Dirk’s Five – Karloff the Uncanny

Calling all horror fans (and thanks to Dom for alerting me to this one): after his heavily US-centric series last year, last night Mark Gatiss returned to the history of horror with an excellent new documentary ‘Horror Europa’ (for British readers, or non-British ones with naughty internet skills, it’s now available on the BBC iPlayer here). It’s well worth watching if only to see the coda to Italian horror anthology BLACK SABBATH (1963), in which Boris Karloff is seen galloping along on the back of a horse, laughing like a madman, only for the camera to slowly pan out and reveal it’s a fake half-a-horse, and crewmen are running round him with branches to create the illusion of movement. This was actually in the finished film. Uncannily, he seems to lose the lisp in Italian as well.

Following his disappointing henchman role in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, Karloff allegedly turned down the starring role in James Whale’s next project, THE INVISIBLE MAN (which, in a complete reversal of HOUSE, would’ve given him plenty of lines but no screentime). By the mid-forties he had begun to tire of the Universal monster factory altogether, and left to make a trilogy of more psychological horror films for Val Lewton at RKO, all of which are well worth seeking out. In later years he began something of an international tour, making films in Italy, the UK and Mexico. To cap off Halloween week, here is a Friday Five containing my personal favourites from a cross-section of the career of Enfield’s most famous truck driver (and, as always, one to lock in a windmill and set fire to)




Is this the best sequel of all time? Yes, yes it is: it’s Whale and Karloff revisiting Frankenstein, except this time they’ve brought Ernest Thesiger along as cinema’s maddest mad scientist Doctor Septimus Pretorius. Karloff’s performance is by turns terrifying and moving. He argued against having his most iconic Monster speak in the film, and would continue to complain about it years later

“The speech… stupid!”

So he didn’t need verbs in real life either.

2. THE BLACK CAT (Ulmer, US, 1934)

The trouble with Satanists is they give Satan a bad name. The first of many collaborations between Karloff and fellow Universal horror legend Bela Lugosi, who, if the song is to believed, is dead. Lugosi is a psychiatrist released after fifteen years in a prisoner of war camp who sets out to discover what has happened to his missing wife and daughter. Karloff is an architect with a natty haircut who believes he can help him. If you’re thinking “no good can come of this”, you’d be right.


3. BEDLAM (Robson, US, 1946)

Inspired by the Bethlam/Bedlam scenes from Hogarth’s series of paintings ‘A Rake’s Progress’, BEDLAM is a Val Lewton-produced psychological horror featuring one of Karloff’s most menacing performances, as the smiling, sadistic governor of the asylum.

4. THE SORCERERS (Reeves, UK, 1967)

The second of only three films directed by emerging British talent Michael Reeves, who died at the age of 25 shortly after completing his masterpiece THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968). Here, Karloff is a master hypnotist who has developed techniques for controlling the mind and sharing the sensations of his subjects. Like Derren Brown but without the made-up stuff and the stooges. In order to test his powers out he accosts Ian Ogilvy in Chiswick Wimpy (don’t go looking for it, it’s not there anymore). What follows is like a sixties version of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999), as Karloff and his elderly wife become addicted to living vicariously through the young man, and make him do terrifying things, like breaking all the eggs in his fridge WITH HIS BARE HANDS.


5. THE APE (Nigh, US, 1940)

A film that almost made this list is Val Lewton’s classic adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson story THE BODY SNATCHER (1945). Set in Edinburgh around the time of the Burke and Hare murders, Karloff plays a cab driver paid by a surgeon to steal corpses for research who turns to murder to keep the supply flowing. THE APE has an almost identical premise, except here Karloff plays the Doctor figure. A Doctor who dresses in the skin of an ape he killed himself as an “ingenious” disguise. Yeah, that’ll work.

3 responses to “Dirk’s Five – Karloff the Uncanny

  1. No room for THE MUMMY?

    It is a really pity that he was on Broadway doing ARSENIC AND OLD LACE while the film was being made … it would have been good to have seen him as Jonathan Brewster.

    • Yes, and Raymond Massey doesn’t even look that much like Karloff.

      I watched ‘The Mummy’ again last weekend actually. The opening scene where Karloff comes to life is great but after that it turns into the backroom wranglings of an episode of Time Team.

  2. Pingback: Starburst Memories: A Pictorial History of Horror by Denis Gifford | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

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