William Henry Pratt would become world famous when he was billed as a question mark on the credits of James Whale’s classic horror movie Frankenstein (1931). The story goes that Mr Whale was enjoying lunch in a Hollywood canteen while mulling over the problem of who could take the role of the Frankenstein monster. Into the canteen walked English actor Boris Karloff, perennial bit player in movies since 1915 with only a handful of major roles under his belt. Two that stood out were the gangster in Scarface and as the murderous trustee in The Criminal code. His role as a mysterious hypnotist in The Bells had also shone in 1925. Whale studied the actor and made drawings of his skull adding edges where the make-up would be attached. He had found his monster and the rest is history as Karloff would become, arguably, the greatest horror star who ever lived.
But the actor only incorporated vampires into his resume three times. The first foray was as the psychotically deranged scientist Dr Niemann in Universal’s House of Frankenstein (1944). Neimann is an escaped convict who takes over Professor Lampini’s Chamber of Horrors travelling circus that boasts the remains of Count Dracula. Re-animating the Count by pulling the stake from his heart, he also unearths the bodies of The Wolfman, Lon Chaney and the Frankenstein Monster played by ex-cowboy star and stuntman Glenn Strange. The film was a lot of fun but barely raised a shudder as all the characters were thinly sketched caricatures of their former selves and only held shocks that a child of three years old could withstand. Karloff brought his usual professionalism and sepulchral whisper to the role in this mad monster marathon.
Karloff as Gorca
A year later, Karloff continued his association with the Republic studios and it’s producer of low-grade effective horror movies, Val Lewton. Lewton and Karloff had already collaborated on The Bodysnatcher, a chiller that ranks as one of the actor’s best, co-starring Bela Lugosi and Henry Daniell. The Isle of The Dead (1945) with it’s tale of a vorvolaka terrorizing a Greek burial place in 1912 was a little more ambitious.
Karloff plays General Pherides a hard-bitten war veteran who is stranded on a remote island with various characters infested with the plague. The most excrutiatingly nauseous character being a cockney salesman who just wants to taste fish and chips again – I’m glad that he gets bumped off very quickly. His corpse proves that the plague has struck and General Pherides uses his authority to keep everyone bound to the island. A doctor makes a wager with an archeologist that medicine is a better tool than prayer to cure their ills. The doctor soon contracts the plague and the archeologist burns leaves to the Goddess Hermes.
Meanwhile an old witch named kyra has pierced the General’s sense of proportion as she tells of her tales of the vorvolaka – the vampire – and that Thea, the young girl is feeding off of her mistress in the night! When her mistress apparently dies, it comes to light that she is in fact, cursed with catalepsy and there are fears that she may have been buried alive. Clawing her way out of the tomb, she feeds the imaginations of the remaining few of the evils of the vorvolaka. She murders the General and the old witch, before falling from a cliff edge and dying a second time leaving the young leads to leave the island the following morning. Isle of the Dead is atmospheric, but a very wordy piece and the ideas inherent in the story would be utilised with better effect in Roger Corman’s The Fall of The House of Usher (1960).
Karloff’s final vampire movie belongs in the 25 minute segment of Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963), based on the short story The Wurdalak by Leo Tolstoy. Gorca is the father who brings back the head of Ali Bek a known bandit and vampire. He has left instructions that he shouldn’t be allowed in the house if he returns after midnight. Midnight strikes and Gorca arrives home. The next twenty minutes are probably the most frightening 20 minutes of early 60s cinema as the doomed patriarch turns all his family into blood drinkers like himself.
It has been stated that Karloff’s name was on the long list as a tentative choice to play Dracula, leaving the Whale story hanging in the air! However, I for one am glad that he didn’t play the Count. Bela Lugosi received the part for all the right reasons. Both actors had totally different approaches to their characters and we can probably catch a glimpse of Karloff’s Dracula in the remake by Karl Freund as Ardeth Bay in The Mummy (1932), the first film to cash in on the ‘lost love’ storyline.
Happy Birthday to Vincent Price who would reach his 100th year this month. Another actor who’s name has become synonymous with the horror movie. His first horror role being as the brother of Claude Rain’s The Invisible Man in The Invisible Man Returns (1940). The first horror star to actually terrify me when I viewed my very first horror movie that turned out to be The Fall of The House of Usher in the early 70s. And it made me wanting more! I loved the BBC reruns of all the Roger Corman movies, my favourite being The Pit and the Pendulum, which co-starred Barbara Steele.
I watched Price cut down a cast of characters in the two Phibes movies and cheered his Dr Death of Madhouse. The Witchfinder General left me wide-eyed and open-mouthed – I slept with the light on for weeks! Theatre of Blood introduced me to Shakespeare better than any school curriculum could have as Edward Lionheart butchered the critics who had stopped him receiving the best actor award by constantly writing bad notices. For me this is easily Vincent Price’s best horror movie. It illustrates the genius of his tongue in cheek approach on the genre. The petty-mindedness that only Price could pull off and still have you cheering for him!
But it did irk me when he gave interviews where he had to associate his name to the legend of Dracula by journalists who had obviously not read their page notes.
For the record, Mr Price never played Dracula! He did play Baron Sforza in the comedy series The F Troop in the mid-sixties. He also grew fangs while being interviewed by iconic puppet Kermit in the classic The Muppets series in the mid-seventies.
The only time he really played a vampire was as the aristocrat, Eramus, in the kiddie-orientated The Monster Club (1980). Putting the bite on ex-Dracula John Carradine, playing R Chetwynd-Hayes, he relates three stories to the bewildered author written by Chetwynd-Hayes. These tales feature A Shadmock, who only whistles, a vampire trapped in his lair by the dreaded Bleeney, with Donald Pleasance wearing fangs for the first and only time, and the scariest of the three, The Humgoo, about a town inhabited by flesh-eating ghouls. Have you seen Patrick McGee in this! The film, as I view it today, leaves me wondering why Eramus would enjoy the Monster Club at all. But it is fun to see the two horror stars kidding their old roles
Price found a whole new legion of fans when he added his velvet tones to Michael Jackson’s Thriller single and his last role would see him as ‘The Creator’ in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. In 1990, he had hosted a hour long documentary on the real Vlad Tepesh in Vincent Price’s Dracula in which he plainly states, ‘a part I have never played!’ This was spiced up with some clips of Nosferatu and Bela lugosi’s Dracula, while it ran through various folklore and superstition surrounding Transylvania.
But Vincent Price was really too big for the part of Dracula in a serious adaptation. I don’t think that the role would have done him any favours. To me he will always remain the visual representation of Edgar Allen Poe’s nightmares. The one could have invented the other! As a fan of both Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, I doff my hat and give thanks for the many hours I spent in my formative years trembling under the covers after telling my mum that I was ok to watch this-or-that movie that the stars were appearing in on that particular night!
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