In the wake of the recent announcement of Universal and Blumhouse developing an Invisible Man movie with Leigh Whannell at the helm, talk has begun anew of Universal’s Classic Monsters’ revival. It only makes sense to revisit the original films and the horror icons that made them so enduring, and even more fitting to begin with one of the most memorable screen horror icons, Boris Karloff. Known above all as Frankenstein’s monster, Karloff was a prolific actor and horror mainstay behind countless memorable horror movie roles spanning decades.
Born William Henry Pratt on November 23, 1887, Boris Karloff is actually a stage name he created during his work in theatre. Once he made his way to Hollywood, he racked up 80 film credits, from silent films to westerns and everything in between, before director James Whale cast him as Frankenstein’s monster in 1931’s Frankenstein – a role Bela Lugosi had passed on when he realized the lengthy makeup process involved. Between the makeup designed by Jack P. Pierce, the four-inch platform boots, and the back brace, Karloff was unrecognizable and his performance devoid of dialogue. Marketing left his name off the billing in promotional materials, and a question mark was used in place of his name in the opening credits. In other words, no one expected Frankenstein to launch Karloff into stardom the way that it did. He was 43 at the time.
The following year he reteamed with Whale for The Old Dark House, a horror comedy about five travelers trapped in a creepy Gothic mansion for a night due to a storm. Wry humor meets atmosphere, Karloff played Morgan, the mute butler who gets a bit mean when he drinks. He was given top billing at the titular character in MGM’s The Mask of Fu Manchu, and then played the mummy Imhotep in The Mummy, another hit for Universal that solidified Karloff’s stardom. Though he had parts in non-horror films, horror had officially become his primary genre of work. He also appeared in Universal Classic Monster films The Black Cat, The Raven, The Invisible Ray, Night Key, Son of Frankenstein, Tower of London, and reteamed with Whale in Bride of Frankenstein throughout the ‘30s.
In 1944’s monster crossover film The House of Frankenstein, Karloff got to play the villainous mad doctor instead of the creature. Most of his horror work in the ‘40s, though, were for RKO Pictures under producer Val Lewton: The Body Snatcher, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, Isle of the Dead, and Bedlam. In the aftermath of World War II, horror’s popularity waned and thus Karloff’s work in horror during the ‘40s was also light.
Luckily, horror exploded again in the ‘50s, and with it came roles in The Strange Door, The Black Castle, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Island Monster, Voodoo Island, Corridors of Blood, and more. The ‘60s began with The Terror, The Raven, and most notably Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, an anthology that saw Karloff introducing the various tales as well as being featured in the vampire segment “The Wurdalak”.
He voiced the role of Baron Boris von Frankenstein in stop-motion animated Mad Monster Party?, and the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, which ensured that Karloff became an iconic presence for both Halloween and Christmas. There was also no shortage of roles for Karloff when it came to playing occult professors and scientists, notably in The Sorcerers, Alien Terror and Die, Monster, Die! But one of his best, and most overlooked performances was among the last in his long career- that of aging horror film star Byron Orlok in 1968’s Targets, a meta horror film that sees Orlok on a collision course with a crazed sniper when he agrees to one final public appearance at a drive-in theater.
When Karloff passed away at the age of 81 on February 2, 1969, he had 207 acting credits under his belt. It’s an impressive feat all his own, but even more so when considering that the age at which he played Frankenstein’s monster and the heavy lifting the role required of him seriously injured his back and surgery later on. The arduous makeup process for Frankenstein and The Mummy gave Karloff plenty of time to reflect on safe working conditions, leading him to become one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild. His work in horror, the humanity he imbued in his monsters, his legendary iconic characters, and his passion for acting still makes him one of Hollywood’s greatest giants, even today.
While we can’t wait to see what Whannell brings with a new take on The Invisible Man, it also seems apt to look back and salute the original grandfathers of horror, too.