It has just occurred to me that I have never written a biographical piece on English-India born character actor William Henry Pratt, aka Boris Karloff. Never. Not once. Sure, I’ve had other writers on here talking about some of the movies he has been in, namely Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein and even The Mummy, but never, not once have I stepped up to plate. That ends here. For those who are betrothed to the dark and unusual of filmage, that this, horror movies, the name Boris Karloff is not unfamiliar, it is, in fact, legendary. And for good reason. Even tempered natured folks who do not ordinarily dabble in nightmare landscapes know, rudimentary, who Boris is, that is, the Monster, that Frankenstein monster that is. And they wouldn’t be wrong. That’s hisrole, after all, no skirting the issue or sipping from your craft beer or wine, dressed in some flannel button up with a shaggy beard, pretending as if he never endured the makeup. Just because you saw him in The Black Cat (1934) or Targets (1968) doesn’t negate his crowning achievement. He was the Monster. Don’t walk through the past with blinders on. He will always be the Monster. And here and now, I’d like to correct my above-mentioned misstep and celebrate his career (his work), as it is, highlighting briefly my top 5 favorite Boris Karloff movies.
5. House of Frankenstein (1944). I’m not entirely sold on House of Frank, particularly concerning the Dracula character and how easily he was dispatched; however, I cannot negate Boris’s role as Dr. Niemann, a mad scientist who has supposedly discovered Frankenstein’s secret to immortality and the creation of a new human race of perfectly made people. His role here, obviously, is not the Creature. And as a tip of the hat, I would say he was very dark in this movie, uncaring of dispatching anyone who got in his way.
4. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). Say what you will, but I would feel horrible if I did not mention this classic film. Especially now that we’re shuffling towards the holiday season and Turkey Day tomorrow, I would be amiss to ignore one of my favorite Christmas movies. Even at the tender age of 79, Boris’s voice, his deep growls, and slight lisp is uncanny. His performance as the narrator is actually what draws me to the cartoon. If it had been anyone else, I’m not sure I’d enjoy it as much.
3. Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Seems like a total cop-out, but no, back to my above argument, we cannot ignore his masterpiece of horror cinematography. The Frankenstein monster was a role that was limited in dialogue, and so he had to manipulate audience reactions and emotions through gesture and skewed hardened facial expressions. Bride of Frankenstein showcases the evolution of the creature, from mute stumbler to an array of humanistic-like qualia. He was driven, not by fear, but by necessity, the most basic human desire, companionship, a mate.
2. The Black Cat (1934). One of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in a string of Poe-inspired films, among such as The Raven (both 1935 and 1963), House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, etc etc, The Black Cat wins the prize, for me at least. The story is adapted for the 1930s era and is based just after The Great War, which ended in 1918. Dr. Vitus Werdegast is on a quest for revenge against the man who took his beloved wife and daughter, an old friend and comrade in arms, Hjalmar Poelzig. Poelzig is harboring a few dark secrets, most of which he shares openly, all but for his insidious religion. Caught in the middle is a young American couple on their honeymoon. The Black Cat is not action oriented, but rather, filled with an overwhelming sense of dread and some of the best dialogue I’ve heard in a long time. If you’ve been holding out, you need to see this movie. This 82-year-old movie may shock you.
1. The Mummy (1932). Without a shadow of a doubt, unashamedly, The Mummy is my all time favorite movie starring Boris Karloff. Why? Sure, we know and love and celebrate him for his role as Frankenstein’s monster, however, for me, his total sum of charisma and stage performance is defined in his role as Ardath Bey, aka Imhotep, priest of Pharaoh Amenophis, mummified for attempting to resurrect his forbidden lover, the princess Ankh-es-en-amon. regarding the other Mummy movies, though Lon Chaney Jr. did his best with what he had to work with, they did not, however, capture the tragedy that is Imhotep. Is he the villain? Perhaps. He certainly has his own agenda in mind. But there’s more. He’s a romantic. Deeply so. All he wants is his beloved princess. Not power or gold or influence, nothing political. He manipulates those he must. And strikes down those who get in his way. Love is not all puppy dogs and rainbows, it’s brutal at its core. Violent even. A man desperate enough to do whatever he must so he can attain that which he desires the most. True love. And Karloff, he plays the role wonderfully.
And there you have it folks, my top 5 Boris Karloff movies. I’m sure you’ve got a few in mind. What are some of your favorite Boris Karloff movies? Comment below in the comment box to enter for your chance to win a signed copy of my latest book, Conceiving(Subdue Book 3), scheduled to release next week on November 29, 2016. Now available for preorder on Amazon (wink wink), you can get your copy here. And if you are curious about my other books, you can find them on the altar of Amazon by following this link here. As always, you can stay connected with me on Facebook, where I post reviews, new book info, and other horror related topics. Thanks for reading everyone!
Professor of German and Film & media, Anton Kaes, discuses, to some extent, butchery, madness, and the loss of innocence in his article on Fritz Lang’s cult film “M.” This seemingly simple letter for the film title is suspect. Consider how, according to Professor Kaes, “M was not among Germany’s top ten features of 1931 [and] the film received mixed reviews… [with] only modest box-office returns” (pg.138), yet despite being overshadowed by the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism, M is richly historic and symbolic in the midst of its own history, but also as a time piece standing on the precipice of the emerging National Socialist Party. Professor Kaes “unmoors” M from its historical base in which in the film was emerged and discusses our own obsession with serial murder, the historic crisis in Germany during the development of the film, and what M represents for us today.
M is filled with shadows that cut against the backdrop of “be-on-the-look-out” posters on walls notifying that there is a child murderer amongst the people and high angle shots showing a circle of children singing an eerie nursery rhythm mixed with silent stills and unnerving echoes of a mother’s anguished calls for her baby girl to come home for lunch, to come up the empty stair case; but Elsie Beckmann never comes home. Once invoice is lost, it can never be returned. According to historian Kaes, “anyone who has seen Fritz Lang’s M even once will remember these images and sounds” (pg. 138), and yet somehow after M’s 1931 release in Berlin, it only generated moderate reviews. So, if M wasn’t a major blockbuster for its time, what is it about M that entices us to pay attention today, what draws us to look deeper into the story? According to Kaes, we need look no further than our own newspapers, full with “stories of serial killers, mass murderers, and school shootings…veterans carrying the war into the cities” (pg.138) and so forth. Besides our obsession, Kaes forces us to look outside the media and provokes the introspective question: “[are] killers naturally born, or are they a product of their environment?” Do historical events and culture shape and motivate murderers and mayhem? According to Kaes, “Lang’s M is implicated in these current questions, but responds to them by suggesting through its very form that something else entirely might be negotiated in these films – something that has to do with us, with our lives, our communities, [and] our culture” (pg.138).
M is considered one of the greats, not just because of the film’s symbolism’s, but also because of its receptor of acting. Consider Peter Lorre’s performance as Hans Beckert as genuinely chilling. One of the most haunting scenes was during the mock trial with the cities criminals sitting in as judge and witness. Beckert is forced to defend himself against the anger of a town tired of being afraid and of police harassment. It questions everything. This film, for its time, used scientific forensic techniques that was considered in 1931, to be rather progressive. This was a CSI-esk film sixty-nine years before its time. But at the same time it begs us to question the use of such modernization; in the tormented face of Beckert, M begs us to question the duality of man. We know better, but cannot help ourselves. Here is one of the films most chilling moments:
What is so real about this moment, so unnerving? Read again what Beckert has to say:
“What do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? Criminals? Are you proud of yourselves? Proud of breaking safes or cheating at cards? Things you could just as well keep your fingers off. You wouldn’t need to do all that if you’d learn a proper trade or if you’d work. If you weren’t a bunch of lazy bastards. But I… I can’t help myself! I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment! It’s there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It’s me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it’s impossible. I can’t escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run… endless streets. I want to escape, to get away! [But] I’m pursued by ghosts” (M, 1931).
The history surrounding M, the political and social crisis of the Weimar Republic, cannot help but have some kind of impact on the film. In a way, M captures the ghosts of 1930’s Germany, the surrounding worldwide recession of 1930, the mass unemployment and rise of criminality and political discontent that eventually lead to the rise of National Socialism, the Nazi Party (pg.140). According to Kaes, “the original title [of M] was Mörder unter uns (meaning…Murderer among Us),” which, in a strange way, combines the “explosive atmosphere of Germany two years before Hitler’s assumption of power” (pg. 141) and the infamous murder trial involving Hitler’s “Storm Troopers,” hit men who murdered a member of the Reichstag communist party in the late fall of 1930. Besides using M as a modern interpretation of our own obsessions and crafting of modern day killers, Kaes reflects on the films own history and asks if indeed, “were the Nazis ‘murderers among us’” (pg.141)?
Looking at how M impacts us today and what was going on during the films own particular history, historian Kaes probes the deeper meaning of M, basically, what M represents as an historic achieve of 1930 Germany. According to Kaes:
“M presents a society at war with itself. Serial murder recalled wartime slaughter, and the heightened state of mobilization of an entire community echoed experiences from the home front…[focusing] on the downtrodden lumpen-proletariat, [including] washerwomen and fatherless children, criminals and beggars, haggard prostitutes and slovenly policemen” (pgs. 143-144).
According to Kaes, M was a representation of the public’s strange fascination with murder, suggesting that imitation murder “displaces and shields us from real murder” (pg.146), thus, in an ironic twist of things, “murder and its mass marketed representations feed on each other” (146). Basically, murders are covered by the media in noir-esk fashion, inspiring future killers to commit asks of greater violence, which in turn is reported by the media, and so on and so forth; all the while, sitting on the backdrop of current events relating to culture and social n(m)ormality.
Historian Kaes interpretation of M is provoking in many ways. While we watch the film and enjoy the artistic nature of a cult classic during the sound revolution, Kaes forces us to see the things hidden underneath, the film as a representative model of not only our own culture, but also the particular culture history of 1929-31 Germany. Kaes reminds us that even in 1931, the Great War was still a “living memory [of] national shame of defeat and [resentment of] the financial and moral burden” (pg. 151) embodied in the Treaty of Versailles. The most provoking notion Kaes leaves us with is how interconnected everything seems to be; yet how we never seem to notice.
Thomas S. Flowers writes character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore feasts to paranormal thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews horror and sci fi movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest contributors who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.