Boris Karloff: Enduring Screen Icon
Before Willem Dafoe and Anthony Hopkins, Boris Karloff was the go-to character actor when it came to portraying all facets of the seedier side of humanity.
In Universal Studios’ The Mummy (1932), Boris Karloff plays an Egyptian named Imhotep who is revived after 2,700 years of slumber when an archeologist’s assistant reads aloud the hieroglyphics of a cursed scroll. Some version of this story has been regurgitated onscreen nearly every decade since, but the title character has never been performed with Boris Karloff’s astonishing pathos, grace, and intensity. These represent merely a fraction of the attributes that make Karloff an abiding legend of the silver screen.
The Mummy’s loony premise doesn’t seem to faze him as an actor; he enunciates his dialogue with the same focused severity required to play King Lear. Lines like “My love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods” might elicit overacting from lesser performers, but for Karloff it offers a window into a longing, burdened, disturbed soul. Love, from Imhotep’s perspective, requires pain and suffering. When he asks for the same kind of love in return, he is rejected and left to crumble. Those recurring, extremely sinister close-ups of Imhotep linger in the mind because of the mightiness of Karloff’s stare.
A consideration of Karloff’s career, which includes over 200 screen credits (he appears in 14 films released in 1931 alone!), is like encountering a panorama of horror: madmen, monsters, vampires, mummies, psychos, sickos, weirdos, wizards, hypnotists, psychiatrists, sorcerers, interrogators, investigators, instigators, and, occasionally, the mild-mannered and even somewhat shy gentleman who Karloff, by all accounts, actually was off-screen. Is there a disjunction between the man who terrified moviegoers for over half a century and the proper Englishman whose admittedly cliché pastimes included cricket, rugby, drinking tea, and tending to the rose garden that was his prize possession?
Quite the contrary. In fact, it was Karloff’s wholesomeness that allowed him to inhabit such a stunningly diverse panoply of characters. Beneath his foreboding facade, there lurks an unmistakable gleefulness, a subtle and subdued joy in onscreen sadism. You see it in The Body Snatcher (1945), where his smile looks like the razor-sharp edge of a knife. You sense his playfulness in Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) when he switches between lumbering child-monster and delicate brute within a microsecond. You see it most subtly in his rendering of Mr. Wong, the investigator in Doomed to Die (1940), a showcase in simplicity and conviction. When his disembodied head bids the viewer to “come closer, please” at the beginning of Black Sabbath (1963), you can sense his overwhelming presence personified through masterful diction and the deliberate pace of his speaking style. Experiencing any of Karloff’s performances is like watching your ordinarily prim uncle relay a spooky tale and, during the telling, he becomes unusually committed to his own performance. He knows when to let his loose screw fly.
Targets (1968) presents Karloff at his most metatheatrical, and director Peter Bogdanovich, who goes to great lengths to depict his own unqualified adoration for his star, is responsible for devising a premise that offers a glimpse of the gentleman behind such a variety madmen and monsters. In Targets, Karloff portrays a thinly veiled version of himself — a famous horror film actor who is rapidly aging into obscurity. Without layers of prosthetics and heavy make-up, Karloff offers his true personality effortlessly. Notice the careful curiosity and self-satisfied delight he exudes as he watches his own performance in Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code (1930). Then, game as ever, he says, to no one in particular except for the viewer watching him (watch himself), “Who’s that tapping at my chamber door?” This is the true Boris Karloff — a quiet, mannerly man who relished every opportunity to inject a bit of menace and terror into the humdrum reality of everyday existence.
Bogdanovich utilizes this unique quality of Karloff’s as an opportunity to play with the audience’s perceptions and assumptions. The slyly deceptive opening of Targets is actually the ending of Roger Corman’s The Terror (1963), starring a fresh-faced Jack Nicholson. (In Vivian Kubrick’s Making “The Shining,” Nicholson reveals his habit of flagging his lines in a script with checkmarks was inspired by Karloff’s own style of marking his lines.) After the opening credits conclude, the words “The End” appear onscreen, and Targets actually begins after cutting to Karloff, masked in darkness, watching himself drown at the end of Corman’s picture. Indeed, pseudo-reality is a recurring theme in Targets, and Bogdanovich uses Karloff brilliantly as a delivery system for this meditation on the juxtaposition between life onscreen and off.
When you feel unnerved by the menacing, sub-human, almost reptilian eye contact he maintains in movies like The Sorcerers (1967) or Bedlam (1946) or The Raven (1963), there’s also a kind of relief you experience because you can sense safety in the hands of a master storyteller. Witness his uncanny ability to take the most mundane lines and transform them into a master class in perversity, like when he leers unblinkingly at Bela Lugosi in The Black Cat (1934) and says, “The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead.” Consider his absolutely essential performance as Colonel Kurtz in Playhouse 90’s adaptation of Heart of Darkness (1958). His line reading of Kurtz’s famous exclamation, “The horror!…the horror!” rivals Brando’s. Karloff’s steady intensity and commanding enunciation spills off the screen in small gems like The Black Room (1935), where he plays the dual role of twin barons in a tour-de-force knockout of early American cinema.
In his forward to Scott Allen Nollen’s Boris Karloff: A Critical Account of His Screen, Stage, Radio, Television, and Recording Work, Ray Bradbury makes note of Karloff’s idiosyncratic ability to comfort and frighten because “we trusted that man…We knew he would never hurt us, but only try to instruct us to the real ways of the world that is often nightmare.” For all of his remarkable character work, you always got the impression that you’re being intentionally entertained by “a nice chap who could sit around the fire nights with a glass of sherry and converse.” This is a testament to Karloff’s enduring legacy as one of Hollywood’s most iconic actors. His body of work is a tribute to the kind of spooky escapism that once ruled the motion picture landscape. The wholesomeness of Karloff’s personality made his many descents into unwholesome characters that much more enthralling.