In Praise of Karloff the Uncanny

On Film / Essays — Jan 22, 2007

Forget the Beatles vs. Elvis: for me the world is divided into Karloff people and Lugosi people, and I’m in the Karloff clique. Bela Lugosi’s oversize mannerisms and thickly accented drawl have always seemed camp to me, while Boris Karloff’s reserve and faint lisp carry an irresistible air of melancholy mystery, an English gentleman with a touch of the exotic.

Born in 1887, Karloff was nearing seventy when he made The Haunted Strangler (1958) and Corridors of Blood (1959), a matched set of black-and-white historical thrillers set in late-nineteenth-century England. Tiny triumphs of imagination and ingenuity over low budgets and stage-bound productions, these variations on the theme of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which decent, upstanding men run afoul of the beast within, offered the horror icon a rare opportunity to remind fright fans he could do much, much more than most filmmakers bothered to ask of him.

The end of the fabled Universal horror cycle, kicked off by Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, wasn’t the end of Karloff. Having spent more than twenty years doing regional theater and uncredited bits and throwaway roles in movies before tasting success, at age forty-four, Karloff never took it for granted; and unlike the troubled Lugosi, he was untemperamental, modest, and willing to work like a galley slave. Yet a few years after his unforgettable, heartbreaking turn as Frankenstein’s damned, doomed creature, Karloff was back in B-movie purgatory: toiling at Monogram’s poverty-row factory as Chinese detective James Lee Wong, in five quickies spun off from the Charlie Chan series; gamely mocking his own image in the murder-mystery parody Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949); squaring off against a comic-strip cop in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947); and playing mad doctors six ways to Sunday. The urbane RKO producer Val Lewton, who turned a routine assignment to make some cheap horror flicks into a series of seven sophisticated, literate, and atmospheric genre films, cast Karloff in three—Isle of the Dead (1945), The Body Snatcher (1945), and Bedlam (1946)—but such opportunities were rare. 

Karloff found more challenging work onstage, and was appearing on Broadway in J. B. Priestley’s drama The Linden Tree, in 1948, when fellow Englishman Richard Gordon showed up to interview him for a U.K. fan magazine. Gordon and his older brother, Alex, were lifelong movie buffs who parlayed their childhood love into lucrative careers. After World War II military service, both found work as publicists, Richard at the venerable Associated British Picture Corporation and Alex at the independent Renown Pictures. But neither saw much opportunity in England, where wartime austerity persisted long after the fighting was over, and they decided to try their luck in America. The Gordons arrived in New York in 1947; Alex was 24, and Richard 21. Alex, who ran a fan club for singing cowboy Gene Autry back home, got a job as advance man for Autry’s extensive tour bookings. He eventually settled in Hollywood and began producing films for American International Pictures. Richard remained in New York and, in 1949, formed Gordon Films, to shop foreign movies to U.S. distributors. He kept in touch with Karloff, a childhood idol, and gradually began coproducing films with his overseas clients.

In 1956, Karloff made him an irresistible offer: Screenwriter Jan Read had written a story called “Stranglehold” especially for Karloff. If Gordon could set it up as a film in England, Karloff—who still had marquee value in genre projects—was in. “Stranglehold” became Grip of the Strangler (The Haunted Strangler in the United States), and Karloff, true to his word, showed up. The Haunted Strangler was shot back-to-back with Gordon’s much-loved Fiend Without a Face, at U.K. film-industry pioneer Cecil Hepworth’s venerable Nettlefold Studios, in Walton-on-Thames; distributor MGM later released them together on a double bill. The strangler story features Karloff as the successful, socially conscious novelist James Rankin, who becomes fascinated by the case of Edward Styles, hanged twenty years earlier as the notorious, prostitute-murdering Haymarket Strangler. Rankin’s conviction that the wrong man died on the gallows prompts him to undertake his own investigation, which begins in a raucous cancan joint provocatively called the Judas Hole and ends with a nightmarish journey into his own past. Where lesser actors might have squeezed every drop of pulp melodrama from Rankin’s agonies, Karloff taps into a vein of pure, understated tragedy.

Cinematographer-turned-director Robert Day—who also ­directed Corridors of Blood—does wonders with shadows and fog, and Brit-horror fans will recognize pneumatic blonde Vera Day, of Quatermass 2 and Womaneater (as well as her own one-woman book of views by nudie auteur Harrison Marks), as Pearl, the saucy cancan girl who wears her frilly panties and garters very nicely indeed. Gordon’s contract with Karloff’s agent gave him the option to make two features with the actor, and the post–Haunted Strangler scramble for a suitable second project—one idea, a full-color, CinemaScope Dracula, with Karloff as the count, foundered on copyright considerations—produced Corridors of Blood. Jean Scott Rogers—who worked her way up from secretarial jobs to a lucrative career writing teleplays, including more than one hundred episodes of the long-running U.K. medical soap Emergency Ward 10 (1957–67)—concocted, along with Day and producer John Croydon, a psychological thriller inspired by the nineteenth-century dentist Horace Wells’s pioneering efforts to find chemical anesthetics that would take the agony out of medicine, with a dash of the case of the notorious Edinburgh “resurrectionists” William Burke and William Hare, who murdered unwary down-and-outers and sold their corpses to medical colleges for dissection.

Shot at MGM British Studios, in Borehamwood, as The Doctor from Seven Dials, Corridors of Blood cast Karloff as the humanitarian surgeon Thomas Bolton, who volunteers at a charity hospital in London’s notorious Seven Dials slum and refuses to accept that “pain and the knife” are inseparable. Unfortunately, Bolton’s experiments with the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide result in a nasty little addiction, which makes him vulnerable to blackmail by the murderous innkeeper Black Ben and his partner in crime, Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee). Corridors of Blood represents something of a passing of the torch: Lee was about to take his place in the horror pantheon courtesy of Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (1958), and Karloff was nearing the end of his long reign. And there’s a certain symmetry in the fact that Lee played Frankenstein’s monster in Hammer’s first Gothic horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), while Karloff was the murderous corpse dealer in the Burke and Hare–inspired The Body Snatcher. Corridors of Blood was the first of only two films in which Karloff and Lee appeared together; the second, Curse of the Crimson Altar, opened shortly before Karloff’s death, in February 1969.

As with The Haunted Strangler, Day gave Corridors of Blood a polish that belies its budget (despite a rather obvious painted backdrop at the end of the Seven Dials street set), and Karloff invests Bolton with remarkable contradictory depth: compassionate, prideful, determined, and, ultimately, disgusted at his own weakness, Bolton is no clichéd mad doctor. But whether because the film fell betwixt and between, neither a glossy, prestige historical picture nor the down-and-dirty horror romp its lurid title promised, or because The Flesh and the Fiends (1959)—a lurid account of the Burke and Hare murders starring Donald Pleasence and Peter Cushing—queered the market for body-snatching movies, Corridors of Blood languished unreleased until 1962, when it opened in the U.K. It slunk onto U.S. screens the following year, double billed with Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory.

There were still strong performances to come from Karloff—his work in Michael Reeves’s chilling The Sorcerers (1967) and Peter Bogdanovich’s elegiac Targets (1968) ranks with his best—but his increasingly evident frailty cloaked even comedies like The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) in melancholy. The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood showcase the gentleman ghoul—aging but as yet undiminished by the emphysema that would ultimately kill him—in fine form. Among the many pleasures they have to offer, that might be the greatest.