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‘Becoming Boris Karloff’: Mastering the art of horror

Karloff was more than just a monster; the film's considerable breadth and depth charms in ways that have little to do with Halloween.

Watching “Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster” is the best thing you can do this Halloween. A wonderful documentary spanning the actor’s singular career, it shows exactly how William (“Billy”) Henry Pratt carved out his incredible legacy 100 years ago by becoming Boris Karloff.

Remarkably, the film’s considerable breadth and depth charms in ways that have little to do with Halloween. It pays genuine homage to the late thespian’s entire life and Hollywood story. It also includes esoteric cinema history, sharp technical analysis, and movie poster art galore. In this context, Frankenstein’s monster exudes a grandeur that’s hard to overstate.

Boris Karloff in “Bride of Frankenstein,” 1935.

Entertainment value aside, the film is all about educating and informing viewers of another era. This is precisely why it ought to be seen by the largest possible audience. For example, when “Frankenstein” came out in 1931, widespread adoption of sound in pictures was still relatively new. By 1934, Tinseltown had adopted the Production Code, a set of guidelines that determined what could be portrayed onscreen. Thus, “Frankenstein” is a pre-Code movie, while its sequels, “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “Son of Frankenstein,” are not.

In “Boris Karloff, The Man Behind the Monster,” we also learn just how upset Karloff was with the last scene in “Frankenstein,” where the Monster throws the little girl into the lake and accidentally drowns her. Many interviewed in the film insist Karloff felt the whole thing was gratuitous; he described it as “wanton brutality.” Indeed, the second part of this controversial scene was censored in Massachusetts.

Still, “Frankenstein” was a record-breaking smash upon its release and made Karloff famous. With 1932’s cloth-wrapped figure in “The Mummy,” he secured his star status in another pre-Code film involving similar tour-de-force makeup effects.

Boris Karloff. Image courtesy classic-monsters.com

The documentary includes clips from many of his other movies, as well. Again, MGM’s “The Mask of Fu Manchu” is a pre-Code production in which Karloff’s character is sadistic and embodies the “yellow menace.” One critic describes it thus: “Possibly the most racist mainstream movie made in the ‘30s, and there was quite a lot of competition.”

Another pre-Code movie featuring Karloff is 1931’s “The Criminal Code,” considered more of a crime drama than a horror flick. I’ve never seen it, but its crime and punishment plot raises questions that still seem salient today. Ditto for 1968’s “Targets,” in which Karloff plays a semi-autobiographical role in a film about a mass shooting.

Becoming Boris Karloff meant living with his physiognomy, or what one observer in the documentary referred to as his “charicaturable face.” The full expressive range of his features could enchant or terrorize, depending on other factors. But Karloff the man shines through all of his roles and makeup in this excellent character study. For one thing, his Indian descent certainly led to some degree of typecasting, of which he was well aware. His family of origin also had different expectations about what his career path should be. Karloff clearly took his mentor Lon Chaney Sr.’s advice to heart: “Find a role that nobody wants to do and do it better than anybody else.”

“The Mummy” film poster

Karloff took the same approach during the Great Depression, as job losses mounted and pay cuts hit all the major studios. Along with James Cagney and Bela Lugosi, Karloff became a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild. With the image of “Frankenstein” bound to him, he later voiced The Grinch in Dr. Seuss’ animated holiday classic.

All in all, “Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster” offers something for everyone. I especially loved seeing and hearing from his 82-year-old daughter Sara Karloff, who keeps his memory alive. The film also conveys that Boris himself never fully embraced the “horror” label; he preferred using “thriller” or “shock.” Such movies lost appeal partly because of the National Legion of Decency.

Boris Karloff poses with The Grinch. Photo courtesy CBS / PHOTOFEST

But horror films necessarily morphed into thrillers post-World War II. The entire genre was completely eclipsed by Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Holocaust — actual horrors of unimaginable proportion. As I wrote recently, what makes us laugh is always evolving. The same is true for what frightens us.

Interestingly, the funeral of Winston Churchill so deeply affected Karloff that he moved back to England, where he was born. Before becoming Boris Karloff, he had discovered the theater when he was nine. In later years, he returned to the stage, most notably in 1957’s “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

In the final decade of his life, something else was born: this perennial holiday favorite. Happy Halloween!

“Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster” is now available on Apple TV and Amazon Prime.

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