“In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux…” – Marcus Aurelius.
One of the most common mistakes human beings make is assuming the world began when we were born and the way things are is the way they’re supposed to be. Watching films like “Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster” (2021) is a good way to disabuse ourselves of such illusions, while also learning a bit about one of the foundational characters in American pop culture. It pains me to imagine how many young TikTokers out there may be ignorant of his existence but for much of the last century, not recognizing the name of Boris Karloff was like not knowing who George Washington was. You’d think probably being Hollywood’s first biracial movie star would boost his profile nowadays.
Lots of old movies get praised for their historical stature or significance. "Frankenstein" (1931) is just a damn amazing motion picture to watch, even after all these decades.
For the uninitiated, Karloff was an Englishman who came to the United States via Canada and became one of the biggest stars of the first half of the 20th century by playing the monster in the original “Frankenstein” (1931). That probably doesn’t seem too impressive to modern eyes grown used to a world where not only are people famous just for being famous, but where a lot of the people famous for being famous are actually unknown to a majority of the population. How many reality stars or social media “influencers” could anyone over 30 pick out of a lineup? But characters like Frankenstein’s Monster or Tarzan were as big or bigger in their day as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in ours.
“Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster” starts off with Karloff’s Hollywood career before backtracking to his life as a boy with an English mother and Indian father and then following him along a path that certainly disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald that “There are no second acts in American lives.” As he was resolute in protecting his private life and with his peers having joined him in the Great Beyond, this documentary can only tantalize us with details of Karloff’s early life that imply a story of hardship and perseverance worthy of a major motion picture…or more likely a buzzed-about series online. If you’ve ever grown tired of seeing actors or actresses lament their time waiting tables in Los Angeles or New York City, this film will remind you the reality of the “starving artist” is something that only faded into cliché in the last few decades.
This one? Not so much. Karloff is good in "The Mummy" (1932) but the film itself is best left in its own era.
The greatest value of this documentary, beyond pleasing pre-existing Karloff fans, is how its presentation of the great thespian’s life also serves as a window into an existence as different from ours as ours is from people living in the 1800s. He was for a decent stretch of time one of the biggest movie stars in the world, yet probably earned less than the lead in a 1990s sitcom. His multiple marriages would have been fodder for endless coverage in supermarket tabloid magazines and celebrity gossip shows, if either of those things are been around at the time. Today, a performer might sue a studio over losing tens of millions of dollars when a movie is put on a streaming service instead of just being available in theaters. In Karloff’s time, performers had to struggle against being worked to death by directors who treated them like pack mules on a journey up a mountain or through a desert. And to anyone who has been irritated at stories of Hollywood divas sitting in their trailers and making ridiculous demands, this movie is a good reminder that actors and actresses used to be the living embodiment of the Protestant work ethic. “The show must go on” wasn’t merely a slogan to those folks. It was a commandment from on high.
But “Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster” also illustrates how everything comes back to the beginning after enough time. Karloff started his career in a movie industry that worked very much like an assembly line, churning out as many cheaply made “B” movies as possible, and lasted until the 1960s when filmmaking slipped out of the control of the studios and became this chaotic blend of genius and terribleness. The 21st century has seen Hollywood return to its assembly line roots, though now it’s bolting together $200 million blockbusters that have to pass muster with the censors in China.
Makeup artists and now CGI coders have spent millions of hours and have never matched what God made with that face.
Director/co-writer Thomas Hamilton does a nice job interweaving images of Karloff’s career with commentary from people ranging from Stefanie Powers and Christopher Plummer to Peter Bogdanovich and Guillermo Del Toro. We even hear from Karloff’s daughter on how her father’s legacy continues on nearly a century after he first emerged from the darkness as the tragic result of Man trying to play God. If you’re a fan of horror or Hollywood history, “Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster” is well worth your time.
Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster (2021
Written by Ron MacCloskey and Thomas Hamilton.
Directed by Thomas Hamilton.
Featuring Boris Karloff, Guillermo Del Toro, John Landis, Roger Corman, Sara Karloff, Peter Bogdanovich, Christopher Plummer, Stefanie Powers, Lee Grant, Sir Christopher Frayling, and Kevin Brownlow.
When this man says your time is up, your time is UP.