Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff!

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Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff!

Karloff, the king of horror, was born on November 23, 1887.

Karloff made over 70 movies before playing the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), the film which changed his career and made him a household name.  He would reprise the role twice, in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), and of course would go on to make a ton of horror movies over the next four decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s.

To celebrate his birthday, here’s a look at a handful of Karloff’s most memorable horror movie performances:

FRANKENSTEIN (1931) – The Monster- there’s a reason this role turned Boris Karloff into a star.  His Monster is both brutal and sympathetic.  Insanely powerful, he can kill in a heartbeat, and yet this newly born creature is simply terribly misunderstood and maltreated.  With a remarkable make-up job by Jack Pierce, no movie Frankenstein monster has ever looked as much like a walking corpse as this one.  If you only see one Boris Karloff movie in your life (which would be shame- see more!) see FRANKENSTEIN.

THE MUMMY (1932) – Imhotep – For my money, Karloff’s interpretation of Imhotep remains the most effective movie mummy performance of all time.  There still has not been another one like it.  In spite of a plot that is very similar to DRACULA (1931), THE MUMMY is a superior horror movie, and Boris Karloff’s performance as Imhotep is a major reason why.

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Karloff as Imhotep in THE MUMMY (1932)

THE BLACK CAT (1934) – Hjalmar Poelzig – In this classic first-time pairing of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Karloff plays the devil worshipping Hjalmar Poelzig, pitted against Bela Lugosi’s heroic Dr. Vitus Werdegast.  Superior horror film has little in common with the Poe tale on which it is so loosely based, but it has a top-notch script full of classic lines, and it features two performances by Karloff and Lugosi in their prime, doing what they do best.  Best watched late at night with the lights out.

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Karloff in THE BLACK CAT (1934).

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – The Monster- The Monster speaks!  So boasted this movie’s tagline, and it’s true, Karloff’s monster learns to speak in this classic sequel to the iconic original.  Critics consider BRIDE to be the best FRANKENSTEIN movie of all time, but I still slightly prefer the original, if only because it remains much scarier.  But Karloff takes his performance as the Monster here to another level.  It’s arguably the best performance of the Frankenstein monster of all time.

THE RAVEN (1935) – Edward Bateman -The second Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi pairing. Karloff plays Edward Bateman, a criminal transformed into a hideous monster by Lugosi’s insane Poe-obsessed Dr. Richard Vollin. Another classic pairing of these two iconic horror film stars.

THE BLACK ROOM (1935)- Baron Gregor de Berghman/Anton de Berghman – Karloff has a field day in a dual role as twins, one good, one bad.  Karloff delivers one of his best performances in this little known period piece horror drama.  Look fast for an uncredited Edward van Sloan as, of course, a doctor.

THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) – John Gray – Another superb Karloff performance.  He plays John Gray, the body snatcher who robs graves for Dr. “Toddy”  MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson and the real life story of Dr. Knox and grave robbers Burke and Hare.  Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise. Horror film making at its best.  Also features Bela Lugosi in a small supporting role.

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Karloff in THE BODY SNATCHER (1945).

ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) – General Nikolas Pherides- Karloff plays a hawkish general who uses his ruthless methods to protect a group of islanders who believe they are being hunted by a vampire-like creature in this intriguing well-made chiller by producer Val Lewton.

THE TERROR (1963) – Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe –  An aging Karloff stars opposite a young Jack Nicholson in this haunted house tale, reportedly shot by director Roger Corman in four days.

BLACK SABBATH (1963) – Gorca – Karloff is at his scary best in this horror anthology by Mario Bava.  Karloff appears as a “Wurdalak” or vampire, and he’s downright frightening.  This is the only time Karloff ever played a vampire in the movies.

So, there you have it, just a few of Boris Karloff’s more memorable horror movie roles. To celebrate his birthday, you can’t go wrong watching these or any of Karloff’s 205 screen credits, for that matter.

Happy Birthday, Boris!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964)

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tomb of ligeia - posterThis is a reprint of a column that originally ran in the October 2007 issue of The HWA Newsletter, on the Vincent Price movie THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). It’s reprinted in the current October 2015 issue of the HWA Newsletter as well as here.  And don’t forget:  if you like this column, you can read 115 more in my IN THE SPOOKLIGHT collection, available both as an EBook (www.neconebooks.com)  and in a print-on-demand edition (https://www.createspace.com/4293038.).

Enjoy!

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

I prefer horror to be an emotional experience, which is why, sometimes Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations don’t work for me.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964), starring Vincent Price, Corman’s eighth and final Poe adaptation, is a perfect example.

Technically, the film is flawless.  It’s arguably Corman’s best job at the helm.  The film looks phenomenal, there’s great use of locations, and the camera work is extremely stylish.  For these reasons alone watching THE TOMB OF LIGEIA can be as rewarding and mouthwatering as reading a good novel.  Your intelligence won’t be let down.

It also has a decent screenplay by Robert Towne, which lives up to its source material.

However, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA has never been one of my favorites because as it plays out, it’s as cold as a corpse with about as much life (unless of course you’re talking vampire and zombies, which get around rather well, but there ain’t no vampires or zombies here!).  Perhaps this is on purpose, and perhaps it’s just another sign of Corman’s genius.  Could be.  But for me, the fact remains that as I watch THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, and as I recognize while watching that “hmm, this movie is extremely well made,” I also realize I’m not emotionally invested in the characters or the situations.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA tells the story of Verden Fell (Vincent Price) who’s— what else?— brooding over the death of his wife, Ligeia.  When a new woman, the Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd, in a dual role, as she also appears as Ligeia) expresses interest in Verden, the ghost of Ligeia takes offense, setting off the usual, standard ghostly shenanigans.  We learn that Verden isn’t mourning his deceased wife— he’s afraid of her, afraid that she’s not really dead.  Turns out Ligeia was a bold, energetic woman who had asserted she would never die, and she definitely got inside Verden’s head.

It’s this part of the film that works best for me.  Is Ligeia really a ghost?   Or is it Verden?  So mind-washed by his deceased wife that he himself is causing the mayhem?  On this level, the film works well.

And the performances by the two leads are terrific.  Price stands out as Verden.  His look, with the dark brown hair and dark glasses, to shield his ultra-sensitive eyes from the light, is unique to this movie.  Price moves through this role effortlessly, as if he could do it in his sleep.  Elizabeth Shepherd is just as good as The Lady Rowena.  Her portrayal of Rowena as a strong woman who is not intimidated by evil spirits is refreshing.  Tomb-of-Ligeia-Price

But THE TOMB OF LIGEIA fails to connect on an emotional level.  Price’s Verden isn’t that likeable, and while Shepherd’s Lady Rowena is, she’s not a central enough character to carry the movie on her own.  I don’t really care about these characters, and as a result, I don’t care all that much about what happens to them, which makes for a lackluster movie viewing experience.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA is a mixed bag, which for Halloween, is OK.  In a trick or treat bag, chances are you’ll get candy you’re not crazy about along with your favorites, but still, it’s candy, and you’re not going to throw it away.  Likewise, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA is a stylish, almost beautiful horror movie that is pleasing to the eye and to the intellect, but not so attractive to the heart.  For those of us who tell tales, the heart can be the difference maker.  Still, it’s Corman, it’s Price, it’s Poe, it’s candy.

It’s Halloween.  Eat up.

(October 2007)