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Who is the True “King of Horror?” Bruce Markusen Discusses Legendary Heavyweights of the Genre



Who is the True “King of Horror?” Bruce Markusen Discusses Legendary Heavyweights of the Genre

So who is the true “King of Horror?” That’s an argument that has been posed and debated for decades, and likely will be for decades more. There have usually been three names that top the list of inner circle candidates for this unofficial title, all of them representing full-fledged heavyweights of horror.

Let’s begin our discussion with Lon Chaney, Sr., who was the first superstar to emerge from the genre. His silent film performances as Erick in The Phantom of the Opera and as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame remain among the most iconic in the history of film. And then there was his effort in London After Midnight, a film that has become lost, but whose impact remains somewhat tangible because of the memorable still photographs that show Chaney as the jagged-toothed hypnotist in the film. Labeled as the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” Chaney was a veritable chameleon on screen, a man who was able to so drastically change and emphasize his physical appearance, an ability that was paramount for any actor during the silent film era of Hollywood.

And yet, whether it’s fair or not, almost all of Chaney’s work occurred during that silent era, a time period that is still studied and enjoyed today but does not have the same kind of mainstream impact that films of the talking era have had since the early 1930s. Sadly, Chaney died so young that he was unable to take on the role of Dracula, as was the original plan of Universal Studios, and lost out on the opportunity to play a major role in a groundbreaking film like Frankenstein. If he had lived, Chaney likely would have been a huge part of the lively era of 1930s horror, but that’s mostly supposition. While Chaney was certainly the King of Horror in the 1920s, there is no way to know for sure that he would have kept the title in subsequent decades.

Bela Lugosi is another name that has been nominated as The King. I happen to love Lugosi, whose performance as Dracula stands as one of the most memorable portrayals in horror history. Without Lugosi, the 1931 film would have become forgotten, but with him, it is regarded as one of the most important movies in horror history. No one could play a vampire with any more energy and vibrancy than Lugosi, who was also skilled at handling the roles of evil hunchbacks, mad scientists, and mysterious soothsayers. Lugosi submitted two terrific performances as Ygor, the deformed assistant to the Frankenstein Monster, along with memorable turns in The Black Cat, White Zombie, The Raven, Mark of the Vampire, and so many other favorites from the 1930s and forties. Even if a film was bad, Lugosi tended to make the occasion watchable and interesting.

As great as Lugosi was in his most powerful roles, he was treated shabbily by Hollywood. After his success with Dracula, studios and producers tended to overlook him, in part because of his limitations with the English language and perhaps because he had become typecast. Whatever the exact reasoning, the studios gave him small and inconsequential roles, underpaid him drastically, and treated him like he was a mediocre character actor (which he most certainly was not). Once the 1930s came and went, Lugosi found himself struggling to find decent roles. By the early 1950s, the major studios had completely abandoned him. Lugosi always did the best with whatever material he was given, but too often found himself saddled with a supporting role as an innocuous butler or servant, and not as the critical antagonist (or protagonist) in the film.

That leaves us with a third candidate, Boris Karloff, who made news earlier this month when it was revealed that a new documentary of his career would be released this fall. The documentary, coming from the wonderfully named Voltage Films, is expected to shed some new perspective on an actor who left us more than 50 years ago. And in my mind, it is none other than Karloff who deserves to be regarded as The King.

So great was Boris Karloff’s popularity that he was sometimes billed simply as “Karloff.” Like Chaney and Lugosi, Karloff’s career began in silent films, but good health allowed him to make the transition to the talking era. And in contrast to Lugosi, Karloff was able to sustain his status as a premier star of horror, even after his breakthrough role as the Frankenstein Monster. After the huge success of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, Karloff returned to the top-billed role in Son of Frankenstein while continuing to make strong films like The Raven and The Walking Dead. In the 1940s, Karloff found success with a new studio, RKO Pictures, thanks to his relationship with visionary producer Val Lewton. Karloff made The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam for RKO, reviving a career that he felt had stagnated. Karloff retained his impact well into the 1960s, doing some of his best work in films like Black Sabbath, The Sorcerers, and Targets, the last good film of his career, coming remarkably at the age of 80.

At one time, it would have been preposterous to suggest that Karloff had any chance of emerging as a star of horror. He had toiled in anonymity for much of the 1910s and 1920s; he was a competent actor, but hardly a star, and certainly not a household name. And then came what turned out to be the role of a lifetime in Frankenstein. As many historians like to say, it was a pantomime role, with no spoken words and simply physical movements, but Karloff made it much more than that. With his expressive face, his anger, and his flailing arm movements, Karloff gave The Monster a sympathetic side that many actors would never have seen fit to include. Instead of a Monster without a soul, Karloff gave us a more complex creature, violent and destructive, but also one with a pathetic quality, one that painfully wondered how to act and one that was mystified as to why it had been abandoned.

With Frankenstein’s Monster serving as the springboard, Karloff was now given the opportunity to assume a wide range of horror roles. He played the part of The Mummy in the form of the sinister Ardath Bey, along with mad scientists, alcoholic butlers, war criminals, ex-convicts, asylum wardens, body snatchers, and various other characters of a nefarious nature. His ability to construct an array of dialects and speech patterns, his sharply intense facial features, and his natural ability to intimidate through his physicality helped make him a major star, and a bankable and reliable entity that the studios turned to again and again.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Karloff for so many of his roles. While there’s little question that his performance as Frankenstein’s Monster stands out as his most famous work, he continued to deliver consistent high-end portrayals in so many other films for the rest of his career. Aside from his appearances in the first two Frankenstein classics, here are my five favorite performances from the vault of Karloff:

The Black Cat (1934): Not only was this the first of eight collaborations between Karloff and Lugosi, it’s the one that features the best interactions between the two. Karloff’s character of Poelzig, a war criminal who has turned to satanic worship, is pure evil, a man without any redeemable qualities. At one point, we see Karloff leading a black mass, giving us one of the most stunning scenes of 1930s horror. Later on, Karloff’s character is skinned alive, creating more memorable imagery. And it is all handled seamlessly by Karloff.

The Black Cat 1934

House of Frankenstein (1944): By this point, Karloff had tired of playing The Monster, but he still found a way to continue his link to the franchise by taking on an even more villainous role as a prisoner who manages to escape his cell and then murders a carnival owner possessing the skeletal remains of Dracula. Karloff’s Dr. Niemann, a man initially imprisoned for his dangerous and deranged experiments on humans, is relentlessly evil as he attempts to resurrect his career as a mad scientist. While Karloff himself didn’t think much of House of Frankenstein, his performance is so full of sinister gusto that it elevates the material, always the sign of a standout actor.

House of Frankenstein 1944

The Old Dark House (1932): Much like the first Frankenstein film, Karloff speaks no words as he portrays the drunken, deranged butler Morgan, the man entrusted with overseeing the workings of a house filled with weirdos and lunatics. Wearing makeup that makes him look grizzled and gruff, Karloff takes on an appearance that is almost subhuman. This is Karloff at his most physical, as he roughhouses Gloria Stuart, wrestles with the peacemaking visitors who try to bring him under control, and unleashes damage throughout the mansion’s kitchen while in a drunken stupor. At times, Karloff’s portrayal is comical, and at other times frightening, making it a perfect fit for a movie that has often been called a black comedy.

The Old Dark House 1932

Black Sabbath (1963): In this underrated anthology film, Karloff skillfully serves as the host, introducing each segment, but he also takes on the role of the main character in the final story, called “The Wurdulak.” For the only time in his career, Karloff plays a vampire, one that is so despicable that it turns on his family. Karloff is so frightening here that it makes us wonder how he might have done playing a vampire in a feature-length performance.

Black Sabbath 1963

The Body Snatcher (1945): Without the benefit of extensive makeup, this might have been Karloff’s best performance as an actor, even beyond what he created in Frankenstein. In portraying evil cabman John Gray, Karloff relied on his ample acting skills to give a chilling performance as a soulless abductor of humans and corpses. Karloff subtle taunting of the corrupt doctor for whom he procures the bodies, his physical showdown with Lugosi’s character of Joseph, and his climactic moonlight ride in a 19th century horse-driven coach all make this a fantastic performance, full proof that Karloff was not just a horror star, but a truly great actor.

The Body Snatcher 1945

These five selections represent just a handful of Karloff’s movies, but there are so many other good choices that could be made from the 207 credits in his prolific career. Karloff put forth such a remarkably large body of work in the genre of horror, with only a smattering of poor films along the way. Karloff produced longevity and consistency, while also achieving the pinnacle of high impact with his three performances as the Frankenstein Monster.

For me, that sounds like the resume of a man who deserves to be called the King of Horror.

Check out what Bruce is up to on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.



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