It’s a sultry summer night, 23 July 1977. After much pleading, the thirteen year old me is allowed to stay up for the first half of BBC2’s double bill of horror. The film is Son of Frankenstein and I am sucked in by the heavy gothic atmosphere, the weird, expressionistic sets and lighting, the haunting music played by Bela Lugosi’s Ygor and finally, Boris Karloff’s monster.
Now it’s 19 May 2017 and I’ve just had a portion of chips in curry sauce, from Fish Master at 36 Forest Hill Road in East Dulwich. That just happens to be the house in which Karloff was born on 23 November 1887. Inside is a large photo of Karloff and his daughter Sara, signed by Sara. For the record, the chips were chunky and the sauce sufficiently curryish and they would have been particularly good after a couple of pints.
Today was a mini-pilgrimage that I’ve been meaning to make for years. Back in the 70s, the Christmas before my first late night horror, I was given a copy of Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, which I still have. I had actually read most of the book before Christmas Day, having discovered where my mum had hidden it but it was still a thrill to receive it. The cover is a montage of pictures of Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Peter Cushing, Fredric March and Christopher Lee but at the centre was Karloff.
He started out in life as William Henry Pratt and didn’t stay long in Dulwich, the family moving to Enfield. In 1909 he went to Canada where he mixed acting with any other jobs he could get. Ten hard years later he was in Hollywood, where he gradually started to establish himself as a character actor. He struggled on for years until in he was in his mid forties. As Karloff told it, “I was sitting in the commissary at Universal, having lunch and looking rather well turned out, I thought, when a man sent a note over to my table, asking if I’d like to audition for the part of a monster.” The movie was Frankenstein and the flat headed, stiff limbed, bolt-necked monster that became an icon was Karloff, with help from Jack Pierce, the make up artist.
This was the start of Karloff the Uncanny’s purple patch and in quick succession he appeared in The Old Dark House, The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Mummy, The Black Cat, Bride of Frankenstein and The Raven. In the late 30s and early forties, he became the archetypal mad scientist in a string of interchangeable movies. His doctors were kindly, had a daughter and meant well until their experiments led them astray. Later that decade, Val Lewton’s unit at RKO gave him some deep and complex roles in Isle of the Dead, Bedlam and The Body Snatcher. After that, the films trailed off into mediocrity apart from a few late flourishes. There are some terrific films among the above but these are my top three.
The Mummy (1932) plays as much as a romance as a horror. Karloff is only glimpsed in bandages, spending most of the film as the wizened and mysterious Ardath Bey, whose ancient love has been reincarnated at the film’s heroine. The film is pretty much a rerun of the previous year’s Dracula but less stagey and Karloff is more sympathetic than Lugosi’s Count.
The Black Cat (1934) was first and best pairing of Karloff and Bela. In a key scene, Karloff’s suave and decidedly nasty architect Hjalmar Poelzig plays chess with Lugosi’s traumatised former comrade, Vitus Werdegast. The setting is Poelzig’s superb house, built on the ruins of a fort where thousands had died. It mixes various modernist styles. Here Le Corbusier meets Constructivism meets Art Deco. Karloff looks fantastic too.
Targets (1968) saw an old, tired Karloff play an old, tired, horror movie star called Byron Orlok. This was Peter Bogdanovich’s first film and he is full of promise, never to quite be fulfilled. Karloff’s very personal story makes up one strand of the film. The second follows a murderous sniper and gradually the strands coverge converge. This wasn’t Boris Karloff’s last film but makes a fitting epitaph.