Mention the name Boris Karloff and it’s for his role as the lumbering, bolt-necked monster in Frankenstein that he is best remembered. That breakout role made him a star and, over the course of nearly 40 years and some 150 screen horrors later, would earn him the reputation as cinema’s foremost ‘King of Horror’.
But did you know that, by the time Karloff put on Jack Pierce’s famous make-up for the 1931 Universal classic, he had already completed some 70 films, and had spent a decade touring the wild frontiers of Canada and the American Northwest in stock theatre companies?
Born William Henry Pratt in Camberwell, South London (above what is now a Turkish restaurant) in 1887; and raised in Enfield, North London, Billy (as he was known then) rejected his family’s expectations of becoming a civil servant and, at the age of 22, headed to Canada where he adopted the stage name Karloff and took up acting. But it took another 22 years of hard graft before Karloff finally found his meal-ticket as one of Universal’s most enduring classic movie monsters.
Since his death (on 2 February, 1969) at the age of 82, there have been countless books written about the great man, all featuring wildly varying stories about the actor’s journey from plain Billy Pratt to the exotic-sounding Boris Karloff. Being a huge fan myself, I have always treasured Citadel Press’s The Films of Boris Karloff (1974), Denis Gifford’s pulpy The Man, The Monster, The Movies (1973) and Cynthia Lindsay’s 1975 biography Dear Boris. But finally there’s a book that sets the record straight.
Karloff: More Than a Monster (Tomahawk Press) is a true labour of love. Featuring previously unpublished letters, interviews and photographs; this new biography by Stephen Jacobs is meticulously detailed thanks to the author’s sleuth-like approach in tracking down thousands of documents linked to the actor (it’s amazing what he’s unearthed).
With the blessing of Sara Karloff (Boris’s daughter), this hefty tome goes a long way in separating fact from fiction – especially with regards to Karloff’s early years as Billy ‘the black sheep of the family’ Pratt – and gives a fascinating insight into Karloff’s life as an actor (both struggling and famous), campaigner (for actors’ rights) and husband (many times over). As such, it’s choice reading for any horror fan.
Throughout his long career, Karloff shared scream-time with some other well-known Titans of Terror. Here’s my pick of the best reads – all from my own library, of course!
Bela Lugosi (The Raven, 1934)
The Immortal Count:
The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi by Arthur Lennig
(University Press of Kentucky, 2003, ISBN 978081322731)
The definitive account of Lugosi’s tragic life. The Films of Bela Lugosi by Richard Bojarski (Citadel Press, 1980, ISBN 0-8065-0808-6) is also a favourite of mine.
Lon Chaney, Jr (The House of Frankenstein, 1944)
Horror Film Star, 1906-1973 by Don G Smith
(McFarland & Co Inc, 2004, ISBN 9780786418138)
He found fame as Universal’s other classic monster, The Wolf Man, but Chaney was forever haunted by the shadow of his legendary father, and his life was blighted by his battle with alcoholism.
Vincent Price (The Raven, 1963)
A Daughter’s Biography by Victoria Price
(St Martins Press, 1999, ISBN 0312242735)
The screen legend’s daughter rediscovers her late father by sifting through his personal papers and reconnecting with his friends, family and co-stars. Price’s legacy continues in May when fans celebrate his 100th birthday.
Christopher Lee (Curse of the Crimson Altar, 1968)
Lord of Misrule: An Autobiography of Christopher Lee (Orion, 2004, ISBN 0752859331)
A captivating read – originally published as Tall, Dark and Gruesome in 1977 and again in 1997 – about the veteran British actor’s life and career – from Hammer horror icon to playing Saruman in the Lord of the Rings films.