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Sunday, January 26, 2014

THE REEL REALS: Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff in his The Mummy chair

Boris Karloff: the gentleman killer. That is how we see him, isn't it? The misunderstood Monster, the brokenhearted, asexual beast out for blood, the accidental criminal, the dastardly evil-doer who will slit your throat just as easily as sip a spot of tea... Boris earned his slogan of "Karloff the Uncanny" honestly. The strange combination of his passionate yet cool demeanor and his slim, ever-mutating body seemed destined to accept the torch Lon Chaney left when he passed away. In fact, Chaney was the one who gave Boris the best advice of his life, which was essentially: "be different." Challenge accepted.

Who can forget the first time they watched Frankenstein? The utter anticipation as that long, slender arm began to rise from the table; then the initial, breath-taking reveal of the Monster in three progressive shots: long, medium, and close-up. Boom, boom, boom. And there it is. That face. That haunted, half-dead, half alive, disturbing, frightening, yet pitiful face. In those milliseconds, a star was born, and one unlike any other that would ever live. Karloff's home became that of the Universal monster lot, whether breathing life into another undead hero as Imhotep/Ardeth Bay in the Karl Freund masterpiece The Mummy, playing God in the science fiction classic The Invisible Ray, or giving what I consider to be one of his greatest performances in The Body Snatcher. Boris could be relied upon to deliver, no matter how ridiculous the storyline. The setting could be an insane asylum (Bedlam), a laboratory (The Man with Nine Lives), or a haunted house of secrets (The Old Dark House), but he could pull it off. 

Struggling throughout his thespian career after making the voyage from Britain to American, it took him time to find his place. Timing, good fortune, and a little help from James Whale got the deed done, and Boris remained forever grateful for his success and totally committed to the continued work. He always humbled himself before the character and the project-- even when he knew it was a laugh. His great art was in turning the most outlandish material into something utterly believable with his presence alone. His commitment can be evidenced in the physical pain many of his costumes and make-up concoctions caused him: the length of time to put on and remove his cosmetics was bad enough, but the heat, the skin peeling, and sometimes even the inability to relieve himself, didn't make things any easier! Still, he conquered, just as a cultured ghoul would.

Boris was a living legend, freaking people out and endearing them to him at the same time. His work on the stage after his cinematic success would boast of his public appeal, and he triumphed in "Peter Pan" as Captain Hook, "The Lark" as Bishop Cauchon, and of course "Arsenic and Old Lace" as the killer whose faulty plastic surgery as left him looking like... Boris Karloff! (Sadly, he wasn't in the film. Can you imagine seeing that live)?! The adoration for Boris continued long after the peak of his success as the Universal King and the B-horror Godfather. As such, only he could have voice to The Grinch. With a slight lisp and an ancient, crackling, baritone timbre, there was something about even the sound he made that made people adore him. (Ironically, he fought tooth and nail to keep the Monster from speaking in Bride of Frankenstein). His final triumph was Peter Bogdanovich's Targets, which many believe to be his greatest performance. 

This ultimate creeper left us in 1969, when another brand of horror took over-- that all too real and vivid terror of the Manson family. Thus, his dual essence of the hero and villain bookend the era of cinematic history when fear was strangely seductive and somehow safe. He was the martyr that brought our nightmares to life and expurgated them so we may lie peacefully (trembling) in our beds. Without him, the land of horror is much less regal, soulful, and poetic. Luckily, he haunts us still...

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