Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff!


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.


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.


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.


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 Arruda

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi exchange barbs throughout THE BLACK CAT (1934).

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi exchange barbs throughout THE BLACK CAT (1934).



Welcome to the latest edition of MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES, the column where we look at great quotes from even greater horror movies.  Up today is one of my favorite horror movies from the 1930s, Universal’s THE BLACK CAT (1934), starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

THE BLACK CAT, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe tale, was the first time Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi starred together in the same movie.  It united these two horror icons when they were both at the height of their careers, and so this film is full of fine moments from both these actors.

As such, THE BLACK CAT is packed with memorable lines.  Here’s a look at some of these quotes from THE BLACK CAT, screenplay by Peter Ruric:

Early on, Bela Lugosi gets most of the screen time and dominates the first third of this movie, a tale in which he and Karloff play adversaries.  Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Verdegast, a man who returns to his native country after a fifteen year confinement in a military prison to seek vengeance against his former commander, the brilliant Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), who according to Verdegast not only abandoned his troops but also took away Verdegast’s wife and daughter.

But why take my word for it?  Let Lugosi explain his story himself, as he says to the young American couple Peter Allison (David Manners) and his wife Joan (Julie Bishop) who are vacationing in Hungary:

VERDEGAST: Have you ever heard of Kurgaal? It is a prison below Omsk. Many men have gone there. Few have returned. I have returned. After fifteen yearsI have returned.

I’ve written about this before, but you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Lugosi deliver lines in a movie.  There is something so poetic about the way Lugosi speaks.  Part of it is his accent, of course, but the other part is that early on Lugosi didn’t know a lot of English and he had to learn all his lines phonetically, which contributed greatly to his signature speaking style.

Even after Karloff enters the film, when Verdegast and Poelzig finally meet, Lugosi continues to dominate, and continues to get most of the lines.  It’s almost as if director Ulmer was taking full advantage of their famous movie roles, Lugosi as Dracula, who mesmerized his victims with his language, and Karloff as the Frankenstein monster, who hardly said a word and was mute in two of the three Frankenstein films in which Karloff played him.

Lugosi speaks, Karloff listens, as in this scene where Lugosi’s Verdegast lambastes Karloff’s Poelzig for his past actions:

VERDEGAST: You sold Marmorus to the Russians. You scurried away in the night and left us to die. Is it to be wondered that you should choose this place to build your house? A masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction – a masterpiece of murder.

And of course Poelzig’s house is a masterpiece of construction because he’s a genius architect and has built a futuristic home which includes sliding doors, radio and television monitors, and all sorts of other goodies that were ahead of their time.

There’s also a good deal of humor in THE BLACK CAT, as in this scene where Peter Allison tries to dismiss what’s going on as hogwash, but Verdegast won’t let him:

PETER:  I don’t know.  It all sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me!

VERDEGAST:  Superstition, perhaps.  Baloney, perhaps not.

In fact, David Manners, who played Peter Allison, usually stuck in overdramatic romantic lead roles, actually gets to show his acting chops in this one and is able to display some humor of his own, as in this scene where he reacts to Verdegast’s comments about Poelzig.

PETER (talking about Poelzig):  If I wanted to build a nice, cozy, unpretentious insane asylum, he’d be the man for it.

As the film goes on, Karloff’s Poelzig begins to assert his dominance and wrests control of the movie from Lugosi’s Verdegast.  As such, while he had been quiet early on, later Karloff becomes the one with the memorable lines, as in this scene where he challenges Verdegast to a deadly game of chess, with the wager being Joan’s soul.

POELZIG:  Come, Vitus. Are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmaros 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?  And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsting for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like.

And as they approach a chess board, the light bulb goes off in Poelzig’s head.

POELZIG: Do you dare play chess with me for her?

VERDEGAST:  Yes. I will even play you chess for her. Provided if I win, they are free to go.

POELZIG:  You won’t win, Vitus.

That last line is expressed with so much confidence that in spite of everything Lugosi has done in this film, there’s no way you can envision him outdueling Karloff at this point.

This scene leads to my favorite line in the entire film.  As Poelzig and Verdegast play chess, Peter’s frustrations grow as he’s trying to get his wife away from the house, and his efforts continue to be thwarted.  The only car is not working, and so Poelzig tells Peter that he’s welcome to use the phone to call for a ride.  Peter does, and to his chagrin, finds that the phone is dead, which with great exasperation is what he tells Poelzig, information that seems to cause the evil architect much delight.

Poelzig turns to Verdegast and nearly sings the following lines with glee:

POELZIG:  The phone is dead.  Do you hear that, Vitus?  Even the phone is dead!


That last line, “even the phone is dead,’ nails the truth behind everything that has been occurring in Poelzig’s home:  the house is the embodiment of death.  Everything within, even the inanimate objects, are soaked in death, and no one who goes there leaves alive, which might explain Poelzig’s motives for practicing Satanism.  It’s his way of conquering death.

I said earlier that this movie was loosely based on Poe’s THE BLACK CAT, and really, the only connection is the title itself, which both stories share.  Other than this, they pretty much have nothing in common.  This film is only called THE BLACK CAT because Verdegast suffers from a fear of cats, which is revealed when he recoils at the sight of a cat inside Poelzig’s home.  Peter is shocked at this reaction, and Poelzig offers this explanation, seeming ecstatic that his adversary is afflicted with this weakness.

POELZIG:  You must be indulgent of Dr. Verdegast’s weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.


We’ll let Lugosi get the last word.  At the end of the movie, Verdegast and Poelzig confront each other, and after a scuffle, it’s Verdegast who comes out on top.  He binds Poelzig and prepares to torture him:

VERDEGAST:  The murderer of 10,000 men returns to the place of his crime. Those who died were fortunate. I was taken prisoner to Kurgaal. Kurgaal, where the soul is killed, slowly.

Fifteen years I’ve rotted in the darkness… waiting. Not to kill you, but to kill your soul – slowly.

THE BLACK CAT is a phenomenal horror movie, one that no horror fan or horror film scholar should miss.  I hope you enjoyed these memorable quotes from this classic movie, THE BLACK CAT.

See you again next time.

Thanks for reading!




the black cat posterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi masterpiece THE BLACK CAT (1934), up now in the January 2015 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.







THE BLACK CAT (1934) is my favorite teaming of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.  It’s also the first time these two horror stars appeared together in a movie.

THE BLACK CAT was made when both Karloff and Lugosi were at the height of their popularity, each coming off the success of their first horror hit, Lugosi with DRACULA (1931) and Karloff with FRANKENSTEIN (1931).  Audiences definitely responded, as this was Universal’s biggest money maker at the box office in 1934.

Since the two play adversaries in THE BLACK CAT, it’s very easy to see this movie as Dracula vs. Frankenstein.  This concept wasn’t lost on director Edgar G. Ulmer, as he takes full advantage of these two actors’ famous monster counterparts.  Lugosi gets to spout haunting dialogue throughout, a la Dracula.  When Karloff is introduced, it’s through a silhouette.  We see his solid physique which in shadow strongly resembles the Frankenstein Monster, and Karloff’s first few minutes of screen time are spent in silence, as if, like the Monster, he cannot speak.

In THE BLACK CAT, Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Bela Lugosi) returns to Hungary in search of his wife.  On his way there, he befriends two Americans on a train, author Peter Allison (David Manners) and his wife Joan (Jacqueline Wells) who for some reason are honeymooning in Hungary.  Whose idea was that?  When there is a car crash in a storm, and Joan is injured, Vitus brings the couple to the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), in order to treat her injuries.  Poelzig is the man Vitus has come to see, believing that his wife is now living in Poelzig’s home.

The two men have a history.  Poelzig was the commanding officer of the military unit in which Vitus served in World War I, and according to Vitus, Poelzig abandoned his men, leaving them to be killed or worse yet, captured, which is what happened to Vitus. After spending fifteen years in prison, Vitus has returned to claim his wife back from Poelzig.  Vitus demands Poelzig bring him to his wife, and he does, but his wife is dead, her body preserved in a glass case.

It turns out, Poelzig is a Satanist, and he has set his sights on Joan as his latest sacrificial victim, unless Vitus can stop him.

THE BLACK CAT is one of the more interesting Universal horror movies of the 1930s.  It has many things going for it.  It has Karloff and Lugosi of course, and it also has an amazingly talented director at the helm, Edgar G. Ulmer, who does a phenomenal job with this movie.

Ulmer offers a lot of neat touches.  There’s some nifty camerawork, offering creative transitions from scene to scene.  Ulmer also made the unusual decision to include background music in nearly the entire film.  Most films during this time period employed very little music other than during the opening and closing credits.  Nearly all of THE BLACK CAT has music playing in the background.

It’s a compact little film.  At 65 minutes, things move briskly and efficiently.  There’s no time to daydream.

The screenplay by Peter Ruric tells a haunting story which was quite gruesome for its day.  Karloff’s Poelzig keeps women—evidently his dead wives— preserved in glass cases in his own personal museum— talk about trophy wives!  He most likely killed all these women, making him one of the earliest movie serial killers.

There’s also a very gruesome “skinning alive” scene that still makes me squirm each time I see it.

Poelzig’s ultra-modern house is incredibly cool.  It has a modern design because Poelzig is supposedly his country’s most talented architect.  The house is unlike anything else seen in the Universal monster movies.  Usually the events in these movies take place in decrepit castles and laboratories, but here, we have revolving rooms, slick sliding doors, communication systems, and interior architecture which resembles something you’d find on STAR TREK.

Although the title THE BLACK CAT comes from the Edgar Allan Poe short story, the film has nothing at all to do with Poe’s tale.  In fact, the only connection to the events in the movie and the black cat is that Vitus suffers from an intense fear of cats.

By far, the best part of THE BLACK CAT is Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Lugosi is on top of his game throughout, and he gets to deliver one memorable line after another.  For me, it’s always a treat listening to Lugosi speak in a movie, as his voice and his accent have a poetic quality about them that make his dialogue all the better, and he’s got some classic lines in this movie.

When speaking of Poelzig’s home, which was built on a massive battlefield graveyard, Vitus says, “The masterpiece of construction, built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction.”

Karloff’s got some great lines as well.  My favorite is when Peter Allison barks at him that the phone is dead, Poelzig turns to Vitus and says, “The phone is dead.  Do you hear that, Vitus?  Even the phone is dead!”

So, you have Lugosi strutting his stuff throughout, displaying all the skills which he used to create Dracula, and you think, there’s no way anyone in this film can be better, but then you get to Karloff, whose style is the antithesis of Lugosi’s.  While Lugosi is commanding and authoritative, and all about the dialogue which he uses to great dramatic effect, Karloff is the opposite, seeming so relaxed and subtle.  With Karloff, it’s a nuanced expression, the raising of an eyebrow, the clenching of a hand.  He incites fear in his audience so effortlessly it’s amazing.  His is a different style, and he not only holds his own against Lugosi, he surpasses him.  The interactions of these two actors in this movie is a nice microcosm of how their careers played out in real life, with Karloff continuing to grow stronger over the years on his way to becoming the “King of Horror.”

There’s just a relaxed glee about Karloff, like when he comments on Lugosi’s fear of cats, lines he delivers with a devilish smile:  “You must be indulgent of Dr. Verdegast’s weakness.  He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form.  He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.”

Even David Manners, who’s usually the straight—and dull— leading man in such films as DRACULA and THE MUMMY (1932)— gets to display an edge here not always seen in his other roles.

Not only is THE BLACK CAT one of Universal’s best horror movies and the best of the Karloff/Lugosi pairings, it’s also one of the finest horror movies ever made, period.

Looking for a winter vacation destination?  Check out Hjalmar Poelzig’s place.  I’m not sure how the skiing is, but I hear the skinning is just fine.  Ouch!