ALERT ALERT: if you love monster movies and have never seen Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1931), get ye to the Brattle Theatre today at 4:00. It's not only the ur-source for mummy movies and sinister ancient Egyptian sorcery movies, it's one of the earliest uses I've ever seen of the genre where an immortal-sexy-evil-magic dude seeks his reincarnated sweetie. (See Bram Stoker's Dracula et al.)
My thing for Karloff continues unabated. His appearance invites cliche as I try to describe what makes him beautiful to me. Wouldn't I sound twee if I said that his eyes are caverns full of shadow? Yet they are. That's just what they are. Directors who give him a lot of front-lighting are wasting their time.
Apparently Karloff (birth name William Henry Pratt) was one-quarter or one-eighth East Indian. This was a secret during most of his life--when somebody asked him "How did you get such a good tan?" he would answer "A tight collar and too much gin!" He exoticized himself in different ways: bogus Russian name, roles we'd call brownface or yellowface. I think the point was that if he was going to let people fetishize him as exotic/mysterious/foreign, he'd only let that happen in the ways he chose. In a few of his young pictures he has an enormous mustache to balance his huge eyebrows, and that's the only point where he looks Indian to me--you could imagine him as a young guru.
I saw the Frankenstein/BoF marathon before Halloween, with a live interview beforehand: Sara Karloff, Bela Lugosi Jr. The latter looks like a carbon copy of his dad, minus everything performery; the former is a handsome middle-aged woman with big deep-set eyes and a deliberate white streak in her black hair. They and the interviewer spent time decrying the decline of the horror genre. You know the meme: back in my father's day we had psychological terror, there was subtlety, imagination, skill; these days it's buckets of blood and severed thumbs and the Saw movies. I think this is the horror-film equivalent of how every genre has old silverback writers/creators/experts who go on TV in leather jackets/stand up at conventions/write opinion columns and cry about how the genre is being destroyed and whippersnappers are doing it wrong. *coughJoshicough*
Oh well, there are plenty of horror fans (Ms. Karloff isn't one, by her own admission) who themselves say the genre has degenerated into torture porn. But I would like to point out that in the prime of B&W horror, not everything was suggestion and indirection. Let me direct your gaze to The Black Cat (1934), in which Karloff plays a character named Hjalmar Poelzig who is basically Alistair Crowley except also a war criminal who has stuffed and mounted his past girlfriends and wives. He would probably also be a Nazi, except that it's 1934 and the world did not have the Nazi sorcerer pulp-fiction villain cliche yet. I unironically love this movie.
Let me direct you to a fanvid of this movie set to "The New Zero" by Rasputina. It's a nice little bento box of the horrors on display. All the characters are perverts except for the chaste hero and heroine, our Brad and Janet. Most of the perverts are also sex offenders and murderers and traitors to their nations. Rather more appealingly, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff play a pair of former friends who are heavily implied to have been shagging back in their youth. ("The years have been kind to you," says one on beholding the other for the first time in decades.) The movie is about their torturing each other. It ends with Lugosi's character trussing up Poelzig and skinning him alive.
Come and see the violence inherent in the system! NOTE: no actual horror on display in this picture. Safe for the squeamish. It does contain shirtless Boris Karloff, but I consider that a plus and not a minus.
This entry was supposed to be about half as long. Damn my film-lust. Non-damn the Universal Pictures marathon at the Brattle. Only the unimaginative suppose that horror must be confined to Halloween.