There were macabre and fantastical American films in the silent era, many starring "Man of a Thousand Faces" Lon Chaney. But horror as a Hollywood genre arguably didn’t exist before 1931, when Universal released what may be the two biggest monster franchise titles in cinematic history.
One was Tod Browning’s Dracula, starring Hungarian émigré Bela Lugosi as Bram Stoker’s suave bloodsucker. The other was James Whale’s Frankenstein, which starred, uh, "???? — as The Monster." That was the actual on-screen billing, though word soon leaked out that portraying Mary Shelley’s "Modern Prometheus" under grotesque makeup was a certain English actor named Boris Karloff. Well, renamed: Onetime farmhand William Henry Pratt had changed his moniker long before, the better to snatch those multiethnic roles his imposing features could encompass.
Karloff, whose huge film legacy is commemorated in a Balboa Theater retrospective starting this Friday, had labored without much recognition in nearly 80 bit and supporting parts since 1919. Public clamor to identify Frankenstein‘s hulking yet plaintive monster ended that once and for all — making Karloff as notorious as the already Broadway-famed Lugosi overnight. Forever after they’d be linked as Hollywood’s twin ghouls. Both were typecast by genre fame, relegated to endless B-, then Z-grade productions. (Unlike Lugosi, Karloff managed to avoid working with legendarily inept Ed "Plan 9 from Outer Space" Wood — but he did end his career laboring on four back-to-back Mexican horror films of almost equally hilarious artistic bankruptcy. Check out the demented Torture Chamber, released well after his 1969 death and most definitely absent from the Balboa slate.)
Heavy on Golden Era classics, very light on the schlockier work that dominated Karloff’s later years, the retrospective is full of rarities and 35 mm restorations. All the Universal Frankenstein films are represented, plus 1932’s The Mummy — another primary horror figure Karloff made his own. The series’ surprise is its several gangster flicks — a genre that hit the fan just before horror did, affording glower-faced Karloff plenty of employment opportunities. He’s eighty-sixed in a bowling alley in the 1932 Scarface and plays a killer convict in another Howard Hawks film, 1931’s The Criminal Code. You can also see him as a crazed Islamic fundamentalist(!) in 1934’s The Lost Patrol, one rare occasion in which he worked with a "prestige" director like John Ford.
But the bulk of the Balboa’s 26 titles are horror, made by studio talents who never got near an Academy Award — though god knows James Whale’s witty The Old Dark House (1932) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) have aged better than whatever won Oscars those years. Ditto The Body Snatcher a decade later, innovative producer Val Lewton’s take on real-life grave robbers Burke and Hare. Body costarred Lugosi, who’d earlier joined Karloff in expat Hungarian director Edgar G. Ulmer’s tardy riot of German expressionism, The Black Cat (1934). Another gem is 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu, a rare horror effort for sniffy MGM that compensated via high art-deco gloss, sexual sadism, and racial stereotypes pushed to the point of absurdist camp. Under such conditions, Karloff often seems as amused as he is sinister, shading his material not with condescension but with delicate irony. He was never undignified, though the films often were. He gladly participated in ridiculing his own image, however — notably in the stage smash Arsenic and Old Lace, in which his thug character confesses, "I killed him because he said I looked like Boris Karloff."
The gentlemanly offscreen Karloff loved children, and had mixed feelings about his professional prowess at scaring the bejesus out of them. His daughter Sara Karloff kicks off the Balboa series with an evening of home movies and live chat. You can safely bet her reminiscences will land at a safe distance from Mommie Dearest territory. SFBG
"As Sure as My Name is Boris Karloff"
June 2–8, June 16–22
3630 Balboa, SF
For showtimes, see Rep Clock