As we come screaming into All Hallows Eve, allow me to wish you and yours the very best of the season! May the weather favor your trick-or-treating or, if you have/are weak-in-the-knees parents, your trunk-or-treating. (Insert my sad eyeroll here.) Which reminds me: Parental Trick-Or-Treating ProTip #4: To allay any fears regarding wackos placing poisonous razor-bladed lightbulbs in the children’s mini anti-fun Snickers bar, proclaim yourself as taste tester. Then demand random sample pieces to try out, acting as a guinea pig. My dad managed to get through at least a third of our candy while using this ploy and as I’m still here and he’s not, he might have been onto something. After all, such sacrifices must be made for the children!
Speaking of the children, let’s jump right into our Karloff film from his last active decade of work: the 1960s. At this point in his career, Karloff was the survivor, the legend of horror. However, time was catching up to him. He had ever-increasing back problems that had originated during the filming of Frankenstein in 1931. Karloff also had arthritis, heart issues, and difficulty breathing. Due to his failing health, Karloff separately filmed scenes for several movies that would be edited into the final releases. As it turned out, these films ended up being released posthumously.
Even with his health deteriorating, Karloff kept on putting out some fine work. A great example is 1968’s Targets directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Karloff plays an aged horror star who is fed up with the gothic stories, wondering if his time is past. Meanwhile in a parallel story, a sniper is terrorizing the city by killing random unarmed people. The shooter eventually ends up at a drive-in theater…where Karloff is in person to promote a movie. The old horror confronts the new terror. More than 50 years later, Targets is still effective and could be considered a fantastic coda to Karloff’s career.
During the 1960s, Karloff also made The Sorcerers for director Michael Reeves, Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, and Die Monster Die!, which was based in part on a H.P. Lovecraft story. Indubitably, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Karloff’s appearances in two legendary epics: Bikini Beach and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. (Hey, a paycheck is a paycheck! If Boris would rather earn one whilst watching 1960s beach bunnies instead of being stuck in a depressing castle set yet again, then I cannot judge him. You shouldn’t either.)
Boris also made some TV appearances as usual, but by far his longest lasting TV role was providing voice work for 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! This is where my children and many others before them first heard Karloff’s delightfully menacing voice. I also have an audio recording he did of Grinch and it is a much-loved holiday album in our household.
I suppose I should hesitate no longer and as much as it pains me, I must talk about my last Karloff movie choice. Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, DVDs were a fascinating new medium. MGM was releasing some sci-fi/horror back catalog titles under their Midnite Movies imprint. They had a contest and you could win certain levels of prizes. I entered, probably signing my life away in the process. Some months later I found out that I was a runner-up! Therefore, I received a free full sheet reproduction release poster of one of the titles coming from Midnite Movies: 1963’s The Raven, directed by Roger Corman and starring the one, the only Boris Karloff.
Yes, we are going to dive headlong into Roger Corman-land for just a moment. Allow me to state at the outset: I am a Corman fan through and through. I first saw his movies via Mystery Science Theater 3000, which admittedly does create a bias. However, I dug deeper, enjoying the films that he directed and those that he produced. I read his book and came to really appreciate the work he did. Corman had an eye for inexpensive talent that was eager for work. Sure, he made movies like Swamp Women and Gunslinger, but he also found out a way to give actors, directors, screenwriters, and technicians their start. And the movies were entertaining and more importantly, were profitable.
American International Pictures (AIP) wanted Corman to make horror movies for them. Seeing how Hammer Studios had brought back gothic horror, AIP and Corman decided to take a gamble. They were going to make a larger budgeted, full-color horror picture based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. As Poe wasn’t around to demand participation points in the effort, they knew using the source material was not going to be an issue. Starring Vincent Price, House of Usher was successful both critically and commercially. Corman received good reviews as director, the box office was booming, and Corman’s Poe cycle was born.
Corman made a total of eight Poe-related pictures and they are generally regarded as being some of the best of his career. The Raven was the fifth in the cycle. The title is probably the best-known of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, but to make a movie out of this is rather impossible given the short length. The decision was made to continue the atmosphere from one of the stories of the Poe anthology movie Tales of Terror. The Raven would be a comedy.
Since Vincent Price and Peter Lorre had already displayed great chemistry in Tales of Terror, it was a natural choice for them to return in The Raven. Price and Lorre also improvised well together, which provided a nice comic touch. Hazel Court, who had starred in several films for Hammer Studios, was brought in because she had the cleava…I mean, the talents to enhance the story. To play the antagonist, a veteran from the 1935 version of The Raven was chosen: Boris Karloff.
Our story is this: Evil magician Karloff has turned Lorre into a raven during a magic duel. Lorre goes to good magician Price to return him to humanity. He then asks Price to help defeat Karloff. Together with his stepdaughter, Lorre, and Lorre’s son, Price reluctantly goes off to battle Karloff. Of course, this has been Karloff’s plot the entire time because he wants to steal Price’s magical skills. Price and Karloff finally face each other in their own magical duel. I won’t spoil anything, but the victor is someone whose name rhymes with “Mincent Mice”.
Karloff is clearly having fun with this role. Despite Lorre’s tendency to improvise, the script-bound Boris interacts with him quite well. After all, Karloff was starring in movies with Lorre as far back as 1940’s You’ll Find Out. This teaming of Karloff and Lorre together with the always wonderful Vincent Price also proved to be successful. All three starred in The Comedy of Terrors the following year.
The lighter air throughout the proceedings certainly countermands some of the darkness within the other Corman Poe pictures. The Raven isn’t an overlong laugh-a-minute riot, but it has its moments. It is also good to see that apparently Voldemort and Harry Potter took some magic dueling ideas from this movie too. And Karloff and Price didn’t even need a wand, so take that, you whippersnappers!
Of special note is the young man playing Peter Lorre’s son in the film. Everyone starts somewhere, and, in this instance, everyone happened to be Jack Nicholson! Jack had previously starred in some Corman films; Little Shop of Horrors immediately springs to mind. But here Jack gets to share screen time with Karloff, Price, and Lorre. Think about this whenever you watch Five Easy Pieces: just six years earlier, Jack was being berated constantly by Peter Lorre in The Raven. Wow. Why didn’t they play that footage every single time Jack was nominated for an Academy Award?
Now is The Raven a groundbreaking film? Nope. But it makes up for that by being enjoyable. Also, out of the four movies that I’ve chosen for this journey with Boris, it is the only one in which Karloff is deliberately evil. Well, as evil as one can be when having a colorful magic duel in a live action cartoon with Peter Lorre and Vincent Price.
Boris passed away in early 1969, leaving a rich and marvelous legacy behind. Hopefully, this little exercise leads you to examine a few deeper titles in the filmography as I’ve barely scratched the surface. From portraying Frankenstein’s monster to fighting Dick Tracy to perplexing Charlie Chan to being the voice behind a Dr. Seuss legend, Boris Karloff cemented his rightful place in film history.
Have a Happy Halloween and a blessed Reformation! Whoa, now that I think of it, Boris would have made a great Martin Luther in a movie! Can’t you just picture that voice saying, “Here I stand!”? Oh, that gave me chills! Anyway, I’ve got to get started on these possibly poisonous Kit-Kat bars in order to save my children. Who knew that self-sacrifice could be so delicious?