English actor William Henry Pratt had been in over 70 films (!) between 1919 and 1930 without ever playing a starring role. Already in his mid-40s, one might assume fame and name recognition would never come to him…that is, until he was spotted in the Universal commissary by director James Whale. Pratt’s distinctive look (owing to East Indian ancestry way back) was exactly what Whale was looking for in a pivotal character from a new horror movie he was making. That alone might not have made Pratt a household name; luckily, he had a very evocative stage name that would be one of the marquis names in the genre: Boris Karloff.
I love me some Boris Karloff, because, like all the Icons of Horror I’m looking at this month, he lends a great deal of gravitas to every role. He’s able to play a varying type of character, from hulking brutes to erudite scientists. Karloff ended up making over 200 films in his 50-year career and many of them are among the best horror films ever made.
As I did with the Peter Cushing list, before we get into my 7 favorite Karloff horror movies, the ground rules: If he played the same character multiple times, I only included one of the films. Since these icons frequently appeared in movies together, I’m only going to include a movie once, so if you don’t see your favorite Karloff performance here, I might be including it on a list of some other Icon.
With that in mind, let us begin.
7) Corridors of Blood (1958)
Once Karloff got into his later years, he stopped playing monsters, but it didn’t mean he stopped playing villains. In one of several movies Karloff made that dealt with Victorian-era surgery and grave robbery (I guess it was a thing), here he plays a surgeon who desperately wants to make procedures less painful to the patients, experimenting with anesthesia. When one of his patients wakes up during a demonstration before a group of peers, Karloff is ruined and becomes addicted to huffing the gas himself. It’s bad news. In order to make ends meet, he becomes involved with a pair of grave robbers (one of whom is a very sinister Christopher Lee) and begins resorting to murder. This is a pretty low-budget affair, but Karloff is really dynamite in it, playing the torture inherent in the doctor truly wanting to do good but having to perform such evil deeds. Find this one if you can, it’s worth it.
6) The Raven (1963)
While in his ’70s, Karloff couldn’t stand or walk as much as he used to, but that didn’t stop him from turning in some excellent performances. (His wheelchair-bound portrayal in Die, Monster, Die! is the best thing about that movie, for example.) He was used perfectly as the evil Doctor Scarabus in this movie, Roger Corman’s fifth of eight Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, this one turned entirely into a comedy. The hero of the film is Vincent Price as a jovial magician who falls in with a raven who turns out to be another magician (Peter Lorre) cursed by Scarabus. Karloff doesn’t get to partake too much in the comedic bits, but he’s clearly having a good time being completely wicked, and getting to canoodle with Hazel Court. The magician’s duel at the end is a really great show of Karloff’s abilities.
5) The Mummy (1932)
This is hands down one of Universal’s classic horror films. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s entirely because of Karloff, because otherwise, this movie is super boring. The iconic shot of Karloff’s mummy waking up at the beginning is terrifying, but it lasts all of 90 seconds and for the rest of the film, Karloff plays the rejuvenated Ardeth Bey, attempting to do an incantation that will make his long lost love return in the body of a 1930s girl. It’s a lot of people talking in rooms. That said, Karloff is terrific in one of his first films where we get to really hear that excellent voice of his, and stare into those menacing eyes (pictured above).
4) The Body Snatcher (1945)
This is another, earlier example of the Victorian grave robbery movie, except in this one Karloff gets to play the titular Body Snatcher along with his partner, a supremely sad-sacky Bela Lugosi. They’re hired, not unlike Burke & Hare, to rob graves to facilitate medical research for two young doctors. However, the more graves that are robbed, the more security and police are hanging out around cemeteries, so, uh oh, Karloff decides he probably better start killing people. He’s a true villain in this movie, getting to play an outwardly friendly Cockney chap who is also incredibly menacing, one of my favorite combinations for a bad guy. This is also a movie where Karloff is able to be menacing even after his character dies, with his body being used as a reminder of the doctor’s guilt, and his voice taunting his mind. A really creepy and great movie from the post-Universal days.
3) The Old Dark House (1932)
This is a movie that for some reason you can’t find as readily as some of the others. It’s certainly an oddity, being both a horror film and a rather risque Pre-Code comedy. James Whale directed and it’s got a supremely stellar cast of actors from both genres, including Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, and Ernest Thesiger. Karloff plays Morgan, the alcoholic mute butler of the family who owns the titular house. When two pairs of couples intrude upon the Gothic manor on a very stormy night, nobody’s particularly happy about it, least of all Morgan who gets drunk and threatens people before unlocking the room in which the family’s psychotic pyromaniac brother is held. Things go nutso, it has to be said. Karloff got top billing in the film, owing to his previous collaboration with Whale, and he’s, go figure, especially great.
I was unable to find a theatrical trailer, but below is an excerpt from the film so you can get the idea of the tone, and Karloff’s great worldless performance.
2) Black Sabbath (1963)
In the same year that he was acting in Poe for Corman, Karloff flew to Italy to star in a film for up-and-coming Italian horror maestro, Mario Bava. Following the success of his film Black Sunday, the American distribution company, AIP, wanted another one, and wanted to put one of their contract stars in the lead role. That meant Karloff, but it certainly wasn’t another somber witchcraft affair. It was a portmanteau of three different, unrelated stories, with Karloff acting as host as well as the lead in the third story. The first story is about a woman receiving threatening phone calls; the third story is about a woman who steals a ring from an old dead woman and finds herself haunted by the hideous spectre. Karloff stars in the second story, “The Wurdulak,” which takes place in 19th Century Russia where a vampire-like beast is stalking the countryside. The aging patriarch of a farm family goes to slay it and returns claiming to have done so, however it soon becomes apparently that he is being turned into the Wurdulak. Karloff’s performance is really chilling, really embodying the evil growing inside a once-beloved and kindly family member. The Italian cut of the film ends with Karloff on horseback only for the camera to pull away and reveal it just on a soundstage, with someone operating the fake horse, and stage hands dancing around with branches.
1) Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
And, of course I end with this one! I contend there wouldn’t be a Universal Horror cycle, nor would there be a lot of horror movies as we know them today, were it not for James Whale’s two Frankenstein movies starring Karloff as the creature. It’s beyond iconic at this point. It IS what people think of as the character. Karloff played the Creature in three films – Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) – and while I love all of them, and actually think the first film is more entertaining, I chose the second one because Karloff’s creature gets to truly be both sympathetic and frightening. After Dr. Frankenstein’s work is *ahem* resurrected by the fiendish and uber-camp Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), the creature learns how to speak and begins to realize how hated he is, and how lonely. He demands Frankenstein and Pretorius make him a mate, which they do (played by Elsa Lanchester), but she wants nothing to do with the creature. It’s very sad, and by the end, the Creature gets to be the hero, an outcast destroying other outcasts. One of Karloff’s best scenes is when he becomes friends with a blind man living in a cabin in the woods, who teaches him some speech and gives him alcohol and cigars. It’s a scene that was hilariously parodied in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein but which resonates unironically today.
And there you have it! Surely I missed some of your favorites, so please let me know your thoughts and favorite Karloff movies in the comments below!
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!