It’s not Halloween without costumes and every year you see recreations of the classic monster from the movie Frankenstein. In 1931, Universal chief Carl Laemmle Jr, offered director James Whale his choice of any property the studio owned. He chose Frankenstein because nothing else they had really interested him and he didn’t want to make a war movie. Whale convinced a then unknown actor to take the part of the monster and movie history was made. While everyone recognizes the face, unlike the case with other movie monsters, everyone also knows the identity under it. The actor was, of course, Boris Karloff, whose real name was William Henry Pratt, a man who finally found fame without showing his face. He struggled under layers of makeup that took hours to apply and a costume that would tax a body builder, never mind a a man with chronic back trouble, which plagued Karloff for years. The bulky costume was a real weight, with the four-inch platform boots alone weighed 11 pounds (5.0 kg) each.
People seem unaware that Karloff had been a stage actor and in small parts in films long before Frankenstein. He had had parts in the early serials as early as 1918. But there is no doubt Karloff’s role as Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 movie is what made him a star and a household name. It was such a hit, Universal Studios, in a move prescient of much later marketing campaigns, quickly moved to acquire ownership of the copyright to the now iconic makeup for the monster Jack P Pierce had designed. Thus today we see the innumerable rubber masks at the door every October 31st demanding “trick or treat”.
The following year Karloff found himself once again under an enormous burden of makeup. Wanting to capitalize on the Egyptian craze that followed the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Laemmle commissioned a screenplay from John L Balderston who had had contributed to Dracula and Frankenstein and had covered the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb as a reporter for the New York World when he was a journalist. Karl Freund, the cinematographer on Dracula, was hired to direct, making this his first film in the United States as a director. Though there were many sequels and reboots, the original still is in a class by itself, in large part through Karloff’s performance. Thankfully, the makeup was only required for the initial scenes when the mummy revives. Once again Jack Pierce began transforming Karloff; starting at 11:00 AM he began applying makeup to his face; clay to his hair; and wrapping him in linen bandages treated with acid and burnt in an oven. This was not finished until 7:00 PM and Karloff still had to shoot his scenes! When he finished shooting at 2:00 AM it took another two hours to remove everything.
It’s a shame people focus on the monsters because in my opinion Boris Karloff was a darn good actor. Also that year he made two other “spooky” movies, starring in The Mask of Fu Manchu with Myrna Loy and cast with another great British actor Charles Laughton in The Old Dark House. If he could hold his own with serious actors like these his acting should be rated higher. And in The Old Dark House he plays a mute butler, so he doesn’t even get to use dialog to develop his part.
Less familiar to many are three films he made for producer Val Lewton at RKO from 1945 to 1946. Famously, in a 1946 interview with Louis Berg of the Los Angeles Karloff discussed his decision to leave Universal Studies and move to RKO. He was disatisfied with thedownhill arc of the Frankenstein franchise. The last installment —House of Frankenstein—was what he called a “‘monster clambake.'” “Karloff thought it was ridiculous and said so.” Berg continues, “Mr. Karloff has great love and respect for Mr. Lewton as the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul.”
The Body Snatcher, filmed in 1945 was based on the short story of the same name by Robert Louis Stevenson and directed by Robert Wise, more famous for The Day The Earth Stood Still. The story is one of the disreputable trade in bodies for anatomists and doctors that took place in the early 19th century and refers repeatedly to Burke and Hare and Dr. Knox, the real life body snatchers. Mr. Karloff does a great job as the main villain,Grey, who like his real life counterparts, resorts to murder to grow his business. The twist ending of Stevenson’s story was retained by Lewton, who adapted the story along with British mystery author and screenwriter Philip MacDonald.
The second film from 1945 was Isle of the Dead. I remember this coming on during one of the late show marathons I watched as a kid and finding it very dark and disturbing. The film was inspired by an atmospheric set of paintings by artist Arnold Böcklin. The painting appears behind the title credits. Even the score for the movie by Leigh Harline was inspired by a work inspired by the paintings, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s tone poem Isle of the Dead. Harline dark score borrows themes and copies their orchestration, all without violating copyright. It was the fourth of five films Mark Robson directed for Hal Lewton. Just two weeks after filming began in 1944 Boris Karloff required surgery for his chronic back problems. Before the cast could finally be reassembled it was late in the year and in the meantime Lewton and Karloff made The Body Snatcher.
The film begins during the Balkan War of 1912. While his troops are burying their dead, General Pherides, Karloff’s character, and American reporter Oliver Davis visit the Isle of the Dead to pay their respects to the General’s long-dead wife. There they encounter an assortment of characters including a superstitious housekeeper who believes the is a vorvolaka ( a vampire) among them. The next day a doctor announces one of them has died from septicemic plague and they are quarantined on the island, literally surrounded by death, whether natural or unnatural. It is truly a fitting story for the season of All Hallows and very scary when you are in a dark room at night with your popcorn and the wind and rain outside,. You don’t have to take my word for it. Martin Scorsese knows a thing or two about movies and he put it on his list of 11 scariest horror films of all time.
Bedlam in 1946 was the last in the series of horror B films Val Lewton produced for RKO. The film was inspired by the eighth and last engraving in William Hogarth’s series A Rake’s Progress, and Hogarth was even given a writing credit. Again Karloff gives a great performance as the villain of the piece, apothecary general Master George Sims loosely based on an infamous head physician at Bethlem, John Monro, the man in charge of the St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum, a fictionalized version of London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital. nicknamed “Bedlam.” In spite of all it has a happy ending, but it is certainly sinister and threatening until he last,
Together these last three films are a nice triple feature for a dark October night. Of course you will return to Frankenstein and The Mummy but if you have never watched these give them a try. One reason I gave so much detail about the people involved in the productions was to illustrate the incredible talent that went into even B horror films back then. Robert Wise not only did The Day The Earth Stood Still but The Sound of Mu Music. Mark Robson started out editing Orson welles films Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and directed films like The Bridges at Toko-Ri and The Prize, The writing, the sets and the costumes were all so well done. Val Lewton was held to a budget of $150,00 and got his crews to create great lighting and effects. Treat yourself to that icon of horror Boris Karloff working with some of the best ever. I promise you it’s not a trick.