More Than a Monster

I just watched the 2021 documentary Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster (currently streaming on Shudder). Any fan of the actor’s work should hasten to do the same.

The documentary doesn’t dwell on the biographical, presenting just enough detail to bring Karloff–born William Henry Pratt–to life (interestingly, he appears to have grown up in a household terrorized by a monster). Instead, the focus here is on Karloff’s professional life, an acting career that was both long and varied, featuring standout roles in film, theater, and television. The audience gets to glimpse behind the scenes of such classic productions as Frankenstein, learning, for instance, how director James Whale’s vindictiveness left a lasting mark on Karloff. More positively, viewers are shown how a Karloff TV appearance helped inspire the smash novelty song, “The Monster Mash.”

Copious clips of Karloff’s acting are included, interspersed with commentary by directors (Guillermo del Toro, Roger Corman, John Landis, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich), fellow actors (Christopher Plummer, Stefanie powers, Ron Perlman, Dick Powell), and film scholars (David J. Skal, Christopher Frayling, Gregory Mank, Leonard Maltin). The documentary doesn’t just offer a career retrospective, but also an analysis of the skills and traits that led to Karloff’s acting success. For all his embodiment of monsters and menacing criminals, Karloff had an uncanny knack for eliciting sympathy and conveying elegance. Underneath all those famous makeups applied by the likes of Jack Pierce was a dedicated thespian; perhaps more than anything else, Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster sketches a portrait of the consummate professional.

An endearing man who gave fearful performances, Karloff has left an enduring legacy, one that this wonderful documentary perfectly captures and will only help to perpetuate.

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