Boris Karloff’s long and storied career in film didn’t begin with horror films. While that genre would come to define him both as an actor and as a physical presence, William Henry Pratt started off playing pirates and Saracens and Western villains. But it wasn’t until he discovered horror, or it discovered him, that Boris Karloff became “Karloff,” the mononym he was often credited as thereafter. However, what might be easy to overlook about Karloff’s career was the range of his abilities, the scope of his talent. He didn’t only play the Monster, or the Killer, in these pictures: he could, and did, play anything that the genre itself would allow. Examples of what he could do can be found this month, as Criterion Channel is streaming several Karloff films this October.
Everything kicked off for him, of course, with James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), in which he did play the creature (and in which he wasn’t even credited as “Karloff,” but rather “?”), opposite Colin Clive’s mad doctor in the most famous adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. Frankenstein is a marvelous film (unfortunately it is not streaming on Criterion), but it was the antecedent of an arguably even better, more beloved entry into the series of Universal horror classics of which Karloff was such a vital component. I’m speaking of course about Bride of Frankenstein (1935), again directed by Whale, and again featuring Karloff as the Monster. Believed dead after the original movie’s fiery climax, the Monster in fact survived. As did Clive’s Henry Frankenstein, who, upon recovering from his injuries, visits his former mentor, Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger). There, in the old professor’s bizarre lab, where examples of his obscene attempts to create unnatural life are everywhere, Pretorious tells Frankenstein that he wants to create – using an artificial brain and scavenged body parts – a mate for the Monster.
Over the course of the story, we will see the Monster brutally kill any number of villagers, and we will see him discover potential (but cruelly thwarted) friendship with an old blind man, his best hope for affection given the thoughtless way Frankenstein, his creator, assembled his physical being. The key to this whole story, every time it’s been told, from Shelley onward, is the idea that Frankenstein cared only about achieving his goal in creating life, with no consideration for what kind of life it would be. Through Jack Pierce’s famous make-up, Karloff gets across the Monster’s terrible loneliness, sadness, and utter helplessness. A fearsome and violent creature, Karloff nevertheless shows that this violence wouldn’t exist if only there was more kindness available to him. But he comes to understand, in his primitive way, that if someone can see him, then they will hate him. Even the Monster’s classic line, after Pretorious asks him “Do you know who Henry Frankenstein is, and who you are?”, where the Monster bluntly answers “Yes, I know. Made me from dead. I love dead… hate living,” even this, which suggests perhaps that the Monster sees hope in the possibility of a mate who resembles himself, turns to ash in his mouth. When the Bride (Elsa Lanchester) is finally brought to life, the first thing she does when the sees the Monster is scream. Along with everyone else, she is horrified by this hulking, bolted-together menace. If it’s impossible for even one such as him to offer affection, then the Monster will burn it all down. And Karloff turns the Monster’s pathetic hope into a desperate rampage that I find utterly heartbreaking. Bride of Frankenstein has a reputation for being something of a comedy, and in fact it is, but it’s the dark, sad soul of the thing that lingers.
The year before Bride of Frankenstein was released, Karloff played a very different kind of monster. Directed by the great Edgar G. Ulmer, previously a set designer for Fritz Lang on Metropolis and M, and later the director of the seminal noir classic Detour, The Black Cat is a loose (which is to say “barely”) adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story. The film, written by Ulmer and Paul Ruric, has as its central theme and subtext what we now call PTSD, but which in 1934 would have been called “shell shock.” The ostensible heroes of the story are David Manners as a mystery writer named Peter Alison and Julie Bishop as his wife Joan Alison, but in truth they’re simply the normal, everyday people the audience is meant to latch onto, and whose escape we’re meant to root for, because the actual heart of the film is comprised of two abnormal, not-at-all-everyday men. Briefly, the Alisons are on their honeymoon in Hungary. Along the way they meet Dr. Vitus Wedergast (Bela Lugosi). After a terrible bus crash in which Joan is injured, Wedergast and Peter carry her to Wedergast’s destination, the home of a man with whom he once served during World War I: the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff).
It will transpire that Wedergast and Poelzig have a long and unhappy history, involving what Wedergast believes amounts to a vile war crime on the part of Poelzig and, during Wedergast’s incarceration as a POW, Poelzig stealing his wife, who he believes Poelzig eventually murdered, possibly also killing Wedergast’s daughter. It’s a pretty rich Gothic stew, this thing, especially when you add in the fact that Poelzig has a collection of bodies of dead women. In addition, Poelzig has his eye on Joan, and Wedergast is committed to saving her.
Lugosi’s performance is, as is often the case with him, a bit much, although sometimes effectively so, the film being a Gothic melodrama, and his character being as tortured as he is. Karloff, on the other hand, is creepily subdued, playing a man whose moral compass has spun so wildly out of control that he’s become not psychopathic, but instead content in the state of mind he’s found himself. His Poelzig is a quiet sociopath, someone who behaved abominably during the war, but possibly because the war was so abominable to him. Either way, he’s been warped beyond repair, and his fate, at the hand of Lugosi’s Wedergast, is an act of sadism committed by a man of both greater morals, yet less in control of himself. The Black Cat is a fascinating, and beautifully filmed, exploration of two extreme psychologies at war with themselves.
Next, we jump ahead many years to 1958, when the Amalgamated Productions/MGM production of Robert Day’s The Haunted Strangler was released. In this Victorian England-set supernatural thriller, Karloff plays a writer named James Rankin who is convinced that the execution of a man years before, for a series of strangulation/stabbing murders of young women, was unjust. Ranking embarks on a crusade to exonerate Edward Styles, the executed man, and discover the true culprit.
The Haunted Strangler is rather straightforward in a lot of ways, in terms of plot and theme and so forth, and the filmmaking is, while quite solid and professional, less visually compelling than Bride of Frankenstein and The Black Cat. What’s striking to me, for the purposes of this article, is Karloff’s performance, and where his character goes. Rankin is a genuine, honest, and good man, and Karloff – by now in his early 60s – effortlessly gives off an avuncular, or perhaps grandfatherly vibe, as he goes about his kind-hearted way of at least restoring a dead man’s reputation. Karloff’s voice — lightly rasped, slightly lisped — so often used to convey a kind of Gothic, otherworldly, but somehow still earthy menace, is hear employed to bring the audience close to him, to endear us to him. He is our hero in this film.
But of course, The Haunted Strangler — which, in some parts, is known as The Grip of the Strangler — has more up its sleeve, which is revealed earlier in the narrative than you might expect. I won’t spoil it, but what’s remarkable about the film and Karloff’s performance is that what is revealed doesn’t really change how we, or at least I, feel about Rankin. Because Rankin, as we came to knew him, wasn’t lying. He was who he said, or thought, he was. That’s the tragedy of the film, and why The Haunted Strangler, though not one of Karloff’s famous performances, is such an instructive one: it doesn’t show everything Karloff could do, but it takes our many feelings about him, and both confirms those feelings, and uses them against us.
Bill Ryan has also written for The Bulwark, RogerEbert.com, and Oscilloscope Laboratories Musings blog. You can read his deep archive of film and literary criticism at his blog The Kind of Face You Hate, and you can find him on Twitter: @faceyouhate