To legions of horror fans, there is only one monster–Frankenstein’s monster. And there is only one man who could bring him to life on the big screen–Boris Karloff.
A new documentary–Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster–explores the cinematic magic between the two timeless figures and delves into what made the actor so beloved and, at the same time, so feared.
The film–which starts a limited theatrical run this Friday, Sept. 17 before being released on digital platforms at a later date–is the brainchild of director Thomas Hamilton, who also wrote the screenplay with Ron MacCloskey. Paul Ryan narrates the ambitious documentary from Shout! Studios and Abramorama.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the emphasis it places on Karloff’s entire body of work, not just his seminal role as Frankenstein’s monster. To be sure, fans will learn fascinating tidbits from that classic film, but the actor contributed so much more to the legacy of the Silver Screen and, towards the end of his remarkable career, to television as well.
As the film points out, Karloff’s career–which began with his discovery of live theater at the tender age of nine–truly took off with the 1930 movie The Criminal Code and 1931’s Graft, two genre movies that directly led to 1931’s Frankenstein.
Two footnotes to horror history here: First, the part of the monster originally was written for Bela Lugosi (who, of course, starred in Dracula earlier that year), and second, Karloff never started filming his part in the iconic film until shooting has already started on other parts of the movie.
Frankenstein became a “record-breaking smash” at the box office, according to the documentary, with the famous scene at the lake with the little girl befriending Karloff’s creature reportedly breaking hearts in theaters everywhere.
That success led to roles in 1932’s The Old Dark House and The Mask of Fu Manchu, before landing Karloff his next memorable role in The Mummy. In 1934, he co-starred with Lugosi in The Black Cat, another triumph that was called “grisly” and “horrific” by contemporaries.
Continuing his hot streak, Karloff in 1935 starred in The Bride of Frankenstein (in which the monster speaks for the first time) and The Black Room (considered by some as his finest performance ever). He would play the monster again in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, a film which Karloff shared with Lugosi and Basil Rathbone.
Karloff continued working through the 1940s–starring in The Body Snatcher and The Isle of the Dead–and then revitalized his career in the ’50s with Broadway performances in Peter Pan (as Captain Hook, of course) and The Lark (for which he received a Tony Award nomination).
It was also in the ’50s and the ’60s that Karloff enjoyed a rebirth with the television boom. He appeared on several variety shows, even spoofing his classic horror roles. Perhaps his most memorable TV performance was as the genial host (and sometimes star) of 1960’s Thriller, a horror series likened to The Twilight Zone.
And, of course, Karloff’s remarkable narration of 1966’s animated classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas became the actor’s defining moment for an entire generation of the young (and the young at heart).
The documentary–which takes fans on an illuminating ride through the long career of one of horror’s true immortals–is worth watching just to see the numerous clips–from the big screen and TV shows–that show the enormous talent of “the man behind the monster”.
And adding much to the glimpses of Karloff’s acting genius are the insightful comments from such luminaries as Guillermo del Toro, Ron Perlman, Christopher Plummer, Roger Corman and, most especially, his daughter Sara.
Boris Karloff was so much more than Frankenstein’s monster–as legendary as that role was–and this film sheds light on the man, the actor and the legend.