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Boris Karloff

The following article was originally published in Films and Filming (London), November 1957 and then reprinted in Castle of Frankenstein #14, 1969. A very special thanks is due to regular reader and commenter, Paul Bollenbacher, for sending me this article in its entirety.

I dislike the word “horror” yet it is a word that has been tagged to me all my life. It is a misnomer…for it means revulsion. The films I have made were made for entertainment, maybe with the object of making the audience’s hair stand on end, but never to revolt people. Perhaps terror would be a much better word to describe these films, but alas, it is too late now to change the adjective. My films even prompted the British Censor to introduce a certificate in the early 30’s known as H…for horror.

Early in 1931 when the first Frankenstein film was released the Universal publicity department coined the phrase “A Horror Picture” and from that day on the “horror film” was here to stay. This genre of film entertainment obviously fulfills a desire in people to experience something, which is beyond the range of everyday human emotion. This conclusion can be drawn from two facts.

First, from the tremendous success financially and otherwise of the early Frankenstein films and subsequent pictures of a similar type. Secondly, because of an incident on the set of Stranglehold, a British “horror” film which I have just finished making at Walton Studios. We were about to shoot a sequence in which a man is fogged. Suddenly the set was crowded by studio workmen and office girls all eager to have a look! There is a violent streak in all of us: and if it can be exploded in the cinema instead of in some antisocial manner in real life, so much the better.

Perhaps the best possible audience for a “horror” film is a child audience. The vivid imagination with which a child is gifted is far more receptive to the ingredients in these pictures than the adult imagination, which merely finds them artificial. Because they have vivid imaginations we must not underestimate children…they know far more than we think they do.


When I played Frankenstein’s Monster I received sack loads of fan mail…mostly from young girls. These children had seen right through the make-up and had been deeply moved by sympathy for the poor brute.

Children choose what they want to see in an entertainment. This was brought home to me during the record run of Barrie’s Peter Pan at the Imperial Theatre in New York. I played Captain Hook and, being interested in the children’s reaction to the play, I invited a horde of them to come along to the theatre. Peter Pan, as everybody knows, is a mixture of romanticism and adventure. The somewhat frightening exploits of Captain Hook are offset by the whimsy of Tinker Bell. The frightening element would possibly, one would think, stay in a child’s mind far longer than the fairy element. After the final curtain I took them backstage and introduced them to the cast. Almost all the children would first want to meet Wendy and Tinker Bell and then they would want to put on the Captain’s hook. Their first reaction when they looked at themselves in the mirror was a grunt and scowl and make the same type of lurching gestures, as does Frankenstein’s monster.

The fascination of the “horror” film is perhaps because it is make-believe. Most people like to pretend that there is something just behind the door. It transports the audience to another world. A world of fantasy and of imagination. A world inhabited by the characters of Hans Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. The “horror” film is concocted more or less from the folk tales of every country. When I am asked if these films are harmful to children, my answer is always the same: Do Grimm’s fairy tales do any harm to children? I have never heard of fairy tale books being used in evidence in a juvenile delinquency case!

Naturally, good taste plays a very important part in the telling of a “horror” story on film. Some have taste, others regrettably have not. As there are no rules laid down to give an indication of good taste it is up to the film’s makers.

You are walking a very narrow tight rope when you make such a film. It is building the illusion of the impossible and giving it the semblance of reality that is of prime importance. The moment the film becomes stupid the audience will laugh and the illusion is lost…never to be regained. The story must be intelligent and coherent as well as being unusual and bizarre…in fact just like a fairy tale or a good folk story. The “horror” has to be for the sake of the story and not as a few recent films had done, have a story outline just for the sake of injecting as many shocks as possible.

The central character is most important in a “horror” picture because he is more complex.

You must understand his point of view although you know he is mistaken. You must have sympathy for him although you know his is terribly wrong. An example of a good central character of this type was Columbia’s Mad Doctor in the famous series. Although you were pleased to see him destroyed you were sorry that it had happened.

The special technique of “horror” filmmaking is to stimulate the imagination. This is usually done by showing bits and pieces, which gradually build up a picture in people’s imagination. For instance, in the Frankenstein films one saw the doctor with fuming liquids, bubbling test tubes, lights flashing and electrical circuits buzzing. These various images cut together heightened the tension. At the correct moment the monster would appear and (I hope) the audience would jump. It is important in any visual entertainment to allow the audience to use its imagination–never underline the action. If sympathy is wanted for the character, he himself must reject sympathy.

Although I am devoted to the part of the Monster in the Frankenstein films (if I lived to be a thousand I would always be associated with them) I pulled out after making the third in the series. After the first three I could see that the possibilities were exhausted for both Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster. In fact, the poor brute was becoming a comic prop for the third act. I always felt that the first three in the series were tasteful and well produced, unlike the trend of many films today which seem intent on degrading an audience rather than purging their emotions with a kind of terror that is cathartic in its effect.

I remember the advent of the “horror” picture. I had kicked around Hollywood for ten years playing extra and various small parts in films. When the Depression came in America I even took up lorry driving. When things became a little more stable I landed a role in a play called “The Criminal Code” as a convict. I had ugly cropped hair and a gruesome make-up. I played the same role in the film. One of the studio executives no doubt thought, “Here’s an ugly looking customer; let’s try him for the part of the Monster.” I was given a test and got the part although the make-up was not at that time created. Jack Pierce, the chief make-up artist at Universal, and I, worked three hours almost every evening for three weeks creating the makeup. Finally James Whale, who directed FRANKENSTEIN, saw the test and was overjoyed. Jack Pierce’s words still echo in my mind: “This is going to be a big thing!” How right he was.

I felt that the role was a challenge. I had to portray a sub-human of little intelligence and without speech, still getting over the sympathetic qualities in the role. When the Monster did speak (in the second film) I knew that this was eventually going to destroy the character. It did for me, anyway.

I believe the British censor cut a scene from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN because of what he thought in his own mind were necrophile tendencies. I must say now that I have never knowingly been in a scene that was objectionable to good taste. Some of my films have been stupid and silly, because they did not have good stories, but they have never been distasteful. I am opposed to censorship in any form. Censorship always seems to me to be a mistrust of people’s intelligence. I believe that good taste takes care of license. It is also worth remembering that one does not have to go and see a film.

I have been asked many times: What is the best “horror” film you have made? I would say without a doubt, the original FRANKENSTEIN.

I always try to see a film in which I have appeared when it goes on release, so that all the technical details are not too fresh in my mind. I am afraid that “horror” films do not excite me much. Possibly because I have made so many; but for millions of film goers, they relieve the humdrum life of the average individual better than any other kind of story, and that after all is what entertainment should always do.

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3 Comments

  1. Merry Christmas, Mark. :) I hope you have a nice time this holiday.

  2. Thank you, Mariana. It’s been a swell holiday so far. And, of course, I wish you only the very best!

  3. What an excellent take from a true legendary actor. This was like an unexpected treat for the would be film maker. Thanks for posting this. This was awesome insight from one of the greats. They just don’t make them like they used to.


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  1. [...] How The Grinch Stole Christmas (Dec. 17, 8:00, Cartoon Network), featuring the voice of horror icon Boris Karloff. (I avoid the loud, stupid live-action Jim Carrey movie. It’s like someone figured how how to [...]

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