Book Review: Boris Karloff – More Than A Monster

Not just a pretty face

Review: ‘Boris Karloff – More Than A Monster’ the authorised biography by Stephen Jacobs

As Frankenstein’s Monster, Boris Karloff has become a cultural icon encapsulating the ‘golden era’ of movie horror, writes Mark Cantrell. Beneath the make-up and the macabre roles, however, was a thoroughly nice chap who earned the affection and respect of his peers, as this detailed but sometimes heavy-going biography reveals

First published on Cheshire Today 

FOR horror aficionados, Boris Karloff needs no introductions; he is the face of movie horror’s ‘golden age’, although admittedly that face is usually smothered in the prosthetics that transformed him into the Monster that made his name.

Frankenstein (1931) propelled the then jobbing film actor onto the world stage of international stardom, but by the time this ‘big break’ landed him on his lead-weighted feet, he already had a solid 20-year career as an actor behind him. Ironically, the role of the Monster was never expected to be anything more than a ‘throwaway’ part, but Karloff’s acting shone through to create an iconic screen presence. A star was born; the product of a long apprenticeship one might say.

Karloff’s career spanned almost 50 years and over 150 movies, ranging from the silent picture era through to the days of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. His roles in ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, ‘The Mummy’, ‘The Black Cat’, and many others – most now considered classics of the genre – ensured his reputation as ‘The King of Horror’.

There was more – much more – to Karloff than this iconic role, however, as Stephen Jacobs’ biography makes clear in compelling detail. 

The biography is a solid tome; a heavy read and not just in terms of the book’s physical weight, but the sheer wealth of information it assembles. The book is without doubt a labour of love and can be very heavy-going given the amount of material packed into its 568 pages, but it offers a fascinating and almost encyclopaedic insight into Karloff the man as much as Karloff the master of the macabre.

Having not read any rival biographies of Boris Karloff, it’s impossible to say how Jacobs’ labours compare against its competitors, but his work scooped a Rondo Award for best book earlier this year, so it is hardly a slacker in its exploration of the man. It has also been endorsed by Karloff’s daughter Sara, making it an authorised account of her father’s life and work. By all accounts, it’s proved an eye-opener for her: “[I]t is such a learning experience for me. I never knew about my father’s family, about his early life, how old he was when his mother died, and on and on and on.”

The biographer’s craft is not an easy one; sourcing the material, be it letters or press cuttings, from decades gone, chasing down friends and acquaintances, interviews, assembling the wealth of material from such a variety of sources, is certainly no easy task. Jacobs’ research was made all the harder by his subject’s itinerant lifestyle as a jobbing thespian with a number of touring companies. 

He was also rather fond of his privacy, and tended to play up the mystique of his Karloff stage name, regaling people with its Russian origins and playing down his own Anglo-Indian heritage. In part, there’s the actor no doubt creating the brand, but as Jacobs’ work takes us back in time to less racially-enlightened times, if it can be put that way, there was also an element of diverting attention away from his own mixed-race ancestry.

Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in Camberwell, South London, in 1887. He was born of a relatively well-to-do family, of Anglo-Indian descent, and was expected to follow in his family’s footsteps as a civil servant in the administrative machinery running the Empire. However, young Billy – as he was known – fell in love with the stage. He turned his back on the comfortable, if predictable, life of government service – and headed off for the uncertainty and poverty that was the touring actor’s lot.

In 1911, he ran off to Canada, where he joined a succession of touring theatre companies, living out of a suitcase and learning the nifty trick of frying an egg for breakfast on an iron. When stage work was not forthcoming, he took any labouring work he could find. 

Hard though the life was, he persevered. He scored worthy reviews for his performances, developed the professional and easy-going attitude that would win him much respect as a movie star, and never forgot his roots as a jobbing actor worrying where his next paycheck might come from. Eventually, he tried his hand in Hollywood, stepping back and forth between film and stage, until that breakthrough role with Frankenstein came his way.

Over the course of his life, Karloff got through five wives; he didn’t become a father until the age of 51 when his daughter Sara arrived. By then he was a Hollywood staple and also, it must be said, an active trade unionist. The founding member of the Screen Actors’ Guild was a tireless recruiter for the union, and often recruited on the sets of his movies. 

Despite his union activities, Karloff was hardly a ‘Bolshie’. What comes across clear as day from the testimonies of his fellow actors, the directors and film crews he worked with, is the very epitome of the unassuming professional actor. Even at the height of his stardom, far from being the ‘prima donna’, Karloff by all accounts remained what he was at heart – a jobbing actor dedicated to his craft. Indeed, throughout Jacobs’ book comes the strong portrait of a very nice man – a gentleman who earned the affection of his peers.

The actor kept working almost literally until the very end, and some of his last performances didn’t appear until after his death in 1968. His later years were plagued with ill-health. Indeed, in one of his final screen appearances, ‘The Curse of the Crimson Altar’ (1968), the actor was in a wheelchair – not for the sake of the role, but because his health demanded it. In pain, Karloff persevered with little complaint.

Endurance in the face of discomfort, even pain, was a common theme in Karloff’s career and his ability to grit his teeth and press on without complaint, whilst delivering a strong performance, helped earn him the respect of his peers. Some of his later ills were a legacy of the injuries and strains sustained in his earlier film roles; the make-up and prosthetics for the Monster were a heavy burden that placed a real physical strain on the actor. And that wasn’t just in the wearing of it, but in the long hours it took to apply and remove the make-up. Karloff worked some gruelling hours to give us the iconic image of Frankenstein’s unholy creation.

For modern audiences, that classic image now seems a little kitsch, we’ve see it that often, and moviemakers have since given us a gallery and more of schlock-horror to curl our toes and chill our bones. Back in the day, however, Karloff’s get-up was terrifying to behold. By all accounts, when he was made up as the Monster, he was expected to wear a bag over his head when leaving the set to avoid scaring people and he had to go around accompanied. That’s before he was banned from leaving the set altogether. Perhaps that serves to show just how desensitised we have become in this age of high-tech and CGI visual wizardry.

As for the man himself, Karloff was by all accounts more enamoured of the macabre than the gory visuals we’ve grown used to; his preference was for the subtlety of performance, for the chilling potential of suspense, to convey horror. He personally was anything but a monster, as the biography ably demonstrates, just an actor following the breaks where they would.

“I didn’t set out to chill anyone. I was just an actor willing to try anything. I had no special interest in terror subjects. My private tastes are still very Catholic,” he said. That quote occurs at the very beginning of the book, and captures in essence, the biography of the man. As Jacobs’ strives to reveal, he was a thoroughly nice bloke who got lucky playing horrific roles, but there was more to his screen and stage personae, and whether playing monsters, old-fashioned but very much human villains, or the good guys, he left them on set when he was done.

As for Jacobs and his performance with this biography, he has certainly produced an in-depth and detailed portrait of the man’s professional and personal life. At times, it might be heavy going, but he has certainly done his subject justice.


Boris Karloff – More Than A Monster
The Authorised Biography

By Stephen Jacobs

Hardback, 568 pages

ISBN: 978-0-9557670-4-3
Price: £30

Tomahawk Press

This article was first published on Cheshire Today, 11 September 2012.

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