As we get nearer and nearer to Halloween, we always think of the famous ghosts and monsters of the silver screen that have scared us over the years.
From a mummy staggering out of an Egyptian tomb to a killer in a mask chasing High School students, All Souls Eve on 31st October is the best – or worst – day for thrills and chills, and the time classic horror movies come back to haunt us all.
Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula are probably the two most iconic horror characters across the world, but the actors who have played them often find themselves forever immortalized by fangs or a bolt through the neck – even the mention of their name brings to mind dark corners in remote castles.
Boris Karloff will always be one of the true icons of horror for his performance as the monster in Frankenstein (1931) and with Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but off-screen he was very different.
Not many people know that he was one of the founders of the Screen Actor’s Guild, and was outspoken about dangerous working conditions on sets. He would carry a role of dimes in his pocket for payphones because he knew his home phone was tapped – such was the studio’s distrust of unions. Known as a true gentleman, Karloff recorded many successful albums of children’s stories and gave generously to charity – a very different image from the one we might imagine.
Born on November 23, 1887 in London, William Henry Pratt was the son of a Deputy Commissioner of Customs, Salt and Opium, and his maternal grandmother was a sister of Anna Leonowens, whose stories were the basis of the musical “The King and I”. It was through Anna that Karloff claimed his distant East Indian ancestry, although he often said he was Russian in order to explain his exotic looks.
His parents died whilst he was still young, and after attending University he joined the Foreign Service, but instead ended up falling into acting. He emigrated to Canada in 1909, changed his name and, after years of performing, ended up in Hollywood. After serving his time acting in silent films, he got his big break as the monster in director James Whale’s Frankenstein.
Listed as “?” in the credits, this late-bloomer (he was 44 years old) became an overnight success, and was known by his surname from that day onwards. He appeared in many other scary films: as the undead Im-Ho-Tep in The Mummy (1932), a wrongly condemned doctor in Devil’s Island (1939), a crazed scientist surrounded by monsters, vampires and werewolves in House of Frankenstein (1944) and a Greek general fighting vampirism in Isle of the Dead (1945), and although he was a huge success, he soon struggled to be taken seriously in other roles.
He gave an acclaimed performance in the 1934 John Ford epic The Lost Patrol, performed on Broadway in the original production of Arsenic and Old Lace in 1941, and was nominated for a Tony Award for The Lark, but he still found his horror background hard to escape from.
Maybe finally aware of this, he spoofed himself in The Terror, directed by Roger Corman, and played “retired horror film actor Byron Orlok” in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 film Targets – it was one of his last film appearances.
Even after his death, Karloff’s career continued: in 1997 he was featured as The Mummy and as the monster in Frankenstein on two of a set of five 32¢ commemorative postage stamps celebrating “Famous Movie Monsters”, and he also has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There is also a memorial to his private life in England too: before emigrating, Karloff was a keen cricketer, and his old club has his picture hanging in the pavilion. Not only that, there is a photo of him playing cricket in the famous Long Room at Lord’s cricket ground in London.
But it is as Frankenstein’s monster that he will always be remembered: during the production of the film, there were worries that Marilyn Harris (who played Maria, the little girl) would be frightened by Karloff in his full costume and make-up. However, as the actors waited to drive to the set, Marilyn ran right up to Karloff, took his hand and asked “May I drive with you?” Karloff simply replied: “Would you, darling?” and they rode off together in “the Monster’s” limo.
After battling emphysema for several years, Karloff died at his home in Sussex, England on February 2, 1969, at the age of 81.