Celebrating the legend of Boris Karloff and ‘Thriller’

by Mark Burger

Boris Karloff scared the world, and the world loved him for it.

Were he alive today, Karloff (born William Henry Pratt) would be 123 years old. Even though he died in 1969 (at 81), he is perhaps as popular now as ever. His voice and visage are as familiar to filmgoers today as they were during his lifetime.

At long last, Image Entertainment is releasing a DVD boxed set containing all 67 episodes of the anthology series “Thriller,” which Karloff hosted and occasionally starred in, and which featured such notable actors as William Shatner, Rip Torn, Mary Tyler Moore, Robert Vaughn, Mary Astor and others.

(For a review of “Thriller,” click HERE) Not unlike “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone,” to which “Thriller” was inevitably compared, the series dealt with the strange and the supernatural, emphasizing atmosphere and suspense over shock — yet, at its best, shock is precisely what “Thriller” delivered.

According to filmmaker and historian Ted Newsom, “Thriller” “was probably the most horrific, consistently scary show I remember growing up in the 1960s.”

The series, also known as “Boris Karloff’s Thriller,” ran for two seasons on NBC-TV (1960-’62). The series earned respectful ratings, but had the handicap of being programmed opposite “The Red Skelton Show,” at the time a ratings juggernaut. Yet even after its cancellation, “Thriller” found a new generation of fans in syndication. Although episodes were released on VHS and laserdisc in the 1980s, fans have long waited for a DVD release.

The wait is over. Sara Karloff, the actor’s only child, offered her thoughts on the release: “I’m just delighted,” she said. “I think the fans will be absolutely delighted with it, too. He loved it. I loved it. Fans loved it. The fans are really going to be thrilled. They’ve been waiting for this a long time.”

Each episode of “Thriller” was structured as a morality play. Quite often, the main character had committed some sort of transgression, then lived to regret it… briefly.

Conventionally “happy” endings were rare, but justice had been served.

For many, Karloff was “Thriller” — as much as “The Twilight Zone” was Rod Serling and “Alfred Hitchock Presents” was (naturally) Hitchcock.

“He would be amazed at the longevity and enormity of his fame and his popularity,” observed Sara Karloff. “He had that lovely British sense of humor and was very selfeffacing. He enjoyed inviting the audience in to participate in this adventure, and he never did anything he thought would insult the audience in any way. His appeal was then and is now multi-generational. He loved working with children because he felt that kids got it.”

Not just kids, but adults, too. Boris Karloff’s career was perhaps defined by his unforgettable turn as the Monster in the original 1931 version of Frankenstein and his many horror roles, yet his versatility was unmistakable. On stage, he originated the role of the escaped killer Jonathan Brewster (a running joke is that he is constantly mistaken for Boris Karloff!) in Joseph Kesselring’s comedy smash Arsenic and Old Lace, played a flamboyant Captain Hook to Jean Arthur’s Peter Pan, and later scored a Tony nomination for his performance in The Lark, opposite Julie Harris and Christopher Plummer.

“He made 170 films, the 81 st of which was Frankenstein — but no one saw the first 80,” joked Sara Karloff. “He had a huge body of work that spanned a great many years.”

The list of Karloff classics is endless: The Mummy (1932), The Mask of Fu Manchu (also ‘32), The Old Dark House (’32 again), The Black Cat (1934), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Black Room (1935), two versions of The Raven (‘35 and 1963), The Body Snatcher (1945), a non-horror role in John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934), a pair of on-screen encounters with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and countless television appearances. One of his last films, Targets (1968), marked the feature debut of screenwriter/director Peter Bogdanovich, who remembers Karloff with great fondness and, like many, refers to the actor as “Dear Boris.”

Karloff even won a Grammy Award in the spoken-word category for his narration of the Dr. Seuss classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, having also narrated the animated CBS-TV children’s special of the same time, which remains a holiday perennial to this day. Well-known as a tireless advocate of his fel low actors, Karloff was one of the founding members of the Screen Actor’s Guild (his membership number is 9).

Long-time Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas, an admitted Karloff admirer, interviewed the actor toward the end of his life. “He told me ‘I’m typecast, aren’t I lucky?’ — and that’s the whole key,” said Thomas. “Horror films allowed him to become an icon. Young audiences have always liked them, so I’m not surprised he is still an icon. It’s a combination of the personality and the genre… and he happened to be a great actor.”

Boris Karloff boasts two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1997 two of his most famous characters — Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy — were immortalized on the Classic Monster Movie Stamps issued by the US Postal Service.

Like any great movie monster — and any great movie star — Boris Karloff will never really die.

Even today, at film conventions, Sara Karloff meets small children who are as familiar with her father as any contemporary star. In many cases, their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents introduced them to Karloff’s work. She remains the proud bearer of her father’s legacy, and she credits the fans for keeping his name alive over the years.

“Please thank them for their appreciation of his legacy and career and the man he was.”

To which millions of fans the world over would likely respond: “No, Boris, thank you.”