Last October I had the incredible opportunity to reconnect with Sara Karloff at the Chiller Theater Convention here in New Jersey. It’s really hard to put into words the feeling you get when you’re actually talking to a gracious, elegant, kind, regal, and lovely woman who happens to be the daughter of the man you’ve worshiped since a young child.
I met Sara the year before at the same nostalgic celebration of classic, cult film, and retro television royalty (The Chiller Theatre Convention) and she invited me to sit with her and talk for a while. At the time, fans were buzzing around trying to get autographs and buying memorabilia with images of her father’s influential work in horror pictures, or should I say ‘terror’ pictures, as Boris would refer to those kinds of narratives in film.
Boris Karloff will forever be remembered for bringing Mary Shelley’s existential monster to life, embodied with pathos and empathy. Karloff is the infinite soul of the monster. His character was my introduction to horror films and to a whole new world where I experienced a sense of belonging. Meeting Sara was the closest I could ever get to my hero Boris Karloff. I truly never imagined I would have the honor of connecting in this way, with the great man who changed my perceptions by opening up my heart to love the mysteries of life and the thrill of being both scared and delighted.
So there I sat with this striking, dignified woman who shared and shares her life with my idol, Boris Karloff, who appear in over 200 films and television programs during his legendary career. He will always be the never-ending expression of a genre that refuses– like Frankenstein’s monster– to die. Part of Karloff’s great legacy is how he brought us all together and gave horror fans a hero.
During the reign of Universal’s claim to what would become the most famous monsters in cinematic history, Karloff elevated the studio’s output with his limitless beauty by interpreting the genre through great instinct and intellect, not just in James Whale’s tragic monster in Frankenstein 1931 but as Imhotep in The Mummy 1932.
A few of my favorite Boris Karloff films are three of Val Lewton’s psychological metaphors of fear where he showed the range of his acting skills. The masterpieces Bedlam, Isle of the Dead, and The Body Snatcher were sparked ‘alive’ by his gentle soul and his ability to dive into authentically sinister roles manifesting truly dark, menacing fiends and yet it was the exact opposite of who he was in real life, a fine English gentleman who possessed grace and kindness.
Boris as Cabman John Gray in Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher (1945) directed by Robert Wise.
Boris as General Nikolas Pherides in Val Lewton/Mark Robson’s Isle of the Dead (1945)
Some of my favorite performances are the set of three films, The Black Cat 1934, The Raven 1935, and The Invisible Ray 1936, all co-starring Bela Lugosi. These pictures too, showcased Karloff’s ability to elicit chills on a wholly deeper level possessing a true passion and understanding for creating thoughtful scary stories. He could be imposing as the crazed Morgan in The Old Dark House 1932, playing twin brothers Good & Evil in The Black Room 1935, and the tragic pianist framed for murder in The Walking Dead 1936. And I adore his more sympathetic and benevolent characters as well — Before I Hang 1940, The Devil Commands 1941, Corridors of Blood 1958, and The Haunted Strangler 1958.
Boris in James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).
Boris and Bela in Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934).
Boris and Bela in The Raven (1935).
Boris Karloff as John Ellman in Michael Curtiz’s The Walking Dead (1936).
Boris as Dr. Janos Rukh in Lambert Hillyer’s The Invisible Ray (1946).
Boris as Dr. Julian Blair in The Devil Commands (1945) directed by Edward Dmytryk.
Boris as Dr. Bolton in Corridors of Blood (1958).
I’ve enjoyed his films since I was a girl, and I continually watch everything in his long body of work, as I never tire of seeing his incredible talent, his serious portrayals, and the wonderful light that shines through every performance. He has many layers to his persona, but his class, kindness, and thoughtful embrace of the work that is ever-present. Boris has the unparalleled ability to Immortalize the sinister only to be counterbalanced by his divine power in other roles, to draw out our sympathy. He will always be the eternal paradoxical face of terror and gentility.
Sara and I had the most warm and welcoming conversation over the course of that day, and I had the chance to tell her about my deep and abiding affection for her dad. I was in a sparkling daze, because I felt like I was talking to her father as well, and I believe she enjoyed spending time with me too. Sara Karloff is so gracious and delightful about her devotion to her father’s fans.
One little part of our exchange at Chiller…
I told her, “He elevated each film to a higher level because of the quality of his acting, the dimension to his emotional output, his body language and that exquisite voice. A soft and dream like tone that is both calming and poetic.
His legacy is that he brought honor to the genre of horror. He contributed to the world an incredible body of work, and he will be remembered so dearly by so many of his. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said I wished he had been my grandfather.“ She replied, “He would have like that, he would have been my grandfather.” The words shot through me with warmth and the joy of awaking from a wonderful dream. Because she meant it.
I told her, “He exuded such a gentility, that even with his most brutal characterizations in film, you always knew it was the actor of the man. And quite the grand actor he was. I wanted to mention, how much his voice is so unique. He has a depth, and a pathos that no other actor possesses.”
She replied, “You are correct about his voice. It was remarkable. It not only was his British accent, but the way he could soothe you or scare you with his voice. He was indeed a fine actor and a wonderful human being.”
We had a long conversation that day, laughing and talking about contributions he made to dramatic television performances aside from the collection of well-remembered films, from silents to drama, his films were not exclusive to the horror genre. Talking about Boris makes me dewy and teary-eyed, explaining what I think about his great body of work and the legacy he left us as one of the most memorable cultural icons.
Even though he is the recognized face of ‘horror’, early on Boris Karloff acted in many different films with varying scenarios and narratives that weren’t connected to the classical horror genre. James Whale’s Frankenstein for Universal was Boris Karloff’s 81st picture. He had done theatre and dramatic films, like Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code 1930 where his brilliant performance as Galloway had a particularly restrained hostility. As neither a monster nor a bad guy, he created a figure of dark and shadowy apprehension.
He also appeared in the ultra-violent Scarface 1932 for Howard Hawks. Aside from being the host of CBS’s Thriller anthology series, where he opened up each episode with his own ominous epilogues for Thriller with his cheeky sense of humor, “Sure as my name is Boris Karloff — this is a thriller!”
Boris’ droll epilogue to Thriller episode Roses Last Summer starring Mary Astor
My favorite performances were his collaborations with Val Lewton. They are psychological in tone and gave Karloff the highly layered characterizations that allowed him to reveal his dynamic versatility surpassing his monster image in the Universal cycle of horror films. Lewton gave Karloff a place to flex his subtlety of the human psyche and how we all struggle with the light and darkness of the soul and he captured that nuance brilliantly. While Universal excelled by manifesting corporeal monsters, Val Lewton played on the monsters of the mind. Here Boris was able to convey these darker complex personalities with depth. Lewton used elements of dark and light within us all, and Boris Karloff was a master at dancing between the shadows of Val Lewton’s complex vision.
And that is what he managed to portray within Jack Pierce’s makeup for Frankenstein’s monster. Beneath the fierce snarling innocent that rose from death and was born into a cruel world, judged by his ugliness and his otherness, Karloff imbued the monster with a sadness that evoked pity. He could transmit that to us, through his eyes and his thoughtful movements.
Since the last time we spoke, Sara and I have maintained a connection and I had the great privilege of continuing our conversation where I got to discuss her iconic father a bit more. If COVID-19 hadn’t thrown the world into chaos and changed how we now interact with each other, this month would have been another wonderful celebration- spending the day together regaling Boris Karloff’s career and the man himself.
Jo: Hello, Sara?
Jo: Hi, it’s Jo Gabriel. How are you feeling?
Sara: I’m better, thank you. I’m still recovering but I’m better.
Jo: Yes, you sound a little bit better.
Sara: Yes, I am. I’m listening to your CD.
Jo: You are! And?
Sara: I am enjoying it immensely!
Jo: Oh, that’s good! I wanted you to like it.
Sara: Oh, it’s marvelous.
Jo: Oh, good!
Sara: It’s so relaxing and it’s so autumnal (I never can say that word). And it’s just like walking through the woods and it’s like listening to a brook babble. It’s just wonderful.
Jo: Are you feeling up to doing a little talking about your Dad?
Sara: Sure, I’d be glad to.
Jo: Ok, wonderful, because as I said, I’m going to start delving into his career and really doing a very extensive feature on him on my website. And in order to do that it’s going to take some time and some research and I really want to do a good job.
Sara: Oh, I’m sure you will.
Jo: Thank you. It’s a labor of love and I think it’s about time that I do it. And now that we have this connection I thought it would be good to include a little conversation with you about a few things I am curious about.
Sara: Ok, that’s fine.
Jo: So, you know, you and I when we were sitting and talking at Chiller, we talked a little bit about how your father loved working with Val Lewton.
Sara: Yes, indeed, he did.
Jo: Yes, Lewton’s work is very visual like poetry and I think a lot of the films showcase the depth of your dad’s versatility as an actor. His performances in those particular films were extraordinary. Do you want to tell me a little bit again about how he felt working with Lewton?
Sara: Well, I think I can only say what I’ve read and heard but my father said that working with Val Lewton and his films saved his soul. You know, he had made so many – well he made 3 Frankenstein films and then by the time he made the Val Lewton films the quality of the films being offered had really diminished. And he said that working with Val Lewton was such a joy. It was such a pleasure and such a joy because he and Lewton got along so beautifully. They were both well-educated and well-read men. And they enjoyed one another’s company. And those scripts were well written and well directed and well shot and well lit. And they were in black and white and they were suspenseful. And he and Val became good friends and my father really enjoyed doing those high-quality films after some of the ones he’d been doing. And they were well-received by the public. They’ve stood the test of time. My father got to certainly prove his acting skills. He enjoyed working with the other actors, working with good scripts. It just was a joy for my father to make those 3 films.
Jo: Yes I was going to ask about that. I know director Mark Robson and director Robert Wise were both really accomplished directors, but is there one particular film out of the three? I mean, I love Bedlam and thought that was extraordinary. But is there one that he talked about more?
Sara: You know my father didn’t talk about his work and he didn’t bring it home. But I do know that he was really very very pleased to have that opportunity. But I never heard him state a preference amongst those 3 films.
Jo: Well that’s interesting and I’m not surprised that Val Lewton was one of his favorites, favorite body of work to put his stamp on. So the other thing I was wondering – I have something written here. It says “Boris Karloff’s gentility and grace show through the monster, the Frankenstein’s monster. Which is partly why he’s so transcendent in that role, because of his embodiment of the monster. And I really think he, the monster, was beloved by your father and beloved by the fans. And he knew when to leave that character with dignity. Can you tell me a bit about his feeling about that role?
Sara: Well, you know, that role made such a pivotal difference in his life both personally and professionally. And he was forever grateful for that difference. And he felt a certain debt of gratitude to that role. He often would in tongue-and-cheek refer to the monster as his best friend. He did say the monster was the best friend any actor could ever have because it made such a huge difference in his life. But, it was his decision to stop playing that role after those 3 films because he felt that the storyline had been developed as far as it could or should be before it fell apart and before the creature became the brunt of bad scripts and bad jokes, as it did. And he just didn’t want to be a part of that because he did feel a debt of gratitude. My father was a very gracious human being. A very gentlemanly human being. He was an English gentleman with a very self-effacing sense of humor. He understood and portrayed the creature with a sense of pathos and elicited empathetic reactions from those viewers at that time. And he said that children got it. They understood the creature was the victim and not the perpetrator, and any acts of violence were reactions more than proactive. So, that’s the way he played it and that’s the way the audience perceived it.
Jo: Yes, and that was my introduction into horror films was feeling that sympathy towards his characterization and feeling empathy and feeling like I was on his side. And he was provoked and he didn’t do anything wrong, he didn’t even ask to be here. And just feeling that kind of camaraderie with the “other.” He evoked that in children and I think we’re all grateful to him for that.
Sara: Well, I think that is the reaction that his roles elicited and that was how he intended to play it. And I think that there were times when James Whale wanted a bit harsher performance and my father stuck to his guns.
Jo: Good, good! And he was right. It was good instincts.
Sara: I think it is proven to be so in cinema history.
Jo: Absolutely. He’s one of the most iconic figures. I think that’s why it’s so eternal and it’s because he was definitely right. And I think that anybody else who might’ve played Frankenstein’s monster, it would have been a who different ballgame.
Sara: Well, it would’ve been a different portrayal. And who knows if it would’ve been better. It would have been different. That’s all one can say.
Jo: Ehhh, I don’t know if it would’ve been better but I’m partial [laughs].
Sara: Well, you know it would’ve been different. [laughs] That’s all we can bet on.
Jo: [laughs] Yes, that’s for sure. Another thing that we talked about was his involvement with the television anthology show Thriller that he hosted and starred in 6 episodes. And he seemed to love his work on that. And his little introductions like little soliloquies, were so wonderful. Can we talk a little about that?
Sara: Oh, sure! He loved doing that show and he was proud of it. And again they were some of the best writers and actors and directors of the time involved with that show. And it was a fine, fine production. I mean, people like Ida Lupino, I mean you can look at the jackets for each show and recognize the names today…
Jo: Yes, John Brahm. They had a host of good writers and actors, and the character actors were wonderful.
Sara: They were indeed. And then as you said, my father’s introduction to each was a bit, not really tongue-in-cheek, but he had a good time doing them.
Jo: And you could see that he really did. And you could see in the beginning they were trying to figure out where they wanted the show to go. Whether it was going to be more crime thriller like Alfred Hitchcock or if it should be more supernatural. And I think once your father took over and started doing the hosting I think it really went in the right direction.
Sara: Well it did indeed. And it captured a large piece of the audience, the viewing audience. And gave Hitch a run for his money.
Jo: Oh yes, I know. I had heard there was something where Hitchcock extended his show to an hour to try to compete with Thriller because it was doing these 50 minute episodes that were like little movies. So I heard there was some kind of, I guess, competition between the two. But I thought Thriller was very unique and very self contained and had it’s own thing going for it. You know I was reading that Boris worked on something like 80 pictures and stage performances before he landed the role of Frankenstein’s monster.
Sara: It was his 81st film.
Jo: Yes, it was his 81st film. That’s incredible. And I was reading in particular that he did a lot of work with director Howard Hawks where he worked on The Criminal Code and Scarface. I know he didn’t bring home his work or talk about it, but it is fascinating that there’s this whole other aspect of him before he played the monster.
Sara: He did a lot of silents, and a lot of serials. He referred to himself as having been an extra 3rd from the left in the 4th row. He was in the business 10 years and nobody knew it. And 20 years, 10 years in British Columbia in theatre and then 10 years in Hollywood. And as he said Frankenstein was his 81st film and nobody saw the first 80.
Jo: [laughs] Right, right. But now they do. Now they go and they revisit a lot of his work, I know I do.
Sara: And they’re trying to redo some of his silents and put them back together.
Jo: Oh, that’s wonderful.
Sara: Yes, that’ll be fun if they’re able to do that.
Jo: Yes, that would be wonderful. Last year, the year before this one, when we first met, we had a good laugh about the picture The Raven which your father costarred in with Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone and how they used to play practical jokes on one another. Do you remember the story you told? They were playing tricks on the set and I just don’t remember quite all of it…
Sara: Well one of the… I can’t remember which of the two films it was, Basil was put in a vat and they thrown all sorts of awful things into that vat of water like cigarette butts and I don’t remember what else. And then they sat one it when he was in there and wouldn’t let him out.
Jo: [laughs] Oh my goodness! So were they always doing things like that?
Sara: Well that’s one example, I don’t know all of them. A lot of them are lost to history. And I know that Peter Lorre had a tendency to not learn his lines and adlibbed which drove my father crazy.
Jo: Oh, really? Oh that’s interesting [laughs].
Sara: And Vincent was much better at handling that than my father. My father was a stickler for himself learning lines and speaking on cue. And Peter, I guess, drove everybody crazy, including Roger Corman, because he didn’t learn his lines and he adlibbed a lot.
Jo: Wow, right. You’d think that Roger Corman would encourage adlibbing because he would just go for broke. He’d do anything on the set. And I could see Vincent Price being… he was a bit of a jokester too, so…
Sara: Oh yes, all of them where. All of them had a wonderful sense of humor.
Jo: Yeah, they must’ve had a fantastic time together as an ensemble of actors with each bringing their own thing to the table.
Sara: Oh, indeed and they had such a good time working together because they’d know each other all for years and respected one another professionally, and liked each other personally. And having a chance to spoof their own boogeyman images in these films was a great treat.
Jo: Yes, definitely. Well I have just one more question for you. Beyond being one of the most beloved icons, he’s definitely the finest caliber of actor. And I think he transcends the ideology of the horror genre.
Sara: Oh yeah, he did some comedy and he guest stared on an enormous number of television shows of the day. He did some drama. He did a Joseph Conrad with Roddy McDowell and he did all sorts of things.
Jo: Oh yes, I’ve seen that performance and it was actually an extraordinary performance. Well, one of the things that strikes me about him is that he gives a very emotional and thoughtful contemplation on the human condition. He seems to tap into—in the most subtle ways—people’s personalities and the inner machinations of people in his performances. And that’s probably why the Val Lewton films were so important to him because they were very psychological and suggestive. But this is the question, and I don’t know if you can answer it. What do you think your father would want his greatest legacy to be?
Sara: Oh, I can’t really answer that. I think that he was a man of integrity and kindness.
Jo: And that’s it. That’s his legacy. Because that’s what seems to remain. I always hear how gentle he was and how gracious he was with the people he worked with. Well, then, putting it this way his legacy definitely lives on through that and through his timeless work. And you travel all over as a curator of his memory. Are there things you hear quite often or most commonly about your father’s legacy? Is there one common thing that comes up when you speak to his fans about him?
Sara: Ah, that he was so different than the roles he played. That he was a man of great kindness and gentleness. And how different that was from his roles. And that he had a sense of humor.
Jo: Well, that’s what strikes me about him. And I say this to you honestly that when I see him, whenever he comes on the screen, I cry because I feel his gentleness coming through. No matter what he’s playing. He could be playing the most nefarious sinister character and yet I know that he’s Boris Karloff and I know he’s acting and I get into the film. But it makes me cry because I feel like there is such a greatness there. And it comes through. And I mean it that I really wished he was my grandfather [laughs].
Sara: [laughs] Well, he was a lovely man, he really was. He was a lovely human being.
Jo: I wish I could have met him. I mean I feel close to him in a way because we’re talking and I see his legacy lives through you. And you keep that alive…
Sara: Well, his fans keep it alive. His fans keep his legacy alive. For which I am extremely grateful.,
Jo: Yes, but you keep it alive too. You do a great job of reminding us that he gave us you and…
Sara: And he gave us his body of work.
Jo: Yes, he did that too. And I will always love him…
Sara: Well, that’s wonderful to hear certainly as his daughter.
Jo: I really want to thank you for spending this time talking with me about him. And I think that the fans are absolutely going to love it. And you have my music to keep you company.
Sara: I do indeed. Thank you so much. It’s just beautiful, I’m enjoying it immensely.
Jo: Thank you, I love playing piano. That’s one of my great passions.
Sara: Well, you can tell from your music.
Jo: Thank you.
Sara: How long have you been playing?
Jo: Since I was 8 years old. For many years I taught myself how to play.
Sara: Did you really?
Jo: Yes, I was going to be trained as a classical pianist and I did have recommendations to Juilliard. But I chose to play my own music and not go the classical route. And I’m happy for that because I play my own work. And I don’t think not training hurt me any…
Sara: Oh heavens, no. It’s beautiful.
Jo: Yes, I wanted to find my own way. And I’m very proud of it.
Sara: Well, I can see why, thank you for sharing it with me.
Jo: Thanks for letting me share it with you. Use it for your healing and I’ll be in touch with you. I’ll send you the finished piece but we’ll speak before that.
Sara: That’s great, thank you so very very much.
Jo: You’re welcome and thank you for spending time.