Here’s fun: a Boris Karloff-focused addition to my ongoing corpus of Fantasy Noir! (Previous entries can be found here and here.) To keep things interesting, I’ve written on five atypical Karloff films. So there’s a Universal horror that doesn’t feature Frankenstein’s Monster or the Mummy; two Val Lewton pictures that aren’t called The Body Snatcher (great masterpiece that it is). There’s also a performance of the sixties that’s seldom discussed (it’s usually Targets that gets the attention); and a pre-stardom performance of the twenties that’s often forgotten entirely.
Something that strikes me about these films is that they all have exalted sources: some theatrical (Shakespeare’s Histories, Sir Henry Irving’s legendary star vehicle), some artistic (an etching by Hogarth, a painting by Bocklin), some literary (Edgar Allan Poe). I’ll be thinking about how Karloff’s relation to these sources illuminates his contribution to each film.
THE BELLS (dir. James Young, 1926)
Sir Henry Irving was the horror star of the Victorian theatre. In his residency at the Lyceum, he gave new life to such immortal nasties as Louis XI, Richard III, Iago, Macbeth and Mephistopheles. Yet Irving’s most celebrated villain was his first: Mathias in The Bells. Lionel Barrymore takes Mathias here, and gives a blissfully unaffected performance, worlds removed from his stooping and grimacing schtick in Mark of the Vampire (1935). Meanwhile, Karloff’s destiny is hinted at, dimly, in his role as the Mesmerist. The character offers glimmers of later Karloff performances. The Mesmerist’s grin resembles that of Cabman Gray in The Body Snatcher (1945): an intrusive, skin-crawling leer, injecting Karloff’s dour visage with perverse energy. Having Karloff practice hypnosis also points the way to such films as The Mummy (1932), Black Friday (1940) and The Climax (1944). On the whole, though, the Mesmerist illustrates what Karloff feared his role in Frankenstein (1931) would become: a human prop. There are few actors better suited to this reduction than Karloff – such was his organic appeal – but it can hardly have been satisfying for the actor. The Bells ultimately makes for flat cinema. Paradoxically, the special effects scenes with the ghost make The Bells seem more old-fashioned, bringing to mind George Melies trick films and early versions of A Christmas Carol. There’s also a courtroom-bound dream sequence, reminiscent of Stranger on the 3rd Floor (1940) but with none of the later film’s visual flair. The interest of The Bells is as a historical crossroads. It reflects the shadow that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) cast on the American cinema: Werner Krauss’s image is dusted off for Karloff’s dark hat and cloak, round spectacles and straggly sideburns. But the film also looks to the horror boom of the early thirties, and particularly its Karloff-centric progress at Universal. The Bells anticipates the pastoral idyll of Universal’s European village, with its gingerbread houses, frolicking peasant girls and stony-faced gendarmes. One wonders if James Whale drew on his theatre background, and studied The Bells before directing Frankenstein.
TOWER OF LONDON (dir. Rowland V. Lee, 1939)
Tower of London sheds light on a distinctive quality of Universal’s horror films: the sympathetic monster. Karloff here plays Mord, formidable chief executioner. Yet Mord emerges as sympathetic – he has nothing on Basil Rathbone’s Richard III, a wholly heartless monster. This is clearest in the sequence in which Rathbone plots the murder of the Princes in the Tower. Rathbone’s coldness and premeditation is chilling, as he decides how best to destroy Queen Elizabeth: ‘But I can crush her spirit for all time; take the young princes to the Bloody Tower…’ The only previous child killing (then as now, a great taboo) in the Universal canon had been the Monster’s drowning of Little Maria in Frankenstein. Thanks to Karloff’s human touch, this emerged as the blithe mistake of an innocent. Tower of London is more brutal. There’s a memorably absurd touch when Karloff enters the bed-chamber, gingerly picking up his club foot to prevent a noise. But it’s Karloff’s troubled, uncertain facial expressions that linger in the memory. Even Mord knows this is beyond the pale. This contrast between characters is the hidden treasure in this confused and confusing film. Karloff’s Mord is a cartoon villain, a baddie out of a serial. His appeal to Richard is comically sincere: ‘Your Highness, let me go with you. I’ve never killed in hot blood. It’ll be different, more exciting!’ Mord’s introduction in the torture chamber is like something out of Mel Brooks; Mord would have been perfect for the Inquisition number in History of the World: Part I (1981). Best of all is the scene in which a prisoner flops out of an iron maiden, Mord stepping over the body without batting an eye. Karloff is an outrageous figure throughout Tower of London; Rathbone is the real monster. This effect is aided by the fact that Richard III was, of course, a real figure – despite his propagandistic mangling by Shakespeare, Richard’s murder of the Princes remains a very real possibility. Mord, however, is entirely fictional. In one crucial sense, Tower of London is less biased than Shakespeare’s Histories. Richard III’s patina of deformity has been transferred to Mord: Karloff is physically distinguished by an outsize club foot and bald, beetle-browed visage, while Rathbone coasts by with a barely perceptible hunch. Tower of London is the unprecedented juncture at which Universal horror met real-world history. Its unconvincing recreation of medieval England – all California sunlight, muddled accents and pervasive cleanliness – is more than redeemed by its illumination of the horror cycle.
ISLE OF THE DEAD (dir. Mark Robson, 1945)
Isle of the Dead has a Conradian atmosphere. Karloff’s General Pherides recalls Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, particularly in his early scenes – a stoic man on the fields of battle, presiding over the dead and dying. Joseph Conrad was Karloff’s favourite author, so it’s likely the comparisons didn’t entirely escape him. Karloff’s performance sounds a note of deep, seemingly unending melancholy. It’s an effect comparable to his Ardath Bey in The Mummy, but with a more realistic grounding. Isle of the Dead as a whole has a shaded, textured quality – most impressive given its stagebound nature and limited budget. A viewer can imagine innumerable horrors lurking in the shrubbery, just as in surveying Bocklin’s painting (or in reading Heart of Darkness). Less ideal is the density of the dialogue scenes: they seem never to stop, and don’t entirely negotiate the distinction between compelling obfuscation and directionless tedium. The viewing experience is much like staring into a dark and murky pool: atmospheric, but often frustrating. This extends to Karloff’s character, who is forced to jump from cold rationalism to prone belief in the supernatural. The best lesson that can be drawn from this is that any extremist position is dangerous: ‘Laws can be wrong and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are also wrong and cruel.’ Perhaps this theme simply isn’t dramatic enough for a forties horror film: Pherides pales besides Karloff’s full-blooded creations in The Body Snatcher and Bedlam (1946), two screenplays which hinge on a more simplistic clash between characters. The character is under-fleshed, so Karloff compensates by projecting an outsize melancholy (wonderfully complemented, it must be said, by Leigh Harline’s criminally overlooked musical score). In addition to Conrad, Isle of the Dead borrows from Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial’ for its ending. The film’s shaded expansiveness thus dwindles into claustrophobia. It’s this climax, the most purely frightening sequence in forties horror, that rescues Isle of the Dead at the eleventh hour.
BEDLAM (dir. Mark Robson, 1946)
Like Tower of London, Bedlam fits into the discreet subgenre of historical horror. It has some of the flaws of its forbear: Billy House, for example, plays Lord Mortimer with voluptuous zeal, but remains irrepressibly Yankee. Yet Bedlam has a heart and a soul that make it one of the most moving horrors of its time. Master George Sims, Apothecary General of Bedlam, ranks with Karloff’s most genuinely hateful characters. This is very appropriate; Sims adopts hatred as a personal creed, which breaks forth in some tremendous dialogue: ‘This was to show you that all those mawkish theories you learned from the Quaker are lies. Men are not brothers, men are not born good and kind. Even the mindless ones are savage and must be ruled with force … The others – yes, you can prove the little value of gentleness. But look at this man. Look at him and tell me that kind words and tender deeds can rule him. Look!’ The premature burial of Isle of the Dead is resurrected for Karloff’s fate, but twisted to include the brick wall of Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’. It’s a fitting send-off for one of his most vivid monsters. Not since his days at Universal had Karloff’s physical individuality been so lovingly (and grotesquely) underscored. His period wig gives a touch of foppish vanity, making Karloff’s close-cut grey hair seem scrubby and parched – less natural than the wig that covers it. Karloff’s bowed legs appear impossibly twisted in his black breeches and stockings and cane, causing his entire frame to crook forwards. Karloff also does much with his face, exploiting its natural doleful melancholy to great effect: there’s a sideways leer at Anna Lee, as he first guides her into Bedlam’s inner sanctum, which is unforgettably sinister. These picaresque details suit Sims’ role as performing monkey for the aristocracy. For fear is at the bottom of Sims’ cruelties, which gives rein to the old Karloff humanity: ‘I’ve had to fawn and toady and make a mock of myself till all I could hear was the world laughing at me!’ Bedlam is one of the best screenplays that Karloff ever worked with. His sparring matches with Anna Lee – his costar from the similarly intelligent The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936) – are a real joy. There’s every chance that they capture the spark that Karloff had with Julie Harris in The Lark on Broadway, for which he earned a Tony nomination.
THE RAVEN (dir. Roger Corman, 1963)
The Raven is AIP’s version of The Sword in the Stone. Specifically, the Walt Disney version. Both pictures feature a surly comedy bird, but their key similarity is one of tone: a gleefully campy vision of wizardry, which seemed only to exist in California in 1963. Karloff’s role as Dr Scarabus at least proves he had a sense of humour – although, by all accounts, he was rather perturbed by the non-stop ad-libbing from Peter Lorre. This may account for Karloff’s oddly stilted delivery, a heightened version of the sing-song ‘acting voice’ identified by his daughter Sara Karloff. At first, this seems likes fuel for the old argument that Karloff walked through vehicles for which he had no respect. Early-career Karloff had no qualms about overplaying the patently absurd, as testified by The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and The Invisible Ray (1936). Karloff’s performance may have more to do with fashioning a legend in one’s own lifetime. For better or for worse, late-career Karloff had only to turn up on set to fulfil his professional obligations. He had nothing left to prove, and had proven so much. Only one truly great performance lay on the horizon, in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968). And that was probably his only noteworthy film performance since the 1958 companion pieces Grip of the Strangler and Corridors of Blood. Happily, Karloff’s light touch works rather well in The Raven: he’s fawning, doddering, sincerely sarcastic, and altogether hilarious. The Raven is a slip-shod, patchwork film; hard to dislike, but unworthy of respect. It’s a film that returns to the viewer as a series of surreal ‘moments’: Peter Lorre summoning his Promethean magic, only to be transformed into ‘raspberry jam!’; Vincent Price mugging beneath a frilly umbrella, to incredibly camp underscoring; Jack Nicholson looking altogether lost with his more modern acting style. The Raven transports the viewer back to a simpler age, when wizardry was no longer regarded as diabolic but was yet to be claimed by Harry Potter. The wizard’s duel defies all explanation; connoisseurs of the weird should seek The Raven out on this basis alone.