Thomas Hamilton, who directed this movie and co-wrote it with Ron MacCloskey* (also the writer of Karloff and Me), had a big task when making this movie. Horror fans love Boris Karloff, so what new things can we learn about someone that we know so much about? And is what we know merely his roles and not the real man behind the mask?
To tell the story, there’s a tremendous cast of people on hand, everyone from Caroline Munro, Christopher Plummer, Stefanie Powers, Lee Grant and Ron Perlman to Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdonovich (who directed what Karloff wanted to be his last film Targets) and John Landis. Oh there’s more — Roger Corman, Jack Hill, Joe Dante, Leonard Martin, Donald Glut and even Bela Lugosi Jr. and Sara Karloff.
I learned from this film the fact that Karloff — born William Henry Pratt — was an Anglo-Indian who dealt with prejudice for his looks and a family scandal, two subjects that he would never discussed. Or that he struggled until 1931’s The Criminal Code, a Howard Hawks movie, and of course Frankenstein.
Even before he was a star, he was once waiting for the bus in the pouring rain and was picked up and given a ride by an actor he didn’t know: Lon Chaney Sr., who told him “to find something different that will set you apart and is different from anything someone else has done or is willing to do and do it better.” At the time, Karloff was working backbreaking — literally — manual labor jobs to subsidize his family when acting wasn’t paying.
Karloff acted in eighty movies before the “overnight success” that came from being discoverd by James Whale and cast in Frankenstein. The part may have typecast him for life, but Karloff even had the opportunity to play Broadway in Arsenic and Old Lace and played non-monster roles for Val Lewton in The Body Snatcher, Bedlam and Isle of the Dead. Karloff said Lewton had the man “rescued him from the living dead and restored his soul.”
Beyond a litany of the roles that Karloff played so well — TV like Thriller, Bava’s Black Sabbath, Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers, Corman’s The Raven, the voice of the Grinch, the Jack Hill directed Mexican films Isle of the Snake People, The Incredible Invasion, Fear Chamber and House of Evil and many more — the film shows you who Karloff was as a person, including a moving appearance on This Is Your Life.
There’s so much more to discover — how Karloff felt about the Fu Manchu movies, the fact that he wasn’t even invited to the premiere of Frankenstein, the pain he was in at the end of his life yet how he could still turn it on and perform — in this delightful movie. A man that didn’t become a scar until 44, who overcame racism, a lisp and the tough world of Hollywood rejection was able to become not just a star, but a legend.
Trust me — this is more than recommended watching.
*McCloskey travelled internationally to conduct research for the documentary for over a period of 23 years!
You can watch this exclusively on Shudder and learn more at the official site.