Silver Screen Standards: Boris Karloff

Silver Screen Standards: Boris Karloff

It was an early afternoon in June as I trooped along from Edinburgh’s Royal Mile near George IV Bridge with my family in tow. We were headed for Greyfriars Kirkyard to poke around the tombs until our tour time at Edinburgh Castle, and the old city heaved with tourists from around the globe, all jostling for selfies with the statue of Greyfriars Bobby and gawking at the inevitable bagpipers kitted out in full Highland garb and blasting “Loch Lomond” for spare change. I was winded, hungry, and rather out of sorts after the long uphill climb from Princes Street, which my knees very much resented, when I looked up and found myself staring into the enormous face of Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein! I laughed out loud. Boris Karloff had been haunting me through our whole UK trip, and now here we were, face to face, at the entrance to a pub called Frankenstein.

Boris Karloff is a quintessential name in classic horror, leaving one to wonder if William Henry Pratt would have been so successful had he not adopted the ominous Continental pseudonym. He was born in Camberwell, now part of South London, in 1887, the youngest of nine children. He left England for Canada and then Hollywood, but he returned to his native country late in life and died there in 1969. His most famous role, that of the nameless creature in Frankenstein (1931), doesn’t particularly connect him with England or make use of his rich, distinctly British voice, but it wasn’t only Frankenstein that kept Karloff on my mind as I toured London, York, and Edinburgh over a ten-day trip.

Boris Karloff and Anna Lee in Bedlam (1946)
In Bedlam, Karloff’s evil keeper terrorizes the inmates of the notorious 18th century London mental asylum.

In London, I thought of Karloff as the club-footed henchman to Basil Rathbone’s Richard III in Tower of London (1939) and as the keeper of the infamous madhouse in Bedlam (1946). We toured the west side of Highgate Cemetery, where the guide’s lecture on Victorian cemetery security measures put me in mind of Corridors of Blood (1958), in which Karloff’s London physician gets mixed up with cadaver trader and murderer Resurrection Joe, played to menacing effect by Christopher Lee. Highgate is a mecca for classic horror fans, having appeared as a location in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), and Tales from the Crypt (1972), among others. If it doesn’t set your imagination swirling with images of horror icons nothing will. As I stood in a dark crypt surrounded by moldering coffins I could almost hear Karloff, in the slow rumble of Frankenstein’s creature in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), insisting “We belong dead.” It sent a shiver up my spine.

Boris Karloff Corridors of Blood (1958) Movie Poster
In Corridors of Blood, Karloff plays a pioneering surgeon in Victorian London whose pursuit of medical innovation leads to addiction and murder.

The rest of our journey continued the Gothic mood as history and horror entwined at every stop. York has its own connections to Richard III, of course, but a ghost bus tour on a rainy night prompted thoughts of The Old Dark House (1932) and The Ghoul (1933) and a visit to a castle prison helped to keep Tower of London and Bedlam stirring in my thoughts while adding The Strange Door (1951) into the mix. We stayed in a 17th-century convent where we peered down into the gloomy confines of a priest hole in the chapel, but we didn’t get a glimpse of their most prized possession, the severed hand of the Catholic martyr Margaret Clitherow, whose execution by pressing was as gruesome as any horror film could devise. It was just the sort of thing that Mord, Karloff’s character in Tower of London, would have enjoyed inflicting on his victims in Richard’s dungeon.

Boris Karloff in The Body Snatcher (1945)
Karloff stars as the grave robber John Gray in The Body Snatcher, which is set in Edinburgh and inspired by the crimes of real-life resurrection men Burke and Hare.

By the time we reached Edinburgh, I had a head full of cemeteries, monsters, and murder, which is probably the perfect attitude in which to tour a city so famous for dark deeds. No wonder the Frankenstein pub is situated there! We got a thorough review of Edinburgh’s history of horrors at the Edinburgh Dungeon, where a segment of the tour is devoted to the infamous grave robbers Burke & Hare, along with their accomplice Dr. Knox. That, of course, reminded me of Karloff’s role in the 1945 film, The Body Snatcher, adapted from a short story by Edinburgh’s own Robert Louis Stevenson and directly inspired by the notorious grave robbers. It was the perfect conclusion to a trip where Karloff’s presence had constantly haunted me.

The persistence with which Karloff recurred in my thoughts during our journey reminded me how essential he is to our sense of classic horror. Whatever he plays, whether henchman or monster or tormented gentleman, Karloff always excels, and he looks equally at home in medieval torture chambers and gaslit Victorian alleys. Imagine Universal or Val Lewton or even Roger Corman without his talents. Frankenstein (1931) made him famous, but The Mummy (1932) showed his uncanny ability to mesmerize the audience with his rich voice and dark, piercing gaze. Lewton was very good at giving Karloff later roles that made the most of his tremendous screen presence, especially in The Body Snatcher and Bedlam, while Corman gave him the chance to show his comedic side in the last years of his career, particularly in The Comedy of Terrors (1963).

When he died, Karloff was cremated, and his ashes were deposited at Guildford Crematorium in Surrey, but you don’t need to visit Guildford to feel close to him. Any shadowy cemetery crypt or foggy cobblestone street can conjure him, especially in the history haunted settings of his native country. Frankenstein’s monster might be long dead, but Boris Karloff lives on, not just in his roles but in the delicious, dreadful thrill of familiarity we feel when we find ourselves in places where horror films and history overlap.

–Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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One Response to Silver Screen Standards: Boris Karloff

  1. Joel "Woody" Woodrum says:

    Enjoyed the story. I have always loved Karloff.

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