The list of iconic horror actors from the earlier periods of horror film may be small, but it’s full of titans–Bela Lugosi, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price (to name a few). One name that’s certainly on that list, leaving an indelible mark on horror history, is Boris Karloff. Between his strong features, unforgettable presence, and the nuances of his performance, Karloff added depth into any performance he gave.
It’s this capacity for intensity alongside strong emotive capacity that made Karloff an early go-to performer in the earlier creature features of yore. Slap on as much makeup as you want and he can still create characters you feel for and are terrified by. What follows are Karloff’s greatest monstrosities.
8. The Ape, The Ape (dir: William Nigh, 1940)
In one of the more unusual roles of Karloff’s career, this film sees Karloff play Dr. Bernard Adrian, a kind scientist in desperate need to cure a patient’s polio. Adrian needs to procure a missing ingredient for his experimental serum–human spinal fluid. An escaped circus ape breaks into the doctor’s lab, damaging his samples of spinal fluid before the doctor was able to kill it. With his samples destroyed, what’s a desperate doctor to do? Why, skin the ape, wear the skin, and murder townsfolk to harvest their spinal fluid, of course. A man in an ape suit isn’t technically a monster in the literal sense (and the film isn’t one of his greatest), but at a tight 62 minutes you can watch Karloff as a murderous doctor in an ape suit in what is perhaps the most bonkers premise in 1940s horror.
7. The Wurdulak, Black Sabbath (dir: Mario Bava, 1963)
Black Sabbath is a horror anthology film directed by the excellent Italian horror filmmaker Mario Bava. Of its three stories, “The Telephone,” “The Wurdulak,” and “The Drop of Water”, Karloff stars in the second story as Gorca, a man who has gone off to fight a creature known as the Wurdulak, a living cadaver cursed to feed on human blood… especially the blood of loved ones. When Gorca returns, he seems… different. It’s a shorter film in Karloff’s oeuvre, certainly, and while it lacks the budget of some of his highest tier fare it’s a novel monster and a fine performance by the icon.
6. Hjalmar Poelzig, The Black Cat (dir: Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
A set of newlyweds share a train compartment with a Hungarian psychiatrist, Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), who has spent the last 15 years in an infamous Siberian prison camp. He’s traveling, as he explains, to see an old friend–Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). We come to find out that things aren’t what they seem, and that Poelzig is a nefarious satanic priest. Surely Poelzig isn’t a ‘monster’ in the traditional sense, but he’s one of Karloff’s most evil and unsettling villains, and of the eight films Lugosi and Karloff were in together, this one’s the first. It’s horror history.
5. Various, the ‘Mad Doctor Cycle’
Starting in 1939, Karloff appeared in a series of four Columbia horror films with similar themes starting with The Man They Could Not Hang (dir: Nick Grinde). Karloff played the kind Dr. Savaard, experimenting with bringing the dead back to life. He’s betrayed, arrested, and sentenced to hang. If the title is any indication, the hanging doesn’t stick–his technique is used on the Doctor by a loyal assistant, and he comes back for a vengeful killing spree. This formula was repeated variably in The Man With Nine Lives (dir: Nick Grande, 1940), Before I Hang (dir: Nick Grande, 1940), and The Devil Commands (dir: Edward Dymtryk, 1941).
These films see Karloff returned from the dead (Could Not Hang), unfrozen (Nine Lives), have aging reversed (Before I Hang, seriously… why even try to hang him), and try to contact the dead (Devil), enjoying all sorts of ways Karloff’s doctors have been transformed or been driven to nefarious ends.
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4. Imhotep, The Mummy (dir: Karl Freund, 1932)
While The Mummy isn’t the best of the Universal Monster films, Karloff’s performance (though he gets limited screen time, and the Mummy form is a small slice of that) is surely iconic: his presence is well felt throughout and in the bandaged Mummy form he’s a right and proper icon. In short, it isn’t the best of the classic Universal films (and not the best on this list) but it’s certainly one of his most iconic and memorable performances.
3. Dr. Janos Rukh, The Invisible Ray (dir: Lambert Hillyer, 1936)
Okay, here’s a pick that isn’t widely known but it really should be. Karloff plays Dr. Janos Rukh, a scientist who finds the impact site of an anxious meteor and is exposed to its ancient radiation. He finds himself glowing with a deadly touch, and he gradually goes mad and goes on a killing spree before descending into an explosive ball of flame. It’s a truly interesting, well done classic film that sees Karloff become a very different kind of monster. Definitely under-seen, absolutely check it out.
2. The Grinch, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (prod: Chuck Jones, 1966)
Surely Karloff’s role as Frankenstein’s monster (below) is visually unforgettable, emotive, and iconic. But his vocal role as The Grinch (yes, he voiced The Grinch) is easily as memorable, iconic, and important–even if you didn’t know it was a Karloff role. And you should. Karloff’s role in the timeless 1966 Grinch cartoon is so exceptional that it’s still the perfect representation of the Dr. Seuss character in animated form. With the holidays coming up, it alllllmost edges out our number 1 pick… but that one is too iconic. Nonetheless (what species IS The Grinch, exactly?) we have a green, monstrous humanoid, neither man nor Who, that fits the monstrous bill… and you have Karloff to thank for your December holiday memories.
1. Frankenstein’s Monster, Frankenstein (dir: James Whale, 1931)
Frankenstein’s monster. Along with Dracula and the later Gill-Man, Karloff’s portrayal of the monster is one of the most poignant creatures to come from the Universal Monsters. Confused, complex, emotional, and in perhaps the two finest films in the Universal Monsters sequence (Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein), Karloff’s portrayal is complex and inhuman, inhuman but pained and relatable; easily one of the finest performances of early monster history. There is no doubt that, despite the wide variability of Karloff’s excellent career, his role as Frankenstein’s monster has to be at the top.
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