BORIS KARLOFF: THE MAN BEHIND THE MONSTER
Beginning just before his debut as Frankenstein’s creation, “Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster” compellingly explores the life and legacy of a cinema legend, presenting a perceptive history of the genre he personified. His films were long derided as hokum and attacked by censors. But his phenomenal popularity and pervasive influence endures, inspiring some of our greatest actors and directors into the 21st Century – among them Guillermo Del Toro, Ron Perlman, Roger Corman & John Landis all of whom and many more contribute their personal insights and anecdotes.
Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster ultimately provides a compelling, yet frustrating dive into the life of the man forever associated with the Frankenstein mythology. This iconic role and Karloff’s 60-year career in the film is explored in-depth across Thomas Hamilton’s loving and thorough documentary. I left Hamilton’s film with a clear appreciation for two things: the vastness of Karloff’s legacy, and how difficult it must have been to assemble the disparate pieces of this documentary.
Karloff is one of the few stars who successfully built momentum and success from the silent film era into the “talkies”. He brought such understated emotion and gravity to his portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster that his performance remains the gold standard 90 years later. I remember Karloff well from Universal Horror classics such as “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy”, but Hamilton’s film moves quickly, but comprehensively through some of the lesser-known slots on Karloff’s resume.
Featured clips span generations, directors, and co-stars. Karloff’s prodigious work ethic seemed to rival Alexander Hamilton’s, only they weren’t all winners worthy of a musical. It sure felt like a stretch to watch contemporary directors compliment Karloff’s 1932 portrayal of Fu Manchu, a deeply racist film I’ve only run into at the $5 bin at Target. But there are gems to be found even in these lesser-known films – I was stunned and a little charmed to see a young Jack Nicholson co-starring with Karloff in 1963’s “The Terror” (all of Karloff’s scenes were filmed in 2 days).
I wish the same thorough approach had been applied to Karloff’s personal life. I was surprised a film titled The Man Behind the Monster didn’t feature more detail on, well, Boris Karloff. Interviews with Karloff’s daughter were insightful but sparse. The complexities of his racial background are hinted at, but never explored in detail. Sadly, there are no juicy stories from his many marriages (six!)
Ultimately, this film was successful in that I left with a deeper understanding of Karloff, and a strong desire to revisit more of his films. I just wish I had gotten a longer peek at who was under all that monster makeup.
Shout! Studios will be released theatrically by Abramorama on September 17th and features the original song “Frankenstein’s Lament” by famed jazz bassist Jay Leonhart.
Directed by: Thomas Hamilton (Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave A Damn)
Co-Written by: Thomas Hamilton, Ron MacCloskey
Co-Produced by: Thomas Hamilton, Ron MacCloskey
Featuring interviews with:
Guillermo Del Toro
Sir Christopher Frayling