This assiduous survey of the life and career of the actor Boris Karloff gracefully acknowledges that he will always be welded in the public imagination to his role as the monster in the classic 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. However, this documentary has a lot more to say about his long and quite fascinating acting career, which he began in the silent era as a handsome action man (“a French-Canadian trapper type,” the voiceover calls him, like that’s a thing) and saw him become a considerable box-office draw for the many horror films he made in the 1930s and 40s. By the end, he was a sweetly self-spoofing TV host and icon happy to do cameo roles in cheerful horror schlock despite his increasing physical frailty, and made an indelible impression on many generations with his deep, velvety voice as the title character of the 1966 animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
In addition to offering a solid biographical survey that traces Karloff, born William Henry Pratt, back to his troubled childhood as the son of Anglo-Indian parents, director Thomas Hamilton has assembled an impressive roster of interviewees with smart, perceptive things to say about Karloff’s work and the context of the times. The canniest comments come from film directors who either worked with him (including the very recently deceased Peter Bogdanovich, who directed him in one of his last films, Targets, in 1968) or deeply understand the nature of horror films, such as Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, and John Landis. In addition, Karloff’s daughter Sara remembers her father fondly, and a deep bench of film scholars (illustrious silent film expert Kevin Brownlow, walking film encyclopaedia Leonard Maltin) are on hand to dispense acute observations and trivia.
Altogether this is one huge knowledge bomb, and given the depth of research and rich store of archive material, it’s a shame that the original parts of the documentary are so shonky – too many green screens, for example, behind interviewees for no discernible gain. Visually, it feels very much like a cable-channel schedule filler, or a DVD box-set extra, which is possibly exactly what it was meant to be.
• Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster is available on 27 January on Shudder.