I had the immense pleasure of sitting down with Thomas Hamilton, the director of Boris Karloff: The Man Behind The Monster (2021 – our review). We spoke about Karloff’s impact on the horror genre, how he affected the treatment of actors, and what kinds of roles Boris would shine in today.
PopHorror: What was the impetus that made you want to film this documentary at this time?
Thomas Hamilton: Well, it really started with my co-producer, Ron MacCloskey, because he had been wanting to make a film about Boris Karloff since the 1990s. He’s been a fan of Boris Karloff all his life. He started interviewing people in the 1990s. He spoke with Peter Bogdanovich, and a couple of other writers. But this was all shot just on a home video camera, so it wasn’t really professional quality material.
Around 2018, he was looking for a filmmaker who could take it forward to the next level. He saw my documentary about Leslie Howard on Turner Classic Movies. He liked it, and he reached out to me and said, “Would you be interested in making a film about Boris Karloff?” Now, I’ve always been a fan of Karloff, so that didn’t take much persuasion. He has this wonderful career, from the silent era all the way through the classic horror films right up into the 60s. Television, Targets, and all of these colorful films. I thought that this was a great story to tell. I also like the idea of being able to tell the story of horror films and how they evolved through the career of Boris Karloff. So it was really an interesting one for me to do.
PopHorror: It’s astounding when you realize exactly how eclectic his career really was and how many genres he spanned over the years.
Thomas Hamilton: A great many genres, particularly before Frankenstein. But then once he started doing TV in the 60s, he got very diverse. He’s performing on variety shows. He’s singing. He’s doing serious dramas with Julie Harris. It’s just a remarkable range of stuff. He’s always bringing this real love of his craft and enthusiasm for every part that he plays.
PopHorror: I imagine that in covering something with this much depth, it comes with a lot of challenges. What was your biggest challenge in making this project come to life?
Thomas Hamilton: The biggest challenge was distilling it all down to something that could fit into a one and a half hour film. Originally, Ron and I planned to make this a four hour film, because we knew there was so much to be covered. But the reality of it was that if we were going to release it—because we were releasing it to cinemas last year—it just wouldn’t work in that format. We made the hard decision to get it down to the real key events in his life. Tell as much as we can and show something the audiences won’t necessarily be familiar with, as well as the favorites like Frankenstein. Just try and compress it a little. I think that was actually very good for the film. It made it a lot faster moving.
PopHorror: What’s your favorite Karloff role ever? What attracts you to it so much?
Thomas Hamilton: I have a few favorite Karloff roles. I could give you my top three. Frankenstein goes without saying. Those first three films, particularly Bride Of Frankenstein, are just magical. In Bride Of Frankenstein, he takes the monster places that it had never been before and would never go again. He’s this sort of anti-hero, this heartbreaking creature, and it’s an amazing film. So dark and twisted and humorous, with Pretorius and his little creations in the jars. Frankenstein is wonderful itself and still very powerful over ninety years after it was released. Can you believe that we’re watching a film made over ninety years ago, and it still hits you? When he throws Maria in the water, it’s desperation when he can’t understand what’s happened to her. That’s incredible performing, which transcends time.
Other favorite parts… The Black Cat is a magnificent film. It’s both him and Bela Lugosi. If you think of Boris as being this actor that tends to play these really sympathetic characters, think again. He has his former wives hanging up in the basement. It’s so black and so dark. It was made in 1934, right before the censorship really came in. It’s a marvelously atmospheric film with very twisted characters. And it has Bela Lugosi as sympathetic for once. He’s the hero, so I love that one.
The first time I saw Targets, I was thinking, “It’s now. It is today.” The cars and things didn’t look that much different in 1968 than they do now. It’s really strange that you get used to him in these period films, and then you see him in a contemporary setting and there’s a gunner, taking people’s lives. It’s a chilling film, which must have seemed really shocking in 1968 and yet, it’s entirely contemporary now.
PopHorror: I’m still discovering and watching a lot of these films for the first time, and it’s so much fun to go back and see the inner formations of the horror genre and see Karloff and Lugosi rising together as its two main figureheads.
Thomas Hamilton: That is exactly right. That’s another reason why it was so attractive to tell this story, because you really are looking at the history of horror and the way it changes. What was happening in America in the late 30s and the 40s really directly affected Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi’s careers because when censorship started, Lugosi had no work. Boris could still get some work because he had a few contracts, but his salary went down quite a bit.
PopHorror: What do you think is the singular most important or unique fact that you learned about Boris through making this documentary?
Thomas Hamilton: I think his activity with the Screen Actors Guild is really fascinating. He was passionate about it at a point in his career when he wasn’t fully established as a star. He had three starring roles: Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, and a film in England called Ghoul. He came back to America, and Universal wanted him for The Invisible Man. But they reneged on the contract that they gave him in 1931, and his word is his bond. So when Universal did that, his friends in the acting community began saying, “Would you be interested in joining this union?” He was like, “Yes, I certainly would be.” He became very passionate, advocating it and recruiting people. He would go to other people’s sets and actually start asking if they’d thought of joining the union. We were talking to one of the artists at SAG-AFTRA, Valerie Yaros, and she was showing their direct records and communications. He was shooting the Bride of Frankenstein, and they sent him a letter saying that all of the people in this cast were not members of the Screen Actors Guild. So he’s ambling up to the various people in full makeup and asking them to consider joining this union. They did, and he went to other sets and studios as well. It’s just incredible that he was so committed. It could have ruined him.
PopHorror: It’s incredible to think that he was breaking down doors, not only in the horror genre as a character actor, but also behind the scenes setting up the union to protect other actors.
Thomas Hamilton: Yes, and he was member number nine. He was the ninth person to sign up.
PopHorror: We’ve talked about some of the legendary figures in this time period. Aside from Boris himself, who would be one person—alive or dead—that you wish you could have spoken to about Boris for this piece?
Thomas Hamilton: We really wanted to talk to Jack Nicholson. But he just doesn’t do interviews. But there’s this footage of him in a documentary for The Shining where he talks about working with Boris. The way Boris Karloff was underlining all of his lines in the script for him so that he knew exactly when to refer to it. Jack Nicholson had adopted this himself. So he would underline all his lines, just like Boris did. There were a few cornerstones that were still alive when we started filming, like Robert Conrad from The Wild, Wild West. We wanted him but it just didn’t time out properly. But we did get people like Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich, and Dick Miller, so really can’t complain.
PopHorror: I spoke to Sara Karloff after a theater play about Boris once, and she talked so much about Boris’s love for Jack Pierce.
Thomas Hamilton: It was very important to talk about Jack Pierce in the documentary and really illustrate the difference he made, and the fact that Boris really appreciated his input. That’s the thing I like about Boris, is that he was always grateful.
PopHorror: What roles in modern horror movies would you be interested to see Karloff play if he was still around today? What kind of characters would he fit in within the current state of the genre?
Thomas Hamilton: That’s a very interesting question. I can imagine him in some of the Blumhouse films as some of the older characters, particularly the Insidious films. For example, with Lin Shaye, you can imagine him having a role in those as a figure she gets information from. Imagine Boris Karloff in The Inspector Calls. Where he turns up at his family home and gradually picks apart their lives and why they’re all responsible for this young girl’s death. He would have been marvelous in that part. I can just imagine the kind of humanity that he would have projected into that. A few weeks ago, I was watching Great Expectations. He would have made a wonderful Magwitch. I’m not sure he would have felt so akin with more modern horror films, because he liked things that were suggested rather than everything being shown.
PopHorror: I always go back to the fact that he likes to call them “thrillers” instead of horror movies, because thrillers are more introspective.
Thomas Hamilton: That kind of brings you to the series, Thriller, which he did some really great work on in the 60s.
PopHorror: I know Jordan Peele recently revived The Twilight Zone. If it came back again, I think he’d be the perfect host for it.
Thomas Hamilton: He would be wonderful. The thing with Boris is that his commitment to the craft was such, that if he had still been alive today, I think he would still be working. Because he never stopped.
PopHorror: He was hurting all the way back to the first Frankenstein movie, being forced to carry guys around on his back, and he still worked through it. His resilience was amazing.
Thomas Hamilton: I read stories about him being in wheelchairs even in the 40s. He was in a wheelchair because he had back problems and he would sit there quietly, and then when it came time for the scene, he’d be up and performing and you wouldn’t know anything was wrong.
PopHorror: So what do you think is Boris Karloff’s legacy, both as it relates to the horror genre and to life in general?
Thomas Hamilton: In horror films, one of the unique things that Boris Karloff brought was this amazing depth of humanity. When you watch films like The Black Cat or the Frankenstein movies or Walking Dead or The Body Snatchers, whether he’s doing terrible things on screen or off screen, you know why he’s doing them. You can see that there’s a pain in his life with the reality of that time, and those films get in your heart when you’re watching them, which a lot of those older foreign films don’t do. But Boris was committed, and that’s one thing that really distinguishes him constantly.
A big thing that he left to all actors is the Screen Actors Guild. He was a major part of making it viable because he was probably the biggest star out of the first people that became involved. When we were interviewing one actor—I think it was Ron Perlman—he actually said, “Thank God for Boris Karloff and James Cagney and all these people, because now, actors have rights.” If you’re sick, now there’s insurance to cover you. I think also just his general humanity. He showed that you can be good to your co-stars. It’s not all necessarily about yourself as the star.
PopHorror: That’s an overarching theme that we’ve heard spoken about Boris that he was one of the first really famous genre actors that stayed humble. He always stayed in tune with where he came from.
Thomas Hamilton: I think that’s because he had such a long period of time before he became a star. He had 20 years of touring around, working hard, giving good performances, getting good reviews, but never getting the recognition. I think that if he had success instantly as a young man and maybe had broken into silent films and been a big star, then maybe it would have been a little different. But he had that sort of understanding of what it was like to be an underdog. He understood what was going on with his other cast members, and he showed sympathy towards them. He didn’t pull rank and was a really good guy to work for.
We spoke to John Elliott, who was the assistant stage manager in the Anchorage Alaska production of Arsenic and Old Lace in 1957. This was a community theater project. And they approached Boris Karloff and asked if he’d come and do it for three nights. Boris thought about it and said, “Yes.” John Elliott said Boris treated everyone in the exact same way he would have treated them if they were on the Broadway stage.
PopHorror: What do you want your viewers to take away from your documentary? Also what’s next for you as a filmmaker? What are the next few projects down the pike?
Thomas Hamilton: I would like people to discover these films. I wanted to try and make it immediate in the sense that this isn’t just from 90 years ago. This is filmmaking. These are real people. I wanted to bring it alive as much as possible. And that was something we really tried particularly with the Frankenstein movies, because we thought it was very important to give audiences a sense of being there. Having those interviews with Karloff when he’s talking about his memories of being in these films is also good, because you’re hearing it from the guy himself. So I wanted to really inspire people to look into these films and not think of them as relics, because they’re really not.
What do we have next? I’m planning a film about Vincent Price. I’m in touch with his daughter, Victoria. Ron and I are working on a companion piece to the main documentary on Boris, too. As I said, we did plan a four hour film, and we interviewed people, and a lot of that didn’t make it into Behind The Monster. So we’re making a companion piece that will be called The Rest of the Story.
PopHorror: His filmography is quite wide. You definitely accomplished your goal, because I found myself watching your documentary and taking notes about other films I had not seen from Karloff, that I didn’t know existed.
Thomas Hamilton: I’m really glad that it makes you want to watch those films. You’ve got a lot of films to watch! (laughs)
PopHorror: I certainly look forward to staying in touch on these projects. And please send them over to us whenever they’re ready. We’d be happy to come back here and do this again next time.
I’d like to thank Thomas Hamilton for his passion and hard work on this project and his kindness in speaking with me. If you’d like to check out Boris Karloff: The Man Behind The Monster, it’s currently streaming on Shudder.