In the early 1930s, Boris Karloff was a hard-working actor with dozens of small credits to his name when James Whale asked him to take on a new role: the creature in Frankenstein. Karloff threw himself into the part and an icon was born. Since then, Karloff's name and Halloween have been forever linked in the minds of cinephiles.
Nearly five decades after his death, Karloff remains a horror film staple thanks to dozens of roles in monster flicks, creepy thrillers, mad scientist showdowns, B-movie creature features, and much more. He remains, alongside fellow Universal horror legend Bela Lugosi, one of the greatest horror icons of all time. Since SYFY WIRE talked about Lugosi's best work around this time last year, we thought it fitting to give Karloff a little love, as well.
So, if you're planning a Boris Karloff film festival ahead of Halloween (and really, everyone should be), here are 10 of his most iconic roles ranked by the level of brilliance and versatility displayed. Some are spookier than others (and one's not spooky at all), but they are all essential films from one of the most unforgettable actors of the 20th century.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
Yes, it's a voice-only performance, and yes, it's a Christmas TV special, but any discussion of Karloff's massive legacy feels incomplete without a mention of The Grinch.
Even as we prepare to see yet another interpretation of Dr. Seuss' iconic reformed villain on the big screen, it's hard to top Karloff's dual roles here as both the narrator and the titular character. He's talking almost constantly during the special, he shifts seamlessly between the subtly distinct voices of the two characters, and he's capable of sounding both scary and legitimately joyous throughout. It's a classic for a reason.
The Sorcerers (1967)
In one of his final film roles, Karloff puts a bittersweet spin on the mad scientists he was so often associated with throughout his career.
This time, he played an aging doctor who develops a technology that will allow him to feel and manipulate the experience of another person through an advanced hypnosis technique. When he and his wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey) use the technique on a young man, Estelle begins craving increasingly greater power and violence, leaving Karloff's character suffering as he watches his wife's mental state (and his technology) deteriorate.
Karloff had a knack for using an academic or even aristocratic voice and body language to portray sophisticated characters who later sank into deep depravity. That kill is on full display in this classic, produced by the great Val Lewton.
Karloff is deliciously nasty as Master George Sims, the ruthless manager of an asylum that he plans to keep control over at all costs. It remains an effective, even terrifying film because you're really not sure just how far he might go.
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Another collaboration between Karloff and Lewton (this time directed by the great Robert Wise), The Body Snatcher allowed Karloff to take advantage of his more subtle acting transformation techniques, dropping those sophisticated tones to play a down and dirty — but nonetheless extremely crafty — grave robber. His wicked grin is endlessly eerie, and yet you still feel like you might want to sit down in the pub and have a beer with him.
Black Sabbath (1963)
Karloff took advantage of two of his greatest acting skills in this Mario Bava classic, embodying both the master of ceremonies for the horror anthology and the bloodthirsty monster in the segment "The Wurdalak." In the former he is, of course, charming and witty. In the latter, he brings a latter-day version of everything he delivered in Frankenstein, equal parts terrifying and pitiful.
The Mummy (1932)
Karloff became a legend for roles performed with the aid of heavy makeup. But part of his brilliance was in creating small, extremely detailed gestures that worked with that makeup.
The Mummy is a master class in how to do that. Karloff shines throughout the film, even in an apparently mortal form, but the centerpiece is the moment when Imhotep rises from the dead for the first time. Karloff plays the scene wordlessly, but those mournful eyes opening for the first time tell the whole story.
The Black Room (1935)
Every time you think you've seen the limits of Karloff's transformative powers, there's another film to prove he had more to show us, and The Black Room is one of those films.
In this Gothic thriller, he plays twin brothers with distinctive looks, personalities, and even voices, and he shifts between the two of them so expertly that sometimes you forget you're watching Boris Karloff. The scenes in which he's acting against himself in split-screen are particularly striking and show just how gifted he was in using his entire body as an instrument.
One of Karloff's final films is also one of his most fascinating. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich under the low-budget philosophy of the great Roger Corman, Targets is a masterpiece of suspense, metafiction, and clever use of a major star in a minimal way. Karloff plays Byron Orlok, an aging horror film star hellbent on retiring who agrees to make one final public appearance at a drive-in theater showing his last film. Also at the theater that night is a young man in the midst of a shooting spree. It's hard to watch in 2018, but Targets is brilliant, and Karloff's climactic confrontation with the killer makes for some of his best work.
The Black Cat (1934)
If there's one Karloff classic modern audiences should be watching more, it's The Black Cat. The best of a handful of films he made opposite fellow horror titan Bela Lugosi, The Black Cat features Karloff going full supervillain in an extremely entertaining way. He lives in a spooky house, wears a shimmering smoking jacket, reads books on Satanism in bed, and even plays full-on Phantom of the Opera organ music at one point.
And even if that's not enough to convince you, the film is worth it just for his reading of the line, "Even the phone is dead..."
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Bride of Frankenstein still succeeds in ways few sequels can ever hope to more than eight decades after its release, in part because so much of it is so unexpected.
The turn to dark comedy is brilliant, of course, but it doesn't work at all if Karloff isn't willing to evolve his creature, and as wonderful as he is in the original film. He somehow surpasses the first with this portrayal of a monster's trepidatious attempts at learning and growing in a world that still largely hates and fears him.
For decades now, Frankenstein's monster has been remembered in the public eye as a makeup job, but watch any other portrayal of the classic Universal version and you'll see that it was Karloff who made the creature an icon.