Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in the Camberwell district of London, thousands of miles from the place that would make him a star of such magnitude that, for a time, he was known merely by his (fake) last name. Though he appeared in dozens of silent films, Karloff shot to fame with his moving portrayal of The Monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein, and went on to star in a slew of other mostly horror films, from The Mask of Fu Manchu to Edgar G. Ulmer’s Poe adaptation, The Black Cat.
Next week, in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the release of Frankenstein, New York’s Film Forum is presenting a week of Karloff features. The series includes the trio of films mentioned above, as well as Bride of Frankenstein, Targets and a pair of virtually unseen pre-Frankenstein rarities: Graft and The Guilty Generation, in addition to seven others.
Thought of primarily as a looming, sinister screen presence, Karloff was in fact an actor of remarkable skill and subtlety, traits that were never more fully realized than in Frankenstein. Despite having not a single line to speak, Karloff infused the Monster with such a profound melancholy that even today the movie, despite its otherwise often dated acting, remains deeply affecting. Though he had never worked with the actor before, Whale clearly understood the power at his disposal: instead of portraying the monster as the pitiless beast he had been in previous screen incarnations, he instead gave us a massive, awkward creature who, from the very beginning, is abused and misunderstood. And in Karloff’s hands, the creature’s suffering is abundantly clear; a sense of solemnity comes over the movie when he first appears on screen after nearly 30 minutes of buildup, and it refuses to relinquish its grasp until the credits roll. Given the restrictions placed on his character by the creature’s awkward body and wordlessness, Karloff was able to use only his face to convey emotions. Despite this, he created a being that, by turns, is befuddled, desperate to please, terrified, and filled with explosive rage.