A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Boris Karloff born, 1887
On this day in 1887, the great horror actor Boris Karloff was born. Disappointingly, his birth name was William Henry Pratt and he wasn’t born in some Carpathian cave but in the inner suburb of Lewisham, South London. A well educated young man with a lisp and a stutter, he dropped out while training to become a functionary of the British Empire and instead took to farm labouring before becoming an actor. He took the name Boris Karloff while in travelling repertory theatre in Canada, and after arriving in Hollywood he played a number of villain roles before getting some notice in the Oscar-nominated newspaper drama Five Star Final. The same year, 1931, saw Frankenstein hitting the screens with Karloff as the monster. He instantly became one of the most famous actors in the world. Within a handful of years he had also appeared in The Mummy and The Old Dark House, other classics from Universal’s golden horror era. Karloff loved to work and was always grateful for the opportunities the bolt-necked monster had given him. He continually sought to widen his appeal, though it was as mad scientists, deranged villains or even as the demented Captain Hook that his gifts for deadpan and the sibilant vestige of his lisp would stand him in best stead. Towards the end of his career his star waned. Whether he would have kept his career in better health by not being so ready to spoof himself, so keen to work in no matter what low quality B movie, to appear as a regular on any old TV show is debateable. What isn’t is that Karloff was a trooper and a gentleman who gave handsomely to charity and dressed up as Father Christmas every year to hand out presents to orphaned children. He worked right to the end, through emphysema and arthritis: Peter Bogdanovich cast him in his first film, Targets, as a horror actor approaching the end of his life. It was in fact Karloff’s final film (though four further Mexican films, shot earlier in 1968 would appear posthumously). He died in England, of pneumonia, and was cremated and laid to rest as William Henry Pratt in a low-key service.
The Raven (1963, dir: Roger Corman)
There’s a scene towards the end of the final Harry Potter film when the massed might of Hogwarts stand up for a “wands at dawn” showdown against Voldemort’s cohort. It’s a thrilling sequence that brings to mind the finale of Roger Corman’s great adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem. Like all Corman productions it was made on the cheap. But Corman always had an eye for talent going for a song, rising stars who’d work for buttons and, most of all, the main chance. All combine in The Raven, which sees the cut-price horror triumvirate of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, rising star Jack Nicholson and genius sci-fi writer Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Twilight Zone, I Am Legend) collaborating on one of the best fantasy B movies ever made. The plot is Poe’s (sort of): a retired widower wizard named Dr Erasmus Craven (Price) is visited by a talking raven (Lorre) who claims he was turned into a bird by the most powerful magician in the world – Dr Scarabus (Karloff). After Craven returns the raven to human form, he learns that his wife isn’t dead after all; she’s shacked up with Scarabus. Apparently. So off the pair head to Scarabus’s castle for a showdown. Cue wands, wizardry, special effects and ever increasing amounts of camp. It’s here that the film comes into its own, as Karloff and Price try to outdo each other with “serious face” spoof-acting, while Lorre bounces around improvising trying to make them corpse. Corman was just off a string of Poe adaptations with Price and both are clearly enjoying the opportunity to have a bit of fun at the old drunkard’s expense. This was the first time that Lorre, Price and Karloff appeared together. And though it happened again the following year in Comedy of Terrors, the later film is not a patch on The Raven. As for Jack Nicholson – let’s just say he was yet to invent the “here’s Johnny” persona.
- A great example of a Roger Corman film – cheap but full of ingenuity
- Karloff was also in the 1935 The Raven – which is nothing like this
- Lorre’s improvising
- A camp classic
© Steve Morrissey 2013