Posted by Richard Harland Smith on February 3, 2009
Do you know where you were 40 years ago today? I do, at least for a moment out of that day so long ago. I’m 47 now, so my memories of that time are sketchy at best but I have a very strong recollection of being with my Mother in the kitchen of our Connecticut home on February 3, 1969, and hearing the news over the radio that Boris Karloff had died the previous day at the age of 81.
What I don’t remember is how I knew Karloff at that time. I hadn’t yet seen FRANKENSTEIN (1931) or any of the great monster movies he made at Universal in the 1930s and 40s (and wouldn’t for another five years) and even if I had seen HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (and I’m not entirely certain that I had) I don’t think I would have connected the unseen narrator with Boris Karloff. (I do remember, though, that we had a recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf that Karloff narrated, his name displayed prominently on the sleeve.) If I had to hazard a guess I’d say I knew the actor exclusively as Mother Muffin from an episode of the short-lived MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. spin-off series, THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. In The Mother Muffin Affair, which aired in September of 1966, Karloff played a nemesis of series lead Stephanie Powers (as Agent April Dancer) and guest star Robert Vaughn (as Napoleon Solo), an Edgar Wallace-type London-based supervillain with a host of minions and a wealth of schemes… and he did it in drag. I suppose someone had to have had a conversation with me about this – at the age of 5, I simply would have accepted Karloff as a woman and let it go at that but at the time of his death two and a half years later I knew full well that he had been acting. I knew who he was. And listening to the radio that cold day in February of 1969 I knew that he was gone.
Maybe that’s what did it. Maybe that’s the thing that made me a MonsterKid- my curiosity about death and the dead man at the center of it. Maybe investigating the career of this fellow with the strangest of names led to a lifelong fascination with all things Gothic and grotesque. Not long after this sad news came to us over the transom, I somehow convinced my Bronx-born (and as such practical and down-to-earth) Mom to spend 95 hard-earned cents on a copy of the Karloff tribute The Frankenscience Monster, a hastily assembled (two weeks, to be precise) paperback chapbook of remembrances, interviews, testimonials, illustrations and film lists compiled by Forrest J. Ackerman, editor-in-chief of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Ackerman (who himself passed away in the final weeks of 2008) was an unabashed “Karloffan” (FJA loved coining phrases) and I love how up front he is about it:
The nice thing about Karloff’s long life is that at the time of his death, at the age of 81, he knew how loved he was. He was celebrated in print (appearing on the cover of Life magazine in March of 1968 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein), on television (a November 1957 airing of This Is Your Life) and in the movies. I don’t think it’s possible for an actor to be so adored nowadays – especially one whose stock-in-trade was generally monsters, ghouls, madmen and dastards. I had to love him retroactively, as I discovered his seminal works, the movies that vulcanized his legend and his legacy – the FRANKENSTEIN trilogy (1931-1939), THE MUMMY (1932), THE BLACK CAT (1934), THE RAVEN (1935) and (best of all) THE INVISIBLE RAY (1935) with Bela Lugosi – and then later lesser-known (but equally great) titles like THE GHOUL (1933), THE BLACK ROOM(1935- with BK as twins!), his collaborations with Val Lewton at RKO – THE BODY SNATCHER, ISLE OF THE DEAD (both 1945) and BEDLAM (1946) – or his late life triumphs: in Roger Corman’s lighthearted THE RAVEN and A COMEDY OF TERRORS (both 1963), absolutely terrifying in Mario Bava’s disturbing terror triptych BLACK SABBATH (1964) and as himself, for all intents and purposes, in Peter Bogdanovich’s TARGETS (1968). Yet even when Karloff turned up in a stinker like THE CLIMAX (1944), VOODOO ISLAND (1957), FRANKENSTEIN 1970 (1958), THE SNAKE PEOPLE (1968) or THE CRIMSON CULT (1969), he’s always worth watching, always on his game, always (and appropriately so) electrifying.
I’ve lived most of my life without Boris Karloff being in it with me but I love having Boris Karloff in my life. In my home, his visage pops up wherever you look… on the cover of Richard Bojarkski’s The Films of Boris Karloff,vis a vis a Frankenstein Monster bobblehead on my desk, in the incarnation of THE MUMMY‘s ancient Im-Ho-Tep as both a Sideshow collectible “Little Big Head” on my bookshelf and an official USPS refrigerator magnet, and on the covers of countless DVDs and CDs left lying around after having been played or about to be played or pulled for research or pulled just to look at. I keep Boris Karloff close the way that some aboriginal tribes preserve the icon of a vilage elder or holyman. I show his picture to my children, I run his films, I practically break into a dance when I chance upon one of his movies when it’s being shown on TV (and how sadly rare that is). Though he went to his well-deserved rest four decades ago, in my heart and in my home…
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