Combustible Celluloid
With: Guillermo del Toro, John Landis, Joe Dante, Christopher Plummer, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Perlman, Leonard Maltin, Christopher Frayling, Sara Karloff, Roger Corman, Dick Miller, Caroline Munro, Stefanie Powers, Lee Grant, Orson Bean, Jack Hill, Leonard Maltin, Donald F. Glut, David J. Skal, Paul Ryan (narrator)
Written by: Thomas Hamilton, Ron MacCloskey
Directed by: Thomas Hamilton
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 99
Date: 09/17/2021

Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

An Appointment in Samarra

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I've been a fan of Boris Karloff, who died just a few months after I was born, almost my whole life. When I interviewed three filmmakers who had worked with him, I used part of my time to ask about him, and they all said the same thing: he was a great fellow, and a gentleman. The new documentary Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster was like a slice of heaven to me. It was pretty much everything I expected it to be, as well as everything I hoped it would be. It's the standard collection of talking heads (but at least with some unique backdrops) and clips. It told stories and gave facts that I already knew, it introduced me to new facts and stories, and it does indeed paint the picture of the man as well as of the artist.

I'll let the movie tell the story about how Karloff (who was born William Henry Pratt) struggled as a child with his relationship with his father, his dark complexion (his mother was part Indian), his bow-legs, his lisp, and his stutter, and about his thankless career in silent films before landing the iconic role of the monster in James Whale's Frankenstein (1931). The movie talks about Jack P. Pierce's incredible, innovative makeup on that film, about how Karloff hated having to throw the little girl in the water, and also about how, even after the movie's release, he was considered little more than a special effect, and was not even invited to the premiere.

Happily, it also discusses the role Karloff landed just before, in Howard Hawks's very good The Criminal Code. From there followed Karloff's long career in horror films. He was of course penned in by typecasting, and struggled to make things interesting for himself, but succeeded in many cases: including the stage production of Arsenic and Old Lace (the doc explains why Karloff wasn't cast in the 1944 movie version), in his three films with producer Val Lewton, and in one of his final works, Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (1968).

The interviewees talk at length about his work ethic, working through back and leg pain and breathing troubles, and his intense, poetic craft. Guillermo Del Toro talks about how Frankenstein was a religious awakening for him, and other interviewees discuss the brilliance of Karloff's performances in The Body Snatcher (one argues that he should have had an Oscar nomination) and in a film I did not know about, The Black Room (1935), wherein the actor played good and evil twins.

The doc leaves off on a positive note, with Karloff's work on a project he was most proud of, voicing Chuck Jones's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (he received a Grammy award for the soundtrack recording), and earning a Tony nomination for The Lark. Indeed, Karloff may not have earned an Oscar nomination during his career (and not even a lifetime achievement award), but it's clear that his filmography contains more great — or beloved — films than many bigger stars who did.

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