of the genre.

The Mike said...

Thanks everyone. Glad to see that no one dares doubt Karloff!