Producers: Nick Howe, Natasha Markou, Duncan Moss and John Ozment Director: Thomas Hamilton Screenplay: Thomas Hamilton and Ron MacCloskey Cast: Boris Karloff, Sara Karloff, Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, Ron Perlman, Leonard Maltin, John Landis, Orson Bean, Roger Corman, Dick Miller, Ian Ogilvy, Peter Bogdanovich, Christopher Plummer and Kevin Brownlow Distributor: Shout! Factory/Abramorama
This year represents the ninetieth anniversary of the release of James Whale’s “Frankenstein,” the picture that made Boris Karloff a star and has unsettled generations of viewers ever since. So what better time to honor William Henry Pratt, Karloff’s actual name, with a documentary that’s both a solid biography and a generous appreciation?
Thomas Hamilton’s “Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster” fills the bill. It offers a nice sketch of his life and career, with archival materials covering the early years and chronologically-arranged clips from the major films he made over the years. Those clips are accompanied by comments (universally complimentary) from a wide selection of directors, critics and fellow actors. It makes for a good, intelligently annotated overview of his screen work naturally concentrating on the most important titles.
His stage work is not overlooked. His early work on the boards receives fairly cursory treatment, but his later appearances on Broadway in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Peter Pan” and “The Lark” (later filmed for television).
But there is much more, including observations from Karloff’s daughter Sara, who offers some revealing anecdotes about her father—including an account of a brief accidental meeting Karloff had with Lon Chaney, Sr., which encouraged him at a time when his career was just beginning.
Hamilton also has two aces that he returns to again and again. One is the footage of the “This Is Your Life” episode in which Karloff, both surprised—and as Sara informs us, rather annoyed—revisited people from his past. Another is an extended radio interview in which Karloff reminisced at length about his life, tactfully correcting misinformation and remaining genial throughout. (True, focusing on a tape recorder while Karloff talks in sometimes muffled tones is not the most imaginative technique one might imagine, but it typifies the homespun character of the entire documentary.)
Hamilton includes moments when Karloff’s sense of self-worth comes amusingly across—Peter Bogdanovich’s memory of his reluctance to agree to a tracking shot that would have removed the focus from him as his delivered a lengthy monologue in “Targets” comes to mind. But he also emphasizes his selfless service to his fellow actors, particularly in terms of his work in establishing the Screen Actors Guild and supporting it for many years—something that Ron Perlman makes special note of. And Karloff’s need to work through pain is repeatedly alluded to, especially with reference to his late-career film and television appearances, when he overcame his frailty to go full-bore when the cameras were turned on.
“Karloff” will win no awards for technical innovation. This is about as conventional a piece of work as you’re likely to find. But Anuree De Silva’s editing keeps things clear, and Laura Forrest Hay’s music doesn’t intrude overmuch. In its simple, straightforward way, it does its subject, so menacing on screen but so gentle and gracious off it, proud.