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 offer.
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 afraid of?”
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.