I've been on a real Boris Karloff kick lately (see my recent triple-feature review over on Horror Squad), which started with back-to-back viewings of The Black Cat ('34) and The Raven ('35). Both films were made when Karloff was the premiere name in horror, but the roles were so strikingly different from each other, that I wondered how audiences perceived him during the glory days of Universal Studios' horror films. Was his box office appeal based on him being "the creepy guy" or was it due to his versatility in a film genre that was just beginning to find its legs?
I'd argue that without Karloff's versatility, the genre would've evolved in a completely different way. With such a fantastic character actor in generally unsavory roles, Karloff elevated horror films into perfectly acceptable entertainment. There's art in Karloff's finest performances, and how can horror be all bad if it's artful? We don't have anyone like him today, and without anyone to add that touch of class to horror, the films released now are widely considered base, lowbrow entertainment.
As an actor, Karloff's versatility can't be overstated. As much as I'm glad he was part of horror's formative years, a big part of me is also saddened that the actor was never quite able to take part in the big A-list movies of Hollywood's Golden Age. Here was an actor who could seemingly shut off his very own soul, peering out of his black orbs with dead-eyed malice, and in a different role, his smile could make him as warm and as approachable as the gentlest grandfather.
He's not playing gentle in either The Black Cat or The Raven. In fact, his role in The Black Cat may be one of his finest as a pure villain (along with Robert Wise's The Body Snatcher). He's a Satanic weirdo who builds a modern deco mansion on top of the battle site where he left all of his comrades to die over a decade earlier. His character, Poelzig, can be a charming host one second, and turn on a dime into a reptilian slimeball the next. Poelzig lacks remorse for any of his actions, and he deliberately inflicts physical and emotional harm on others, making him one of the least sympathetic of Karloff's roles. Even Ardeth Bey, Karloff's iconic mummy character and one of the actor's darker turns, earns a bit of sympathy because he's fueled by love. Poelzig is fueled by hate and the Devil; it's hard to feel for him.
In The Raven, Karloff plays a homely thug named Edmond Bateman, who approaches Bela Lugosi's Dr. Vollin for a prettier face. In a wicked, pitch-black comedic turn of events Vollin makes Bateman uglier, as a means of forcing Bateman to do the doctor's bidding. The scene in which Vollin removes Bateman's post-surgey bandages is uncomfortably hilarious. Bateman is so happy about his new face, only to realize that his right eye doesn't seem to be working anymore. The more shocked Bateman becomes at his own newly hideous visage, the more amused Vollin gets.
Bateman is vintage Karloff, and the kind of part the actor played best -- sympathetic monsters. He's by no means a "good guy", but his situation really sucks. Rob Zombie tried to infuse Michael Myers with this kind of quality in his recent Halloween relaunch, because Zombie is enough of an old school horror fan to know that making a monster sympathetic can add a lot to a film. What Zombie fails to realize is that it can only work with the right actor in the role. There's nothing Tyler Mane does as Myers that adds any element of humanity to the character, despite whatever's been written into the script.
You need someone like Karloff to pull off that trick successfully. Horror trends change, but the classics endure because they have qualities that transcend their dark roots. Usually these qualities are an element of filmmaking craftsmanship, like a great script, perfect editing, or a pitch-perfect tone. Boris Karloff is a quality unto himself, an actor whose mere presence in a film means a memorable performance or an iconic character, and his films endure, primarily because of himself. We need more like Karloff; not just as horror fans, but as movie fans.