So many horror icons were actually, kindly genteel men. Karloff was truly a perfect example. He was the Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy, the Fu Manchu (for better or worse), and the Grinch. Everyone should already be a fan and their appreciation will increase after watching Thomas Hamilton’s Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster, which opens this Friday in theaters (just the way Karloff’s films used to).
For many fans, Karloff’s life starts with Frankenstein in 1931. Naturally, that is where the film starts, but Hamilton does a nice job rewinding to cover his early years as a contract character actor and his British-Indian family’s origins and the discrimination they faced after emigrating to the UK. A good deal of time is dedicated to his silent period, including The Bells, arguably his first horror film.
Naturally, the Universal horror movies get a great deal of attention and despite its awkwardness, The Mask of Fu Manchu gets a long analysis and even a bit of a guilty, shrugging defense, for being so over-the-top lurid, in a pre-Code way. There is also plenty of time devoted to the Roger Corman-produced movies he appeared in, especially The Terror (which in true Corman fashion, had no screenplay, but incomprehensibly re-purposed some extra footage he filmed with Karloff) and Targets (Peter Bogdanovich’s contemplation of the horror of the UT Tower shooting, as seen through the eyes of an aging horror star, very much like Karloff).
Hamilton and company also nicely cover Karloff’s Broadway stint in Arsenic and Old Lace, as well as his extensive TV work, including a TV remake of Arsenic and of course, The Grinch. They cover most of his career highlights, including his classic Val Lewton horror movies and Thriller, which some critics still consider the best horror anthology ever. Even The Black Room, the best of his Columbia releases, gets its just credit.
Arguably, the only real omission would be his James Lee Wong mysteries, which have been somewhat unfairly dismissed as “yellowface,” given Karloff’s own South Asian heritage. More importantly, Wong is far and away the smartest and most dignified figure in these films, while the white cops are basically moronic thugs. (Maybe there will be a fuller defense of the series here sometime in the future.)
Behind the Monsters gives viewers a nice sense of the man himself, thanks in large measure to the enthusiastic participation of his daughter Sara Karloff. The film also includes reminiscences and commentary from Bogdanovich, Corman, Guillermo del Toro, the great Dick Miller (who co-starred in The Terror), Stefanie Powers (who appeared with Karloff in an episode of Girl from U.N.C.L.E.), Joe Dante, and John Landis.
Hamilton nicely surveys Karloff’s work for both film and television and offers insights into the man himself. You know it was a rich body of work when a major film like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is dismissed as an after-thought. Hamilton’s approach is pretty straightforward and conventional, but the vintage Karloff clips provide more than enough spectacle and character. He had the good sense to just get out of their way and let Karloff shine through. Affectionately recommended for admirers of Karloff and any of his films, Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster opens this Friday (9/17) in New York, at the Quad.