Boris Karloff Month Finale: Targets

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For this last day of November, it seems fitting to wrap up Boris Karloff Month by discussing Karloff’s last great film, Targets (1968), directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Targets follows the story of two very different characters whose lives intersect by chance. The hero is Byron Orlok, portrayed by Karloff and clearly based on Karloff’s real-life persona. Orlok is an elderly horror star who is on the verge of retirement because he feels his brand of gothic horror is outdated, being replaced by the all-too-real horror of serial killers and mass murderers.

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The other is Bobby Thompson, a young Vietnam veteran who superficially appears to be a clean-cut, productive suburban citizen (portrayed by Tim O’Kelly). Modeled after real-life University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, Thompson buys several guns and large quantities of ammunition, murders his wife and mother, and then kills several strangers in sniper attacks. Thompson’s final shooting spree takes place at a drive-in theater where Byron Orlok is scheduled to give a final public appearance before retiring from acting.

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The final confrontation between Orlok and Thompson is satisfying on a number of levels (beware of spoilers in this paragraph), beyond the simple enjoyment of seeing Karloff bitch-slap the young villain until he’s reduced to sniveling in fetal position. An optical illusion in which Thompson cannot differentiate between the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok and the real man advancing to disarm him may symbolize Thompson’s inability to differentiate his own twisted fantasies from reality. Orlok’s triumph may also signify that fictional horrors can serve as a protective factor against real-life horrors by exposing them for what they are. Having subdued Thompson, Orlok muses, “Is this what I was afraid of?”

While we can gain some insight into Charles Whitman’s motives through his journals, Thompson is a frustrating character because his motives are never explained. However, the contrast between Orlok and Thompson can also be examined in light of psychological theories of the time. In The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality (1941) and its subsequent editions, Harvey M. Checkley argues that whereas many openly neurotic people are deeply good and loving at their core, psychopaths cause tremendous harm because they are able to effectively fit into societal norms. This argument perfectly parallels these characters. Orlok has made a career by nurturing the appearance of evil, albeit on a superficial level. In his personal life, he’s plagued by insecurity. Yet, at his core, he’s a kind and heroic person. In contrast, Thompson has only the appearance of goodness, trustworthiness, and normalcy masking terrifying schemes of destruction.

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The young villain and his sterile surroundings.

Erich Fromm’s theory of the necrophilous personality, first introduced in The Heart of Man: its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and further detailed later in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness , is also pertinent in explaining Thompson’s character. Fromm’s definition of necrophilia is not simply a sexual attraction to corpses, but an attraction to death and destruction for their own sake. Some of the features of character-rooted necrophilia include authoritarianism, the desire to tear apart living things, and fascination with all things mechanical (in this film evidenced by Thompson’s fetishization of guns). As with his inability to differentiate the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok with the man himself, it seems that Thompson doesn’t view his victims as real, or at least not as human. At one point he tells the gun store clerk that he’s going to “hunt some pigs.” Thompson’s use of firearms to dispatch his victims is cold, distant, clinical, and impersonal. This is visually represented by the icy hues and sterile surroundings in Thompson’s scenes. In contrast,  Orlok fits within Fromm’s description of the biophilous (life-loving) personality, reflected by the warm, earthy hues in his scenes. Orlok’s home is a bit more ornate, messy, and flawed…as he is. Extrapolate Orlok’s characteristics to the genre he represents, and again, there is an indication that the horror genre is on the side of life.

Boris Karloff month: The Black Room and The Walking Dead

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Today, I want to briefly discuss two Boris Karloff films that I adore, but do not get much attention. Be advised, there are spoilers for both films ahead.

The Black Room (1935), is in some respects average and predictable, but it’s Karloff’s performance in a dual role that helps it shine. Karloff plays twins Gregor and Anton, both members of a European royal family in the late 1700’s. The great thing about this film is how it showcases Karloff’s acting range as the kindly twin Anton and the depraved twin Gregor.

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While Gregor’s appearance is slightly disheveled, and Anton has a paralyzed arm, there are no significant differences in makeup effects for the two characters. The radical difference in demeanor is all due to Karloff’s versatility of performance. Although Anton is predictably murdered by Gregor at the halfway mark, it was great to watch Karloff in a kindhearted role that more closely mirrored his own personality. Some of Karloff’s other great scenes in the film are when Gregor assumes Anton’s identity, only to struggle with maintaining a facade of kindness as well as mimicking Anton’s disability.

The Black Room is available on DVD in the Boris Karloff Collection – 6 Movie Set: The Black Room, The Man They Could Not Hang, The Man With Nine Lives, Before I Hang, The Devil Commands, and The Boogie Man Will Get You.

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The next film I want to discuss is The Walking Dead (1936), directed by Michael Curtiz. The Walking Dead is, in many ways, a ripoff of Frankenstein, but inverts the tropes of that film so extensively that the results are rather unique. Karloff portrays John Ellman, who is framed and wrongfully executed for murder. After being put to death by electric chair, Ellman is resurrected by a benevolent scientist who wishes to learn the secrets of the afterlife.

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Contrary to the salacious movie poster (see above), Karloff isn’t a bloodthirsty monster at all, but rather, a victim. Karloff’s performance is so effective because of his wonderfully expressive eyes, which bleed vulnerability. Like his character in Frankenstein, Karloff plays the role of monster-as-victim, with some important differences. Ellman retains his skills as a concert pianist and remains verbally articulate. He has a surprisingly sweet and gentle platonic friendship with the lead female character. And, most importantly, he doesn’t kill anyone. Ellman unwittingly becomes an agent of karma or of God’s judgement, because when confronts the men who framed him, they kill themselves. Each time, he is distressed to see them die and saddened that his own unjust death is never explained.

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The Walking Dead is available as part of a 4-film DVD set, Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics (The Walking Dead / Frankenstein 1970 / You’ll Find Out / Zombies on Broadway). This set is worth purchasing for this film alone and for the excellent commentary tracks on The Walking Dead and on Frankenstein 1970.

Horrific Homemaking: Classic Horror Film Coasters

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While at Horrorhound Indianapolis 2016, I met the guys from Tarr and Fether’s Psycho Cinema, and notice their series of cool 4-piece coaster sets based on classic movie posters. As you can see, I went with the set that reflected the work of my favorite actors Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, among others.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t see a listing for other coaster sets at tarrandfether.com, but you may be able to inquire about purchasing a set there. Better yet, try to pick up a set  in person at one of their conventions!

Introducing the Justin Beahm Radio Hour

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In case you haven’t caught it, my dear friend Justin Beahm started his own podcast earlier this year, The Justin Beahm Radio Hour. You may already know Justin through his work as a writer with Fangoria and many other horror magazines, as well as the producer of many Blu-ray special editions of great horror films. And of course, Justin had a leading role in Silk, which was previously reviewed on this blog. In his podcast, Justin conducts thoughtful interviews with a variety of people in the horror film industry.

Episode 6 of Justin’s show is a real treat, because Justin interviewed my friend Andrew Divoff. This episode is special not only because I can hear two good friends’ voices, but also because this may be the most in-depth and personal interview Andrew has given.

Check out Episode 6 here.

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Support Justin’s work by subscribing to his podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and Youtube.

Black Friday Special: Discounted Karloff Movies

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No, we aren’t actually selling any Karloff movies today. Rather, we are recognizing that Boris Karloff, like all great actors, starred in a number of films either not worthy of his talents, or films that were quite good but overlooked and discounted by critics and moviegoers alike. Coincidentally, many of these films are available for purchase at a bargain bin discount – often in a multi-movie set – through retailers such as Amazon.

I’ve personally decided to boycott Black Friday shopping in favor of revisiting these discounted Karloff films. It seems only appropriate to start this list with…

Black Friday (1940). Karloff plays a mad scientist who transplants the brain of a gangster into the body of a kindly professor. This is not done merely to see if it can be done, but because the gangster had access to a sizable sum of hidden cash which Karloff needs to fund his hospital and experiments. Where this film falls down for me is the fact that the brain recipient retains both the memories of the criminal and the professor, shuttling between the two in Jekyll and Hyde fashion. Even within the illogical nature of horror film logic, this was…illogical.

Frankenstein 1970 (1958). Karloff plays Dr. Frankenstein rather than the monster in this meta-ish 1950s reboot of the classic tale. Karloff’s character is working on a new Monster, which will be re-animated using atomic power. Things get complicated when he decides to allow a TV film crew to document his work. This film never breaks the 4th wall, but leans heavily against it. This movie isn’t as cool as it should have been, due to hammy performances and unintentionally funny moments in which Dr. Frankenstein bumbles and fumbles multiple sets of eyes intended for the Monster, necessitating the murder of multiple characters whose bodies get thrown into an oversized garbage disposal. The best part of this film is easily the commentary track on the DVD set Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics (The Walking Dead / Frankenstein 1970 / You’ll Find Out / Zombies on Broadway)

The Climax (1944). This film had a great concept, with Boris Karloff in his first color film portraying a mad scientist who stalks an opera singer and attempts mind control experiments against her. There’s also implied necrophilia as he keeps the body of his former love object preserved in his chambers. Karloff has some great moments in this film, but like many 1940s movies, the plot frequently grinds to a halt to introduce a series of musical numbers. Worse, the musical numbers are not even true opera pieces, but instead a series of dated and forgettable songs performed by the heroine in shrill, yodeling soprano vocalizations. This is fine if you like 1940’s musicals, and the upshot is this movie featured some fun costumes and choreography. If it’s not your thing, fast forward through the musical numbers and shave off 50% of the viewing time.This is available, along with other films, in The Boris Karloff Collection (Tower of London / The Black Castle / The Climax / The Strange Door / Night Key)

Son of Frankenstein (1939). The was last time Karloff donned the makeup to reprise his role as the Monster for Universal Studios. Fans of Mel Brooks’ spoof Young Frankenstein  will recognize this as the source material for several funny scenes and characters. Son of Frankenstein is worth watching, even if lacks the weirdness and brilliance of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. My favorite thing about this film is actually the account of behind-the-scenes tickle wars between Karloff and other cast members, as described in Stephen Jacobs’ Karloff biography More Than a Monster.

You’ll Find Out (1940). Like stereotypical white girls everywhere, I can’t even. This movie wastes the talents of three great actors: Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Bela Lugosi. This is a painful haunted house slapstick comedy punctuated by even more painful and unnecessary musical numbers. This is a movie I reference to illustrate that the 1940’s, along with the 1990’s, committed more crimes against the horror genre than all other decades combined. Avoid this unless you are a masochist or sincerely love 1940’s slapstick musical horror-comedies.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949).As you can tell, 1940’s horror comedies are not my favorite, but there is some clever writing here, especially in the dialogue. For instance, the villain offers a character the choice of how he wants to die, and gets the response, “old age!” Despite the title, Karloff is actually not the killer. If you enjoy the comedy of Abbott and Costello, you will enjoy this.

Mr. Wong, Detective (1938). In this film and its sequels, Karloff dons “yellowface” to play the titular character. The upside is that, unlike his turn as Dr. Fu-Manchu, Karloff’s character is a positive, capable, and heroic character. This series is likely to be overlooked by horror fans, but is entirely worthwhile for those interested in crime dramas and murder mysteries.

The Night Key (1937). A solid crime drama in which Karloff plays a scientist who invents a cutting-edge security system and ends up being held hostage by criminals who want the key to crack his invention. Karloff’s character is a kind elderly man with failing eyesight, and it’s easy to empathize with his misfortune. This film is worth watching just to see the diversity of Karloff’s acting range apart from monsters and villains.

Given Karloff’s career in over 200 films and TV shows,  this list barely scratches the surface of his overlooked  and discounted films. Stay tuned for additional reviews of his work as November draws to a close.

 

 

Happy Birthday to Boris Karloff, a beautiful soul

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Today is Boris Karloff’s birthday, so it seems fitting to dedicate this post to his life, and to extend happy birthday wishes to his daughter Sara Jane Karloff who shares his November 23rd birthday.

I confess that I knew very little about Boris Karloff as a person before beginning this blog, but exploring his life has been a beautiful, inspiring journey. The first biography that I read was Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt a.k.a. Boris Karloff by Cynthia Lindsay, who was a friend of Karloff’s for many years. Lindsay’s book is entirely worth reading, as she provides some wonderful insights into Karloff as a kind and devoted friend. But her book raises as many questions as it answers. Despite having been his friend for decades, there were many things that Cynthia did not know about Karloff’s life due to the fact he was a vey private person. Despite her best efforts at research, there were many details she simply could not uncover. Some of these details I found mysterious and unnerving. For example, he never discussed his childhood and revealed his five marriages after many years of friendship. I wonder if , in this era in which people share minute details of their lives on social media, people would regard Karloff’s secrecy about his private life with suspicion. Perhaps such discretion regarding personal matters is a lost virtue.

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The next book on the list was Boris Karloff: A Gentleman’s Life  Scott Allen Nollen. The author was able to consult with Karloff’s daughter, Sara, resulting in a more detailed account of Karloff’s life. My only complaint about this book is that the print is surprisingly small and there is no ebook edition. But if one can overlook the irksome font, this is a delightful book that gives great insight into Karloff’s character.

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Boris with his daughter, Sara Jane, who shares his birthday.

Lastly, there’s Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster by Stephen Jacobs. This is, perhaps, THE authoritative text on Karloff’s life. I admit that I have not finished reading it yet, as it is over 500 pages long. What I’ve read is absolutely engrossing, as Jacobs was able to obtain previously unpublished material, including family letters. (However, what I’ve read so far does not shed much light on his five marriages.) I highly recommend this book, but am sad to report that it appears to be out of print and it is difficult to obtain affordable copies. Currently, the best and least expensive way to obtain a copy is directly thought Karloff.com, the official site maintained by Sara Karloff and other relatives.

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Boris as a child

Obviously, there is no way to summarize these three biographies, so I’ll just share a series of interesting and inspiring facts about Boris Karloff’s life and personality.

Karloff’s birth name was William Henry Pratt. He claimed his stage name “Karloff” was derived from Russian ancestors on his mother’s side of the family. However, all of the biographies I’ve read state that he was of Anglo-Indian heritage, and didn’t find evidence to support his claims of Russian ancestry.

Boris came from a long line of English diplomats. He was considered the black sheep of the family due to his lack of interest in  adopting their profession.

He attempted to join the British military during World War I, but was rejected due to a heart murmur. He was also bow-legged and had a severe stutter and lisp.

Karloff started his acting career in the theater, and then performed in roughly 80 films before getting his “big break” as the Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Before this role made him famous, he earned most of his income through hard labor, including ditch-digging.

Karloff was liberal in his political views. Biographer Cynthia Lindsay describes him as a “civil rights fighter.” Interestingly, despite being an advocate for all people, he never revealed his own East Indian heritage due to the racism of his time. When asked how he got his deep tan, he would give responses such as “Too much sun. Out of work, you know!”

He was one of the charter members of the Screen Actors Guild. SAG was founded because actors were forced to work in truly hazardous conditions at that time, and often for little pay. Karloff served as the director of SAG for multiple terms.

Karloff’s charitable work included dressing as Santa Claus and visiting a local hospital at Christmastime. In their excitement to see him, the children knocked over and trampled the large Christmas tree that decorated the children’s wing. Other charitable activities included renovating old churches and creating a fund to help young athletes.

Boris had a great love of animals, and cared for several dogs, chickens, turkeys, a cow, and a pet pig at his farmhouse. He also tended a vegetable farm and flower garden on his property. In the A&E documentary The Gentle Monster, one film historian went so far as to describe Karloff as the “St. Francis of Assisi of horror actors.” His other hobbies included playing soccer and cricket.

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Boris with Elsie the cow.

The sources I’ve read unanimously describe Karloff as an extraordinarily kind and gentle person, though the press seemed to have trouble reconciling his kind personality with his villainous film roles. Boris himself claimed negative social effects from being typecast: “I’m a quiet citizen, I have my home, my dogs and my orchids. I vote and pat little children on the head. What does it get me? Queer stares from strangers and even more unusual glances from friends. Every time I walk into a room, there is a noticeable lull in the merrymaking.” (Quoted in More Than a Monster.)

However, those who knew him reported a different perception. His wife Dorothy states that these roles were beneficial: “Before Boris began playing sinister parts…he was a much more irritable person than he ever has been since. Whether or not these roles give him the opportunity of purging himself of any latent streaks of malevolence he might ordinarily possess, I cannot say. But I do know that…he is a much sweeter person at home than before. He really is a lamb.” (Quoted in More Than a Monster.)

In a 1941 radio show, Boris referred to himself as “Cuddles Karloff,” which wasn’t inaccurate according to his friends. Cynthia Lindsay recalls, “I never thought of him as a ‘movie star,’ only as a woolly friend. And there is a tactile memory of him that is woolly, the good soft tweeds and the silvery gray hair that had always been shaved for some monstrous role and for which, as it grew furring in, he charged fifty cents a feel. In advance. (Beards were a dollar. They were rarer.)”

Former President Ronald Regan shared his memories of Karloff in a letter to Cynthia Lindsay as “one of the warmest, kindest, most gentle human beings I have ever met, and at all times a perfect gentleman… He had great, good common sense plus a sense of fairness typical of his great integrity.”

 

Horrific Homemaking: Things to Make and Do With Boris Karloff

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Today we are doing our fist edition of Horrific Homemaking, wherein we will cover anything related to home decor, cooking, and arts and crafts. In honor of Boris Karloff’s birth month, I’m kicking this off with Things to Make and Do…with Boris Karloff. If only this were a real craft book. It’s actually a two-part craft project outlined on the blog Baking With Medusa. (Note: the images in this post are from that blog, not my own creation).

In Part One, there are instructions for making Boris Karloff finger-puppets. Just print out images of your favorite Karloff characters, add cardboard backing for support, and cut out holes for your index and middle fingers.

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In Part Two, we are given instructions for creating a miniature theater, so you can recreate the iconic windmill scene from Frankenstein.

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In other news, Todd and I have recorded our first two podcast episodes! We are now working on upgrading the website to become compatible with uploading them.