Monday, 23 November 2009

Happy birthday Boris

It is Boris Karloff's birthday today - or at least would be were he still alive. I was trying to think where I first became aware of that iconic image of him as the monster in James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein movie. I suppose it would have been through parody and cartoons first. It is so ingrained in our consciousness that it feels like we were just born with it.

I first saw that Frankenstein movie when I was in my teens as part of a series - called, I seem to remember, Monster Movies - on TV late on Friday nights. I was spellbound by those early RKO and Universal movies. I haven't seen them for a long time, but they had a huge impact on me and I still think about them now. The series went all the way through to the sexy Hammer movies of the 1960s and I certainly enjoyed those too - though perhaps for other reasons.

I've been thinking a lot about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein of late and although the book bears little resemblance to the James Whale movie - especially in regard to the creature, who is an intelligent and articulate being rather than a shuffling mute - the movie has a resonance all of it's own.

Karloff's performance is superb. Karloff had acted in dozens of movies before but he became synonymous with horror after that. He appeared in so many horror movies it would be boring to list them, but here are a few: FrankensteinThe Old Dark House, The Mummy, The Black Cat, Bride of Frankenstein, The Walking Dead, The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and The Raven. He was great in Peter Bogdanovich's Targets. He had a wonderful voice and even narrated Chuck Jones's animated version of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

But it is as that shuffling mute creature that he really got to me. He managed to act through the make-up and diver's boots and made that character both frightening and sympathetic.

And that is such a haunting combination.

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