The Horror of Boris Karloff
Continuing our month-long series of Halloween Horror posts, this one a look at the career of the great William Henry Pratt, better known as Boris Karloff. The survey below is at best a partial accounting. Karloff had been in films since 1918; our survey begins only with his breakthrough horror role in Frankenstein. Also, he appeared in many very similar dark roles in mystery suspense thrillers and the like, but for reasons of time and space we’ve opted to stick pretty close to horror and comedy/horror.
James Whale’s exquisite reimagining of the Mary Shelley novel, mixing the Gothic (a castle, and an apparently Medieval village, trapped in time) with some very contemporary elements…namely that electric radiation apparatus which was very much cutting edge technology when this film was made….radio, x-rays, and so forth were all recent inventions — as was modern surgery for that matter. It is mixed with the horrors inspired by Galvani, who chopped up dead animals and sent electricity through dead bodies and severed limbs. If Shelly hand’t made horror out of that, someone would have.
For the film, Whale assembled something like a stock company. From his previous film Waterloo Bridge , he brought the charming, demure Mae Clarke as Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s worried fiance; as Frankenstein’s father, he cast the hilarious Frederick Kerr, doing almost the same schtick he did in Waterloo Bridge. For the crucial role of Dr. Frankenstein he cast his old colleague Colin Clive, with whom he had worked in the theatre. From Universal’s previous horror hit Dracula (and the Broadway production) came Edward Van Sloan
When Bela Lugosi backed out of playing the monster, the role went to bit player Karloff. His work in the role, essentially a thoughtful pantomime, was inspired. Especially powerful was the awkward gait he adopted for when the creature is first animated, as though his various body parts don’t go together. His face, somehow, truly evokes the face of a corpse.
The story I’m sure you know! The Doctor’s friends and family are worried by his seclusion and the sparsity of his communications. They show up just as he is about to take his greatest experiment. Protesting at first, when he is successful they oddly shut up and seem to support the research. But then the first in a line of several hunchbacked assistants, Fritz (Dwight Fry) tortures the beast until it goes berzerk and kills him. Dr.Frankenstein eventually collapses and quits, and prepares to marry his bride. Van Sloan as Frankenstein’s scientific mentor is going to put the beast to sleep but it attacks and kills him and goes on a rampage, killing a small girl in the famous drowning scene (the beast runs out of flowers to throw in the water so he throws the child). Frankenstein’s wedding is interrupted by a manhunt to kill the beast. Eventually the villagers corner him inside a windmill. Dr Frankenstein falls, bouncing off one of the windmill blades, but manages to survive. The windmill is burned to the ground, and apparently the monster with it. But it’s never QUITE the end, is it?
The Old Dark House (1932)
James Whale directed this absolutely delicious spook comedy. Various travelers are forced to stay at a spooky country house during a terrible storm. The film has a dream cast. From one car, Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart emerge as a couple, with Melvyln Douglas as their friend. A creepy brother and sister live at the house. He is a frightened old man who doesn’t believe in God. She is a religious fanatic who is deaf but bossy. Karloff plays their butler. In case we doubt it, a title tell us at the beginning of the film, in case we were expecting (and hoping) that he would look like Frankenstein’s Monster and get confused because he doesn’t. Soon Charles Laughton shows up with his chorus girl girlfriend. The climax comes when we eventually meet the creepy people upstairs: the brother and sister’s 100+ year old father, and their insane, pyromaniac brother, who gets loose and tries to burn the house down. Douglas stops him, but not before the two of them tumble off the balcony, killing the nut job and putting a massive bump on Douglas’s head. Next morning, they go on their merry way. Oh and Douglas and the chorus girl are going to be married.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
This is tangentially a horror film, a sort of sub-genre (murder mystery/sci fi/ travelogue of the Mysterious East, much like Chandu the Magician). Karloff is the titular Fu a sinister, soulless villain with eight inch long finger nails and a plot to use the powers of the recently discovered sword of Genghis Khan to take over the entire world. He kidnaps the archaeologist who found it, demanding to know its whereabouts, and terrorizing his friends and family. Fu is scarcely human — he much resembles Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless. He is also a mad scientist, cementing his inclusion here amongst the horror films. His full title is DR. Fu Manchu. He operates on people, but usually just to torture them. His torture methods are diabolically creative—he relishes it. Also he has excellent Tesla coils , which he uses to great effect when he gets his hand on Khan’s sword. His daughter, played by Myrna Loy, exists only to corrupt and torture. They seem to have mysterious powers to mesmerize people against their will and make them their slaves. In the end, the heroes turn the electric ray on Fu’s army of minions and make their escape.
The Mummy (1932)
As a general rule I would have to say that the “Mummy” franchise is one of those rare times when the re-make is far better than the original source material. That said The Mummy itself is head and shoulders above any of its soporific sequels of the 1940s, even if it does lack the central thing we expect and want from a mummy movie, i.e. a guy walking around hallways wrapped in bandages. Directed by Karl Freund (who’d been the D.P. on Dracula and numerous films by Lang and Murnau), the film opens with what I regard as one of the scariest scenes in all cinema, when a trio of archaeologists unearth a casket from an Egyptian tomb, and the rashest of them eagerly translates some of the writing and mutters the words aloud, bringing the mummy (Boris Karloff) to lift. The sight makes the young man instantly insane; his uncontrollable laughter is chilling.
A number of years pass, and the revived Imhotep disguises himself as a semi-human looking contemporary Egyptian. (Nothing is made of the fact that modern Egyptians and ancient Egyptians are entirely different peoples, both culturally and ethnically). Karloff’s performance and make-up are great—he seems brittle, dry, capable of crumbling into dust at any minute. Most of the picture is spent with Karloff using mind control to try to effect the resurrection of his bride and to put her soul into the body of one of her descendants, a beautiful Egyptian girl (played by John Houseman’s wife Zita Johann). The backstory is cool—Imhotep had been punished for daring to love a priestess of Isis. He is wrapped like a mummy and buried alive without benefit of religious rites, dooming him to never achieve rest in the afterlife. In the climactic scene, a sacred scroll is burned, and the mummy returns to bones and dust.
The Ghoul (1933)
A British horror film, with a light tone for the most part that reminds one of “Old Dark House” movies. Boris Karloff an eccentric rich man on his death bed. He had purchased certain stolen Egyptian relics that, with proper ceremony, will bestow immortality. He dispatches his butler to take care of certain necessary duties relevant to the ritual. Then he dies.
The middle of the film reads like a haunted-house, reading-of-the-will comedy. Two heirs: a young man and a young woman who are cousins but become romantically entwined (h’m…), the girl’s room-mate, a scheming lawyer (Cedric Hardwicke), an Egyptian who wants the relics back and his lackey, and a young priest (Ralph Richardson in his first film role). After a bit of interplay amongst them all, including arguments, flirtation, and so forth Karloff comes back to life. He kills the Egyptian’s assistant, attacks the girl etc. He enacts a ritual in the tomb. It then emerges that is a trick, the priest is really some kind of crook. Several characters are locked in the tomb, the others fight outside, and the tomb catches on fire. Finally the tomb explodes, and the couple escapes. Meanwhile, it has emerged that Karloff didn’t really die, he was just catatonic, and the supernatural events were fakes—a naturalistic explanation to the whole thing.
The Black Cat (1934)
An amazing movie—gorgeous. Bela Lugosi meets up with a pair of newlyweds on their way to honeymoon in the Carpathians! (hahahahahaa) Well, the groom (David Manners) is a mystery writer so I guess it does make a little sense. Their bus crashes. Lugosi brings them to his destination, the home of his former enemy in war, Karloff, who was the commandant of the prison camp where Lugosi was interred. You know you’re in a bad way, when your only protection from Boris Karloff is…Bela Lugosi! And Lugosi, though creepy in the film, is actually the good guy…although he is consumed with revenge against Karloff for his experience in the camp and for either killing his wife and daughter or stealing them—he isn’t sure which. Meanwhile Karloff’s house is a masterpiece of modern art deco design, as are his clothes and even his haircut. He is said to be a brilliant architect. It turns out he has Lugosi’s wife in suspended animation, and has married his daughter, who looks just like the wife.
Meanwhile, as if that werene’t enough, he plans to use the newlywed bride as a human sacrifice in a Satanist ceremony. For fun, he plays Bach’s Toccatto and Fugue on the pipe organ. Lugosi, meanwhile, a famous psychiatrist, is afraid of black cats—it turns out with reason—they must play some vague part in Karloff’s Satanic connections. In the end the couple escapes as Lugosi and Karloff do battle. The house explodes behind them. In a jokey button, the groom reads a review of his novel which was based on their real experience: it gets panned for being too unrealistic!
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Much water under the bridge between the original Frankenstein and James Whale’s 1935 sequel. Karloff, who had been uncredited in the first film, was now a big star. The tropes of Gothic horror were now well established; by now there had been many classics in the genre. Whale now had the luxury of playing with the form a bit. He made his Frankenstein sequel very funny, campy, hip and ahead of its time in its self awareness. In this, Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive again) is visited by one Dr. Praetorius (Ernest Thesiger, a hilariously flamboyant proto-queen), who insists that he resume his unnatural experiments. In a bizarre scene, Praetorius shows Frankenstein some of his own handiwork…several tiny costumed manikins in glass jars! Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff of course) turns out to be still alive, emerging from the water-filled basement of the old windmill, killing the parents of the little drowned girl, and then roaming the countryside wreaking havoc. He meets a blind man, the first human being who has ever treated him decently, who feeds him, teaches him how to speak and to smoke cigars. Their party is crashed by a couple of villagers (one of whom is John Carradine) who take the blind man away and try to burn the monster again. Eventually he meets Praetorius in a crypt, where the latter is laughing insanely to himself and hanging out with a skull. Praetorius enlists the monster as his strong-arm in convincing Dr. Frankenstein to build him a friend. He eventually does. Dwight Frye returns as another deformed assistant. (this one is “Karl”). Elsa Lanchester as the iconic bride (erroneously dubbed the Bride of Frankenstein, she’s really the bride of the Monster.) At any rate, upon awakening she is appropriately horrified by her new groom, recoils and screams, causing the monster to go on a rampage. He lets the doctor and his bride escape, then throws a switch blowing up the castle, himself, the bride and Praetorius. Thus endeth a love that dare not speak its name?
The Raven (1935)
Bela Lugosi plays an insane but brilliant surgeon who is obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe. He keeps a stuffed raven on his desk, and has built replicas of all the torture devices from his stories in his basement. Retired from practice, he is devoting all his time to research until he is called on by a judge to save the life of his daughter who has had a bad car accident. Lugosi wants to marry the daughter and won’t take no for an answer, even though the girl is engaged to be married to someone else. Fortuitously, Boris Karloff shows up as a common criminal seeking plastic surgery so he can escape the law. Lugosi purposely mangles his face so he can control him, dangling the promise of restoration so he’ll do his bidding. Then he invites a small party including the affianced couple and the judge for an overnight party. Don’t go, you stupids!! Before the night is out, he has the judge strapped to a Poe-like ax-pendulum, and the couple locked in one of those rooms where the walls move in to crush you. (The house is amazing…a lever that turns off all the phones. Another lever that makes metal shutters go over all the windows. A bedroom in an elevator that takes the girl to the basement.) In the end, Karloff breaks ranks and attacks Lugosi, throwing him in the wall-crusher and ending his career of madness. And the girl is left with her husband, an empty twit with a pencil thin mustache.
The Invisible Ray (1936)
A perfect movie. Boris Karloff is a scientist in Carpathian mountains living with his blind mother and wife, who happens to be the daughter of his former mentor. His observatory is of course located in a castle. He invites skeptical colleagues (one of whom is Bela Lugosi in a rare non-villainous role) to show them something. His special telescope looks deep into space, able to look back on earth millions of years in the past. They witness a meteorite hitting Africa. As a result, they mount an expedition there to look for a special element, the most powerful in the universe, known as Radium X. Several scenes in the jungle, with stereotyical African native porters. Karloff finds his element, but it poisons him. He now glows in the dark, and kills whatever he touches. Lugosi makes him an antidote, but he has to take it every day. Meanwhile, his estrangement from his wife causes her to fall in love with the young explorer from the scientific society. When they return to London, Karloff gets the Nobel Prize but it isn’t enough. The radiation has affected his brain, he is paranoid, jealous of everyone. While his ray cures blindness, he also has visions of destroying cities. He pretends to be dead, allowing his wife to marry his rival. Then he plots revenge, killing those who went with him to Africa, one by one. He finds himself unable to kill his wife however. Then his mother destroys his antidote, dooming him. He burns up in a fire, and tumbles over a balcony to his death.
The Walking Dead (1936)
Directed by Michael Curtiz. Edmund Gwenn (best known as Santa in Miracle on 34th Street) is a scientist who revives the corpse of wrongly executed Boris Karloff. While Karloff seeks only answers (not revenge) from the men who framed him, they all die horrible deaths anyway, seemingly by his uncanny presence. Let sleeping dogs lie!
The Man Who Changed His Mind a.k.a. The Man Who Lived Again (1936)
A British horror film. Boris Karloff as a top brain surgeon who has gone, well, mad. He has developed a means of transferring the mind wholesale from one brain to another. He does it first on chimps. Then when the entire community laughs at him, and his funder vows to confiscate his research, he transfers the mind of his cynical crippled servant into a millionaire publisher. Conveniently the crippled body of the servant now dies with the publisher’s soul in it. In the end, the scientist tries to switch his own soul with that of the young blade who is going to marry his lab assistant. Until…the last minute rescue.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The wild thing about this one is that THIS is the model for Mel Brooks’ parody Young Frankenstein, NOT the two earlier Frankenstein pictures. Brooks and Gene Wilder lifted not just the entire plot, but many of the details and gags—unchanged.
Basil Rathbone plays Dr. Frankenstein’s son. He returns to the ancestral village with his wife, butler and young son (a sort of Shirley Temple rip-off), and finds a castle and lab looking very much like sets from Dr. Caligari. The entire village is suspicious of him from the get-go. The monacle-wearing, mechanical-armed police constable, played by Lionel Atwill, keeps close tabs on him at all times. They have a great relationship, he and Frankenstein, cordial, but wary and watchful.
Meanwhile, one Ygor (Bela Lugosi) a local deformed criminal who has been unsuccessfully hanged, encourages Frankenstein to revive the monster, who had been his only friend. (We soon learn why—Ygor employed him to kill 6 of the 8 people on the committee who hanged him). (Ygor was hanged for grave robbing. How convenient!) Frankenstein uses his father’s diary to bring the creature back to life. (The make up is not as good in this film, and it seems to me the the role of the monster is pretty thankless—probably why this is the last time Karloff did it).
Right away Ygor gets the monster to kill the two remaining committee members and also Frankenstein’s butler (he somehow controls him by playing a strange looking little alpenhorn). An angry mob forms. Frankenstein shoots Ygor, and eventually pushes the monster into a bubbling sulfur pit conveniently located underneath his laboratory. He donates his castle and everyone cheers. All in all this is a surprisingly strong movies. It stands up pretty good on its own—which is more than you can say about what comes afterward!
Tower of London (1939)
A fascinating hybrid, mixing the medieval historical epics then in vogue (Mary of Scotland, Robin Hood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) and Universal horror, which was at that stage in a fallow period between the glory days of the early ’30s and the resurgence of the early ’40s. Basil Rathbone plays the Crookback, in what may be one of his best performances. The world around him is wonderfully macabre. When we first meet the executioner (a bald, club-footed Boris Karloff) he is sharpening his beheading ax. On the way out of the room he honors a parched prisoner’s request for water by throwing some on him. Many torture devices in the film and some of the same sort of gallows humor with Karloff. Vincent Price plays Richard’s younger brother Clarence, whom we just know is going to get it, on account of his twitchy, cowardly manner. (He is eventually drowned in his favorite wine). The plot is essentially the same as the Shakespeare play: Richard’s various schemes and murders. A great gimmick: he makes his plans and measures his success with a little dollhouse with little figures representing those at court who block his way, almost like voodoo. In the end, he is defeated the honest, wholesome way—in open battle.
Black Friday (1940)
This is more of a gangster picture than Gothic horror, but it has certain horror elements. It stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the former as a mad scientist who saves the life of his dying friend, a mild-mannered professor, by transplanting part of an injured gangster’s brain into his. When Karloff hears that the gangster has $500,000 hidden, he gets greedy, and begins to control the man in order to find out where it is. The guy keeps shifting between his two personalities….professor and gangster. As the latter, he begins bumping off his old colleagues (one of whom is Lugosi) as well as policemen. Eventually it all comes to light and Karloff gets the electric chair.
The Ape (1940)
A low-grade cheapie. One of the very few times that Karloff sank as low as Lugosi was capable of falling. In this one he plays a doctor who disguises himself as an ape, the better to kill people and take their spinal fluid in order to create a cure for “paralysis”. Oh, there is a set up. He has been working on this cure for 25 years, and tried and failed to cure his own wife. Now he lives next door to a young girl he would like to cure. And an ape has conveniently escaped from a nearby circus. Karloff kills him and apparently makes a costume of its dead body. Anything for science! Just generally tedious and bad.
The Climax (1944)
A rotten title for a movie, but it ends up being worthwhile picture. But one must be patient, and sit through several goopy musical theatre routines. It was conceived as a sort of sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, and has much in common as well with Svengali. Boris Karloff is the throat doctor to a Viennese opera company. Years ago he became obsessed with a diva and killed her. Now the same thing is happening with a new singer. Note to singers: always beware of Boris Karloff when he soothes and assures you and offers to take you back to his house for an “examination”! He hyponotizes the girl so she can’t sing and he now has control over her. (It’s the hypnosis that justified this film’s inclusion here) Eveneually others piece together what’s going on. The singer’s own will triumphs. Karoff flees to his chamber where his previous victim is in suspended animation. Then, as so often, happens, he dies in a spectacular fire.
House of Frankenstein (1944)
Insanely entertaining and chock full of events! A suitable rebound from the dip in quality in Ghost of Frankenstein. Nearly every Universal horror star is in it. The title of the film is ironically fitting, as the house is nearly all that is left of Frankenstein and the original story thread.
Karloff plays a mad scientist, a former assistant of Frankenstein whom we first meet incarcerated in a dungeon. He instructs the hunchback in the cell next to him on how he can reanimate dead bodies (using hilariously simple chalk diagrams). Right on cue, they are freed when lightning strikes the castle that holds them, collapsing it. Outside they find a carnival wagon stuck conveniently in the mud . It contains Professor Lampini (George Zucco) and a show of horrors, notably the actual skeleton of Dracula. Karloff kills the professor, and steals his show, expertly impersonating a carnival barker when the need arises. They travel to a small town where he has an old score to settle. Zig Rugman is a local burgomaster, Lionel Atwill the police chief (sans mechanical arm), and there is a pair of obligatory, nondescript lovers.
Karloff revives Dracula (John Carradine) who goes and kills the burgomaster and attempts to steal the girl. Later Dracula is trapped by sunlight and the girl escapes. These characters now pass out of the story completely. Next Karloff and the hunchback meet up with a bunch of gypsies. Just like Quasimodo, the hunchback falls in love with a beautiful performing gypsy girl. They rescue her from a cruel gypsy king who whips her. Then they go to Frankenstein’s castle, finding a mysterious frozen land underneath. There, the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and the monster (Glenn Strange) are frozen. Karloff thaws them out for his experiments, planning to exchange their brains. Wolf Man wants to be cured of his lycanthropy. He begins to turn at the full moon, killing people. Meanwhile the gypsy girl has fallen in love with him. The jealous hunchback wants the Wolf Man’s body. Out of love, the girl shoots the werewolf with a silver bullet. Then the hunchback attacks Karloff. The Monster throws the hunchback off the roof. A mob comes after the Monster, carrying Karloff. Then they fall into quicksand and sink. THE END-?
The Body Snatcher (1945)
One of the better (perhaps the best) of the Val Lewton horror pictures for RKO, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale (which was in turn based on the real life story of Burke and Hare.) Set in Edinburgh in the 1830s. Karloff plays a grave robber who helps a famous surgeon (Henry Daniell) obtain the corpses he needs to do his research. Like Burke and Hare, Karloff’s character has taken to killing people to get the corpses he needs. As a subplot the surgeon’s assistant really wants to help a little crippled girl walk. The situation both drives the need for new corpses (for research) but also provides tension. Is she in danger? Will the ghoul come for her? In the end the surgeon kills the grave robber, then accidentally takes his corpse one night. As they ride on a road one night, the surgeon hears the grave robber’s voice, cracks the wagon up and has a fatal accident. Karloff’s performance in the film is great. Bela Lugosi plays a creepy servant.
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Like most Lewton, this one is simultaneously boring and interesting. A Poe-like scenario…a bunch of people quarantined on a Greek island during a plague epidemic in the 19th century. Boris Karloff as an officer. A bunch of Premature Burial stuff and people walking around a castle with candles…which would later become a mainstay of the Corman Poe Cycle. yeah, that’s my ultimate verdict on this movie: a bunch of people in nightgowns walking around with candles.
The last Lewton horror picture. Karloff as the cruel head of an 18th century insane asylum, inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. Martin Scorsese would appear to be paying tribute to this film in his own Shutter Island (2010).
Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)
This one gets an honorable mention here, as it is not actually a horror comedy. Technically it belongs to the closely related subgenre, the murder mystery comedy! Ironically, Karloff had not been involved with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). In fact he didn’t even see it, although he did help promote it. His last role as the monster had been a decade earlier in Son of Frankenstein (1939). In this Abbott and Costello comedy, he plays a sinister Swami. The plot is that Lou is falsely accused of murder, and Abbott, a hotel house detective, has to clear him.
The Strange Door (1951)
A Robert Louis Stevenson story, set in 18th century France. Laughton plays a cruel, insane nobleman who traps a guy he judges to be a worthless, cruel rake at his castle and forces him to marry his niece (in revenge for his brother having stolen his sweetheart 20 years ago). The brother is alive and apparently mad, living in a cell in the dungeon. The rake actually turns out to have a good heart and character. He and the niece fall in love and try to escape. Finally Laughton puts his three victims in a cell, the walls of which are connected to a mechanism on a water wheel, that pushes the walls of the cell in, trash compactor style. Boris Karloff as a sympathetic serving man rescues them. Laughton dies a spectacular death in the gears of the water wheel. Laughton’s acting is over-the -top spectacular in this movie.
Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)
Interestingly, though the story of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had been filmed many times, it was not a story associated with Universal Horror (the classic versions were by Paramount and MGM). While the comedy is the usual repetitive stuff, there are several elements that commend it: its atmospheric Edwardian London setting, the presence of Boris Karloff as Jekyll, and cast members like Sid Fields and Reginald Denny.
Voodoo Island (1957)
A millionaire developed acquires a South Seas Island and resolves to turn it into a resort. Unfortunately, there are rumors of voodoo and other dangers on the island, so he hires professional debunker Boris Karloff and a crew that includes Elisha Cook, Jr. to go see what’s what. Unfortunately they do encounter zombies and voodoo, but also natural dangers like poisonous snakes, but most impressively of all giant man-eating (actually woman-eating) plants. A low budget cheapie.
The Haunted Strangler (1958)
A British film. Karloff plays a crusader out to prove a man who was long ago executed for a series of London murders was not the actual serial killer. As he works to solve the puzzle, a new series of murders commences. Who can the real murderer be? You’re probably already way ahead of me.
Frankenstein 1970 (1958)
An extraordinary updating of the Frankenstein tale, set in what was then the future, with Karloff as the doctor instead of the monster, and television, atomic reactors and post-Nazi Europe as part of the equation.
Corridors of Blood (1958)
A period piece set in the 1840s. Karloff plays a physician who is experimenting on anesthetic gasses, then a new concept. When a patient wakes up during surgery during a demonstration, he is disgraced and loses his position, but continues his experiments. Unfortunately, he uses himself as a test subject and becomes addict to the gas himself. Soon , the whole point of his endeavors becomes about getting high and crazy. Meanwhile he gets involved with crooks led by the ruthless Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee) and sinks even further. There will be corpses.
Karloff hosted this horror/ suspense anthology TV series, which bears similarities to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond. He also acted in about a half dozen episodes. If you think Rod Serling’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s episode intros are delicious, imagine how delectable Karloff’s are, with all the black humor delivered with that rumbling, lisping voice.
The Raven (1963)
A Roger Corman Poe “adaptation”, although this one (adapted by Richard Matheson) scarcely has anything to do with Poe’s poem. Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre play a trio of competing wizards; Lorre has the misfortune to be the one transformed into the titular bird. It sounds much more entertaining than it is.
The Terror (1963)
A soporific and confusing Roger Corman film, notable for the early career involvement of Jack Nicholson (star, uncredited co-director), Francis Ford Coppola and Monte Helman (also uncredited co-directors). Set in Europe in the early 19th century, and filmed on sets from other Corman movies. Nicholson plays a soldier who falls in love with a woman who seems to be the ghost of Boris Karloff’s long dead, murdered wife, now under control of a witch. Dick Miller is a fish out of water as the butler. It’s one of those typical AIP movies were nothing happens for an hour and a half and then in the last scene everyone drowns in a flooding crypt.
Black Sabbath (1963)
An Italian/ AIP co-production. The film is a three part anthology with Karloff as host. His contribution is by far the most memorable part of the picture. His performance is quite hilarious…the rest is pretty boring and forgettable. The first segment has a lady going to a castle to help dispose of a recently deceased old lady…a hilarious fake dummy that of course rises as a ghost and terrorizes the woman until she too is a corpse. The second segment has a gorgeous model babe terrorized on the telephone by ghost of dead boyfriend whom she betrayed, stalking, haunting her. The third segment a vampire story. Karloff is in this one. One by one members of family (including a child) become vampires until it’s down to just the young man who is taken by his wife.
The Comedy of Terrors (1963)
Another AIP all-star film, this time expanding on the comic tone that characterized much of Tales of Terror. In this black comedy Price and Lorre are reunited in roles that would have been oddly well suited for Laurel and Hardy. They are coffin dealers who owe the rent to their landlord (Basil Rathbone), and so they decide to commit some murders so they can sell some caskets. But they bungle their many attempts, right up ’til then end. Boris Karloff is also in the film as the founder of their firm, and Joe E. Brown has a cameo (it turned out to be his last film role).
Die, Monster, Die! (1965)
Very loosely based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, Karloff plays a mad scientist who keeps a radioactive meteorite in his basement and experiments on plants — and then his servants and family — with monstrous and deadly results.
The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966)
Technically the last AIP beach party film, it also folds in AIP horror, if comedy/horror. Karloff plays a ghost trying to protect his old estate from scheming lawyer Basil Rathbone and his henchman. His teenage heirs, there for a pool party, will help save the day. In addition to folks we might expect in a beach party movie like Tommy Kirk, Nancy Sinatra and Harvey Lembeck, we also get character actor Jesse White, silent star Francis X. Bushman, and old time vaudeville hands Patsy Kelly and Benny Rubin.
The Sorcerers (1967)
Karloff is a doctor who invents a device which allows him to feel what another is experiencing and at the same time control their actions. He begins to use the device on a young man as an experiment. Unfortunately his scheming wife keeps goading him into more and more ganerous and unethical experiments. The doom they finally meet has a fitting in predictable irony.
Karloff essentially plays a fictionalized version of himself, an aging horror story who gets caught in the crossfire of a psychotic sniper at a drive-in movie theatre. While Peter Bogdanovich had previously directed Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women, Targets is generally thought of as his first “real” movie. Roger Corman produced, although it got a major release through Paramount, rather than his usual AIP.
Curse of the Crimson Altar a.k.a The Crimon Altar a.k.a The Crimson Cult (1967)
Great one! Karloff a sort of Van Helsing figure in a fight against a secret satanic cult. An AIP film, but shot in London and with Hammer personnel like Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele. I found this one to be effective — quite scary.
Cauldron of Blood a.k.a Blind Man’s Bluff (1970)
Spanish horror film shot in 1967 and released posthumously. Karloff plays a blind sculptor who builds his arts work upon a framework of the bones of dead people.
Karloff died in 1969. His remaining last films (which I’ve not seen and am not rushing to see) include a package of four he made for a low-budget Mexican production company, shooting his scenes in Los Angeles. Those films are Fear Chamber (1968), House of Evil (1968), The Incredible Invasion (1971), and Isle of the Snake People (1971).
There’s something truly wonderful, something truly just right about these old horror stars appearing in films after they’ve died, eh?