Bow to Boris Karloff’s Greatness!
By Kristin Battestella
Forget today’s slice and dice horror! Educate you and yours on the man who put the fear into early frightfest filmmaking: Karloff!
Black Sabbath –Our Man of the Hour hosts this 1963 AIP/Italian trilogy production also starring Mark Damon (House of Usher) and Michele Mercier (Angelique, the Marquise of the Angels). ‘A Drop of Water’ leads off the English version here with lovely period charm and freaky questions regarding fright, spiritualism, and the moments immediately before and after death. Seriously, one should never, ever steal from the dearly departed! The great mix of solitary scares, what you don’t see approaching, and the shocker smoke and mirrors effects seal the deal. Hot damn, it got me! Plot two ‘The Telephone’ shines with the then contemporary sixties goodness and lots of suspense. There’s a sexy anticipation, a voyeuristic vibe, and predatory fear adding to the juice. Karloff’s introduction sequences are a lot of fun, too- serious and latently psychedelic in style but humorous at the same time. In his final story, a Russian vampire tale called ‘The Wurdalak’, all the mood, culture, and creepy come across wonderfully. The K’s makeup and approach is so angry and suspicious, even disturbing as familial angles come into play. Completists may go for the alternate Italian version for the full effect of director Mario Bava’s (Black Sunday) vision, but despite studio interference and changes that might upset purists; the scares are loud and clear here.
Die, Monster, Die! – A totally cool, creepy, labyrinthine mansion and décor goes a long way in this 1965 H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. All the macabre we expect is here plus creative wheelchair accessibilities and mad scientist laboratory dangers to help in Our Man Karloff’s looking slightly sinister but no less spiffy with that white mustache. BK is a badass and strong but desperate patriarch both in spite of and thanks to that classic red velvet wheelchair accenting his performance. Though Nick Adams (Rebel without a Cause) and Suzan Farmer (Dracula: Prince of Darkness) feel a little dime a dozen, Freda Jackson (The Brides of Dracula) is quite twisted I must say- along with some good shocker moments, great screams, and scary sounds, too. And the killer plants- we can’t forget those fun science fiction speculations! Even if some of the effects are weak for the finale, this is an entertaining little 75 minutes indeed.
Frankenstein – James Whale (The Invisible Man) provides great direction in this streamlined 1931 adaption. Yes, it differs from Mary Shelley’s book greatly, but the gist of the sympathy remains thanks to beautiful statements of good and evil, life and death, and God and consequences. Big K is wonderful as the simple and abused, meaning well but no less deadly monster creation of Colin Clive (Jane Eyre, Mad Love) - who’s also juicy and maniacal with these pre-code taboos. Though some of the supporting scenes may seem stilted, Dwight Frye (Dracula) is always a delight to watch. There are also nice camera tricks, smart photography cheats, and a great lack of music, too. Naturally, this is really because sound was so new at the time, but the onscreen mad lab sparks and angry mob shouts work perfectly as is. However, I do have to say, the period settings and ladies’ stylings of these early films are always weird. Are we in the stuffy 19th century with be-bobbed flapper chicks in stoles? Fortunately, at only 70 minutes, the beloved fan or virgin viewer can easily find time for this one. Go ahead and say it, “It’s alive!”
The Ghoul – Sometimes it’s a little tough to see in this 1933 Egyptology gone amok show thanks to such old film values; the photography is just too dark and the sound too poor in some spots. The supporting cast is also too thirties archetypes, and if you don’t like the humor of the chase at hand, all this thieving run around will get confusing. There also isn’t as much Karloff as I would like, but his scary resurrection and vengeful pursuits are a lot of fun for completist fans. The music here is also scary and suspenseful, adding a nice and creepy element to The K’s onscreen mayhem- and the plot doesn’t resort to the traditional mummy tales we expect either. No, this one isn’t perfect, but it’s worth the hour plus look if only for it’s previously lost history. The CGI riff raff of today need a reminder that there are so many unpreserved shows, disappeared films, and great lost performances that we will never get to see! Sniff.
The Mask of Fu Manchu – Yes, this 1932 Orient adventure co-starring Myrna Loy (The Thin Man) is at best quite stereotypical and at worse downright offensive and demeaning in its Asian portrayals. Unfortunately, that is the very nature of this franchise, and the women here are mishandled as well. However, once you are passed the ills, there’s plenty of fun and action here as Karloff dons the ‘stache for what is probably the most famous Fu Manchu production. There’s preposterous torture, some naughty, and a lot of camp. Not everyone will like this film, but K fans and fans of the serials will enjoy.
The Mummy – Karloff, Karloff, Karloff! The drawn, crusty, and dry opening makeup and mummification designs looks dynamite- accenting OMK’s tall, imposing, sullen, and stilted presence. His silent up close shots are indeed hypnotic and powerful- even if modern audiences might find this one more fanciful fantasy than truly frightful. Even though there is some tell, not shown off-screen action, the plot is well paced, with nice dialogue and support from Zita Johann (Tiger Shark) and Edward Van Sloan (Dracula). Some of the 1932 style or mannerisms, foreign languages, and customs of the time might be strange to us now, but the mysteries and iconography of Ancient Egypt look delightful. An action packed pseudo silent styled flashback also works wonders. The CGI spoiled may of course find things here slow and dated compared to the 1999 The Mummy, but seeing a film done when Egyptology was arguably at its height allows a little more of all that onscreen glamour and gold to shine through. Actually, I am usually completely against it, but I’d love to see this in color- at least once anyway. Sweetness!