Few horror figures loom larger in our collective imagination than Boris Karloff. His version of Frankenstein’s Monster is the blueprint, not just for each subsequent iteration of that classic character, but for so many tragic monsters since he first graced our screens in 1931. The documentary Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster attempts to shine a light on who Karloff was both as an actor and as a man. While it succeeds in painting a fuller picture of the cinema icon, it falters quite a bit along the way. 

The film begins very abruptly, briefly mentioning James Whale’s classic Frankenstein and then launching into an examination of Karloff’s 1963 collaboration with Mario Bava, Black Sabbath. It’s an odd narrative choice, and I checked more than once to make sure I hadn’t accidentally pressed play in the middle of the film. It’s odder still considering the fact that, once the title card comes up, the film proceeds chronologically from Karloff’s time in silent films up until his very last roles before his death in 1969. 

From this point the documentary attempts to look at Karloff’s film and stage career as exhaustively as possible within the constraints of a feature film running time. While I appreciate the effort to inform the viewer as much as possible, the film often sacrifices depth for breadth, skimming over more interesting insights from its talking heads in favor of rushing to the next item on Karloff’s CV. The documentary features the likes of Joe Dante, Guillermo del Toro, Roger Corman, David J. Skal, Peter Bogdanovich, Christopher Plummer, and Dick Miller; clearly, it has no shortage of experts. We get to hear so little from so many of them, however, that I found myself wishing for a longer movie just so I could hear more wisdom and anecdotes from people whom I admire. 

A behind-the-scenes photo of Jack Pierce applying Frankenstein makeup to Boris Karloff.

For example, Peter Bogdanovich appears late in the documentary to discuss his masterful 1968 debut Targets, in which Karloff plays an aging horror actor facing the “modern horror” of a mass shooter at a screening of one of his films. It’s a joy to hear from Bogdanovich, especially given his recent passing, but it strikes the viewer as an immense waste to have such a knowledgeable, witty, and charismatic interview subject and only feature him in the final minutes of the film. Guillermo del Toro feels similarly wasted. Every word out of his mouth is poetry, as he offers compelling, incisive commentary on Karloff’s work and his life. But he feels sidelined, appearing only rarely to make you wish he were the one presenting this overview of Karloff’s life as a miniseries of observations and insights.

As is so often the case in horror documentaries (save the exception that proves the rule, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror), the experts consulted on the film are overwhelmingly male and white. Though it unfortunately makes sense that most of the people Karloff worked with in Hollywood fit that description, due to the film industry’s history of shutting out other genders and people of color, there are many non-white and non-male scholars who could have been consulted for the documentary. It would have been particularly illuminating to hear from Indian filmmakers and historians, given Karloff’s Indian heritage. Hearing from underrepresented voices can only enrich the conversation; once again, it feels like an opportunity was missed to dive deeper into Karloff the man and Karloff the performer.

A photo of an older Boris Karloff seated at an elaborate dining table.

In addition to being a tremendous actor with inimitable presence and a talent that only grew as he aged, Boris Karloff was a man of great humor who appreciated experimentation and creativity. Though the documentary succeeds in conveying these admirable qualities about him, it fails to live up to those ideas itself. There is no style or creative panache to the film. Though it wisely uses as much footage as it can of the man himself, including radio interviews and clips from his films, it still feels visually static, jumping from grainy stock photos to talking heads and back again. Taking such a rote approach to such a remarkable man feels like a wasted opportunity, especially given the incredible access that the filmmakers had. (If they offer a physical release with full, unedited versions of the interviews — especially those with Bogdanovich, Miller, and del Toro — I will be the first one to order it.) 

Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster is absolutely worth 99 minutes of your time. I learned quite a bit about the great KARLOFF (as he was often credited on film posters) and I gained a deeper appreciation for both him and his work. I just wish the film lived up to the fascinating grandeur of its subject. Karloff’s daughter Sara appears throughout; she is funny and gracious and offers several interesting anecdotes about her father. She concludes the film with these words about her father’s fans: “They are the loveliest fans in the world and I can’t thank them enough.” As a fan, I think the great Boris Karloff deserves a documentary of greater depth, creativity, and diversity, but I am still thankful to see his legacy continue in such a detailed tribute. 

Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster is now streaming on Shudder.

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