“When I was nine, I played the demon king in Cinderella and it launched me on a long and happy life of being a monster.”
In 1818, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein while having a friendly gothic writing contest with her peers. The monster she created was unique and scary, erudite and malicious, philosophical and vengeful. It was the epitome of vaulting ambition and bode warning against men trying to assume the position of God. In 1931, James Whale directed a not-so-faithful adaptation of Frankenstein where Boris Karloff was cast as the infamous monster without being credited. He bore the identity of a question mark much like the nameless monster in Shelley’s novel. Eerily enough, Karloff’s life was too similar to that of the monster. Today, on what us the 52nd anniversary of his death, we shall explore the life of this man and map out the reasons as to why he can be viewed as the living embodiment of Frankenstein’s monster.
Born as William Henry Pratt on November 23, 1887, Karloff’s mother was of Anglo-Indian descent which contributed to his darker complexion. Karloff had a stutter and a lisp; he learnt to control the former, but the latter remained an integral part of his life throughout his career. His deformities often led him to receive the role of demons or monsters. Karloff’s brothers were all members of the respected British Foreign Service, and he was often treated with contempt for venturing into the field of artistry. However, he had lucked out, because unlike the monster whose creator, Victor Frankenstein viewed his creation with contempt and loathing, his brothers seemed very proud of him while clicking publicity photographs. However, it was later discovered that one of his brothers, Sir John Thomas Pratt, had scorned him one day while he was filming The Ghoul by saying how he “certainly hoped” he was “saving it because this can never last”.
Boris Karloff adopted this as his stage name when he started making theatrical appearances in various Canadian productions. Due to his unusual appearance, Boris had to work several menial jobs to support himself during the span of his acting career which impacted his back negatively. He appeared as extras in films while honing his skills by working in various American productions. His Hollywood journey witnessed him starting out in silent films; however, he had difficulty in finding work and his labour wages helped sustain himself.
While he appeared in various movies throughout the years, his first major role was in a prison drama named The Criminal Code. Before being cast in James Whale’s Frankenstein, he had enacted in nearly eighty films. Considered as one of the best films of 1931, Frankenstein was one of the most challenging roles for Karloff as he had to wear a very bulky costume and endure pounds of makeup while wearing four-inch platform heel boots. His mesmerising and fascinating on-screen praise earned him high praise, helping him leave an indelible mark in the history of horror. One of the other Karloff’s best performance was the role of an Edinburgh cabman Gray in Body Snatchers playing this grisly part of a cemetery plunderer with effortless ease, Karloff displayed his incredible prowess to portray characters that evoked both pity and sympathy.
Reigning supreme in horror films, Boris Karloff became a well-known name. However, post-war, the genre started to decline, a factor which made work sporadic, pushing Karloff to find a job in other genres. Despite his various film roles, he was known as that one man who ruled Halloween with his scary and gruesome Frankenstein makeup which looked ghastlier and deadlier in the monochromatic screen. Very soon, he would be ruling over people’s hearts during Christmas as well; in the 1960s, he lent his voice for the animated TV show on Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Boris Karloff was quite a troubled man. He had been married six times, and like the monster, he struggled to find love. He had one child, Sara Karloff, who was borne by his fifth wife, Dorothy Stine. Fun fact, Karloff was dressed as Frankenstein when he rushed to the hospital to greet his newborn daughter. Sara has worked relentlessly to preserve her father’s legacy, often triumphing the premise that Karloff was often quite misunderstood. He loved children as they saw him for who he was. That is probably the reason why he had a knack for playing characters that were flawed yet retained a distinguished element that would cause the audience to sympathise with them. His bow-legged stature added a distinguished appearance and his enigmatic performance often left the audience enthralled.
Karloff had made an unthinkable contribution to the world of cinema. One of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild, he constantly strove towards protecting new actors and actresses as well as preserving their rights, creating a safe space for them to address their grievances against big production companies. Karloff was well aware of the perils of being a newbie. He had faced enough resistance and marginalisation at the beginning of his career and was willing to sacrifice fame and money to help these newcomers escape the nasty experiences he had.
Karloff was a heavy smoker and was left with one functioning lung after contracting emphysema. He had to take oxygen in between breaks, but that never stopped him from working. At the age of 81, after living a life of fulfilment and success, this famed Hollywood horror master passed away. He has two Hollywood Walk of fame stars to his name, and a legacy unrivalled.
Karloff’s incredibly vulnerable and humane portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster continues to awe horror fans even today. His most profound role was an eerie premonition of his life events. He related to the monster on a spiritual level and often confessed how connected they were. Karloff was quite unsure of himself and often talked about this. He was once quoted saying, “My wife has good taste. She has seen very few of my movies.” Karloff has struggled with recognition and appreciation all his life. Uncredited for his greatest role, unloved by his family, never finding true love (till his sixth marriage), was Karloff the monster himself?
As we reminisce the legend on his 52nd death anniversary, we cannot help but thank him for his immense contribution to the world of cinema, especially horror. He rests in love and lives on in our hearts as one of the greatest Frankenstein’s monsters, where the lines between reel and real were shockingly and nearly absent.
“The monster was the best friend I ever had.”