Few monsters in cinema are as instantly recognisable as Boris Karloff’s corpse-made-man. With an impossibly white face framed by almost square black hair and two bolts in the neck, his Monster towers over Frankenstein, yet horror and pathos are equally balanced. This Monster was stripped of humanity the moment it was given to him, and it is impossible not to sympathise with his confusion and hurt in a world that cast him out.
Karloff’s nuanced performance, insticintly in line with Shelley’s novel and conveyed almost entirely through a surprisingly delicate physicality, cemented his place in early Hollywood iconography. Now, a new documentary by Thomas Hamilton explores the legacy of the actor born William Henry Pratt beyond the Frankenstein series. Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster is an adoring look at a universally beloved figure. The film’s greatest strength is the care and attention it gives all aspects of Karloff’s career, not just his most famous monster. While clocking in at a mere 90 minutes, it is a stellar overview of a singular Hollywood figure for horror newbies and long-time fans alike.
Boris Karloff: The Man Behind The Monster eschews a fully chronological approach, instead using Karloff’s immediately-recognisable Monster as a jumping-off point to work backwards, and then forwards, in his life. Clips from Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Son of Frankenstein dominate the archival footage; these are intercut with behind the scenes stills and talking heads from film historians and (archival) cast and crew members. The picture of Karloff that emerges is of a man dedicated to his craft and with deep, often emotive opinions on the Monster’s portrayal, but his own frustrations and injuries that resulted over the course of gruelling shoots and figure-changing costumes are left to others to voice. This is not an oversight on Hamilton and team’s part — Karloff’s professional reticence left little officially recorded from him — but it highlights the expected, unavoidable limitation of a historical biographical documentary.
Despite the tonal sameness of archival footage and modern-day interviews, Hamilton’s thematic storytelling and colourful cast of show business greats who appear to shed light and love on Karloff make this documentary a joy and a gem. The likes of Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Plummer, Peter Bogdanovich, and Roger Corman effuse about Karloff’s successes before and after the Frankenstein films, including the rich characterisations he imbued even his smallest, most stereotypical roles with (it is commonly agreed that Karloff’s yellowface villains and magician roles would be rightly anathema today, but also demonstrate the actor’s craft and scene-stealing potential outside of James Whale’s visions).
Daughter Sarah Karloff speaks at length about her late father’s personal roots and legacy, beginning with his mixed race heritage and refusal to follow his father and brothers into the British government service and continuing through his love of entertaining children. From his Grammy-winning animated television special Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! to the letters she receives today from fans around the world, Karloff’s legacy is still keenly felt and loved. With Karloff’s official biographer Stephen Jacobs (author of Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster) on board as historical consultant, Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster is a well-researched and accessible look at the legendary actor. While missing personal perspective through limits of the material, it is a welcome addition to this — and every — Halloween season.
Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster is out in select US cinemas on September 17th
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie