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  Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster Portrait Of The Artist As A Mad Man
Year: 2021
Director: Thomas Hamilton
Stars: Boris Karloff, Guillermo Del Toro, Ron Perlman, Christopher Plummer, Peter Bogdanovich, Stefanie Powers, John Landis, Orson Bean, Roger Corman, Dick Miller, Joe Dante, Ian Ogilvy, Jack Hill, Sara Karloff, Leonard Maltin, Christopher Frayling
Genre: DocumentaryBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: For nearly a century now, Boris Karloff is a name that has been synonymous with horror fiction, and it was all thanks to his chance casting in the 1931 classic version of Frankenstein. From then on he may have been typecast in these roles, but he never grumbled about this, knowing he owed his career to them and how his fans adored him for them. This is a documentary that assembles experts and professional fans alike to discuss Karloff's legacy and life, how he fell in love with theatre as a lonely little boy and how acting saved him from a life of physically exhausting labour that he was in danger of being caught in before the stage, then the movies, beckoned and he was finally able to set off on his vocation as a performer...

Karloff famously hated discussing his early years, mainly because they had been so tough for him and director Thomas Hamilton's cheap and cheerful documentary goes into this, if not in a huge amount of depth, then enough to grasp a sense of the boy who became the man. Karloff was Anglo-Indian, a heritage he also never discussed but has latterly seen him admired as a star of that background who proved a British Asian could make a name for himself on the international stage and screen. Merle Oberon was another huge star of that background, and though she is less well known today, she too would never mention it, such was the racism that both she and Karloff would have risked derailing their careers with at that less-enlightened time.

All that would have made for a fascinating documentary in itself, but Karloff led a rich life of experience even before he got his break in Hollywood as the Depression dawned. Not exactly a womaniser, but nevertheless married multiple times, he worked in Canada in challenging, low paid jobs until he could persuade someone to give him a chance on his beloved stage; he had fled Britain and the Civil Service his brothers had joined, and though it's not dwelt on here could be said to have been the black sheep of his family. But England was an unfriendly place for him in the early twentieth century, his father had been an abusive bully and his mother had suffered severe mental illness, no to mention the prejudice the young William Pratt would be suffering. Watching this section, you are thinking, "No wonder he got out of there."

Frankenstein director James Whale changed his life when he cast him as the monster, and the rest of the film delves into his best roles over the next forty years or so (Karloff died in 1969) as famous fans like Guillermo Del Toro and Joe Dante are interspersed with those industry survivors who worked with him. Though it is telling that even so, many of the older faces we see have since passed away, and all of the interviewees are captured in front of cheap, digitally created backgrounds which makes this a better work to listen to than watch. That said, if it had been a radio doc or podcast, we would not get to see the man himself in action in a wealth of clips from movies and TV, though they do appear to have gleaned many from YouTube which is always a bugbear for viewers who like to see the extracts without that tell-tale pixilated blur. Still, needs must and at least Hamilton and his team got this assembled from what was presumably hours of material, and it does convey the not always acknowledged point that Karloff's fame endures thanks to him being the friendliest horror icon for children. He loved to entertain the little ones, and they responded with a lifelong affection for the actor; that comes across warmly here.

[NEW DOCUMENTARY PREMIERES EXCLUSIVELY ON SHUDDER
27TH JANUARY 2022.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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