Tribute Letter from Tom
I don't know who I am addressing with this email,
but I hope it is Sara Karloff.
I have long wanted to tell someone who would care, just how much Boris
Karloff's work--and Boris Karloff himself--have meant to me, a lifelong
movie fan. It is hard to overstate the richness of his work to someone
who grew up with a lot of imagination and not too many ways in life
to let that imagination harmlessly "run wild".
It has been said that horror movies are our culture's ritualistic way
of releasing--even being entertained by--our deepest fears of the unknown.
When these movies are made by genuine creative artists who value their
work enough to put their best efforts into it, they can teach us things
about ourselves and our world.
I think Boris Karloff is in the first rank of these artists. From his
first major work in the genre, "Frankenstein", to his last
American film, "Targets", he created memorable characters
of depth and authenticity. In between those films, whether he had the
support of good scripts and directors or not, he lent class, distinction,
and great talent to every role he played.
I was growing up and discovering horror movies during the last, very
active decade of Boris Karloff's career, and, thanks to television,
was able to see the work he'd done previous to that. While I was wonderfully
entertained by the demonic style of Bela Lugosi and the rich theatricality
of Vincent Price, I felt then, as I do now, that Boris Karloff was in
a class by himself--and remains so.
He knew how to touch us with pathos and humanity in his role as the
Frankenstein monster, how to create a frighteningly sinister character
like Hjalmar Poelzig in "The Black Cat" (1934), or how just
to be quietly effective in a strange role such as in "The Walking
Dead" (also '34). His non-horror roles showed this same versatility,
and later he would combine great character acting with his unique sinister
persuasion in Val Lewton's "The Body Snatcher" (1946). Also,
I loved his good-natured spoofing of the horror genre with his roles
in Roger Corman's "The Raven" and "A Comedy of Terrors".
Beyond the obvious and rich talent he displayed, I think Boris Karloff
had respect for his work and for the genre in which he was more or less
typecast. I recall interviews in which he spoke disparagingly of films
in that genre that went for the cheap blood-and-guts scare, preferring
to work in roles and films that had something more than just shock to
It was that discernment, that respect for his own work, that for me
puts him even today at the top of the list. A kid's fascination with
this kind of imaginative film can either be rewarded with the richness
of great work or be exposed to cheap violence and special effects that
insult his intelligence and starve the very imagination they are supposed
to nourish. It is a lasting tribute to Boris Karloff that his work was
(and is) of the highest quality, and it's one of the reasons he is still
popular today. I know kids in their teens who scoff at some of the high-tech
horrors shown in some contemporary movies, but who are delighted, even
awed, when they see Karloff in any of his best roles.
And it is pretty obvious that this work came from a man of depth, intelligence,
kindness, sensitivity, and of course humor. All I've read about Boris
Karloff confirms this, and more. I like to think that his role of Byron
Orlok in the cult film "Targets" (1969) had elements of him
in it, including his heroic and insightful actions at the end.
In the film, a young man goes quietly insane and begins sniping people
with a high-powered rifle, eventually holing up behind the screen at
a drive-in (Remember those?) where Byron Orlok is making his final pre-retirement
appearance. He is leaving films because he feels he is an "anachronism",
out of place in a world where the real violence is far more horrifying
than anything he could portray on the screen.
When Orlok arrives at the drive-in, the shooting has already begun,
and as the sniper wounds his young assistant, Orlok spots him in the
shadows and goes after him alone, an elderly man with a cane against
a young killer, while his onscreen character at that moment seems to
be coming at the sniper from the other direction. He is grazed by one
shot from the sniper's gun but knocks it away with his cane and slaps
the young man into tears and submission.
Afterward, he stands looking down at the young man with a perfect expression
of contempt and outrage, and quietly asks: "Is that what I was
In a way, Boris Karloff today stands for the kind of quality and talent
that can look downward at a lot of inferior, albeit very expensive,
movies in the horror genre and ask if this is what WE are afraid of.
I hope most of us just dismiss them with the contempt they deserve,
and turn instead to work of real quality and excellence.
That would be the work of Boris Karloff.