Saturday, 28 November 2009

Karloff: a fine horror star, an even finer actor

The greatest screen actors convey very much by very little. At his best, the British-born Hollywood star Boris Karloff did this masterfully well.

Although they made just eight films together - of which at least a couple are virtually forgotten today - Karloff will always be remembered for his association with the other legend of '30s and '40s American horror, Bela Lugosi. Yet it was an uneven pairing. Lugosi was, to be frank, a ham. Like Vincent Price after him, he excelled in roles that allowed him to make the most of his camp, overblown persona.

But Karloff was a notch above Lugosi. He was capable of camp villainy, but he was also capable of the subtlest of performances. Had Lugosi taken the role of the Monster in Frankenstein (1931), as was originally planned, it is difficult to imagine him giving the nuanced portrayal given by Karloff, who evoked as much pity as menace. For confirmation of this, you need only look at Lugosi's stilted performance in the 1943 spin-off Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. In many of Frankenstein's most famous scenes, Karloff is virtually expressionless. And yet the vulnerability, the lostness and the hint of feral unpredictability is all there in his face.

In The Mummy (1932), Karloff was once again given the opportunity of a role that demanded only the subtlest of expressions to exert the right amount of fear. As Im-ho-tep, he emerges from his tomb with the barest of movements but the maximum of terror; as Ardath Bey, he shuffles painfully slowly, his whole body betraying centuries of death and decay. One shudders to imagine the bloated pantomime that could have resulted in the hands of any other actor.

Boris Karloff was gifted with a wonderful speaking voice, a charming, slightly lisping English-American accent that many remember from his dozens of radio broadcasts. In celebration of his unique timbre, I leave you with a memorable clip from his 1968 film Targets, in which he narrates a short story by William Somerset Maugham:

This post is presented as part of Frankensteinia's Boris Karloff Blogathon, in honour of the 122nd anniversary of the actor's birth.

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