The Mondo Esoterica Guide to:

Boris Karloff

  About Boris Karloff:

Born William Henry Pratt in London, 1887, he initially looked for a career in the diplomatic service, but wound up as a touring actor in North America. Ending up penniless in Hollywood he made dozens of appearances in silent movies throughout the 1920s playing heavies and background roles before suddenly winding up in the biggest role of his career. Universal Studios, looking for a follow-up to their sucessful Dracula (1931) had chosen to adapt Frankenstein, however unlike their first film, the titular monster would have no dialogue - like many decisions at the time, rumour and conjecture have it that Bela Lugosi was originally considered for the monster role (and did demonstrate Jack Pierce's early attempts at the creature design) but was either rejected for the role, or chose instead to appear in the vocal lead of Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). Karloff said that a chance enounter with Frankenstein (1931) director James Whale lead to the casting, although the director may have spotted the formidable actor in one of his minor roles. However he came to be cast, Karloff gave a standout performance that upstaged all the speaking roles and even the director. It was not long before the sucess of this performance elevated him to leading roles, first as the villianous Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and then as the titular monster in The Mummy (1932) where he was again subject to a gruelling make-up proceedure, but got a chance at some dialogue.

Although playing a 'normal' character in John Ford's war adventure
Lost Patrol (1934), it was to be horror all the way for the next few years appearing alongside Bela Lugosi in a variety of Universal Horror pictures including The Raven (1935), and returning to his role as the Frankenstein monster in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). Curiously, after his role as Fu Manchu, Karloff found himself playing a variety of Chinese and Oriental parts including James Lee Wong in The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939). With the Frankenstein series becoming little more than cheap sequel fodder, Karloff left the part of the monster; however, his association with horror films left him with little work during the downturn in cinema production during World War Two, and he returned to Universal for a two picture deal, including a return to the Frankenstein franchise as the evil Dr. Niemann in the monster-mash House of Frankenstein (1944). A move to the upper echelons of horror followed, with casting by RKO producer Val Lewton in Isle of the Dead (1945), Bedlam (1946) and The Body Snatcher (1945) - his last onscreen role with Bela Lugosi.

Unlike his Hungarian co-star, after the end of the Universal Horror era, work was still available, particularly in the expanding world of television studios; Karloff went on to star in a wide range of television shows, including a variety of horror related pieces. In the late 1950s, horror films were on the way back in thanks to Hammer Studios and Karloff got a chance to play Dr. Frankenstein in Frankenstein - 1970  (1958) as well as the lead role in black and white British medical horror Corridors of Blood (1958) alongside Francis Matthews and Christopher Lee, who had just made his name playing the Frankenstein monster role that Karloff knew so well. These renewed roles got the veteran actor his own TV series Boris Karloff's Thriller which ran from 1960-62, he hosted every episode, and appeared in several as well. The return of the gothic horror in the 1960s saw another return to horror pictures, as Karloff was cast by maveric American director/producer Roger Corman alongside former Universal era sparring partners, Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre as well the rising star Vincent Price in The Raven (1963) and The Comedy of Terrors (1964) and by Italian master of the gothic Mario Bava in Black Sabbath (1963). A few more roles followed in the 1960s, but with his old black and white films no longer being shown, Karloff's spot at the top of the horror register had been filled by the new generation of stars. All but retired, the aging actor contracted emphysema, and died of pneumonia in 1969 aged 81. Like Bela Lugosi, Karloff's screen appearances continued for several years after he had died, with the release of four Mexican exploitation horror pictures for which he had shot scenes in Hollywood several years earlier.

Although he suffered from the type-casting that beset many of his horror movie colleagues, Karloff's break into television in the 1950s allowed him to avoid the poverty row sci-fi films that many of the Universal Horror actors found themselves working on, and he was able to benefit from a short resurgence in interest during the late 1950s and early 1960s and he ultimately left an interesting cinematic legacy to discover.
 DVD Reviews: Films starring Boris Karloff

The Black Cat (1934)
Universal Region 1 DVD (Bela Lugosi Collection Boxset)
Lugosi and Karloff together for the first time, and both play off each other superbly. The film is strong, but with a poor ending.
Recommended to Karloff/Lugosi and Universal Horror fans.
Black Friday (1940)
Universal Region 1 DVD (Bela Lugosi Collection Boxset)
A poor attempt by Universal to mix horror and gangster genres. Karloff gets a decent but limited role.
Of interest to Universal Horror completists only.
The Comedy of Terrors (1964)
MGM Region 1 DVD
A Shakespearian comedy, boosted by strong performances and direction. Karloff has a small but effective role.
The Invisible Ray (1936)
Universal Region 1 DVD (Bela Lugosi Collection Boxset)
One of the best Universal Horror pictures, with some great performances from Lugosi and Karloff and a good storyline.
Highly recommended to Karloff and Universal Horror fans.
The Raven (1935)
Universal Region 1 DVD (Bela Lugosi Collection Boxset)
Based on the famous Poe poem, Karloff gets an underwritten and limited role in this poor film.
Only recommended to Lugosi fans.
The Raven (1963)
MGM Region 1 DVD
A clever twist on the classic poem provides a good backing for this well directed film with a good turn from Karloff.
Recommended to AIP gothic and Karloff fans.


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All text in this site written by Timothy Young - January 2006.
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