Thomas Hamilton’s ‘Boris Karloff: The Man Behind The Monster’ (2021) – Documentary Review

Boris Karloff is perhaps one of the foremost faces of the golden age of terror. Starring as the monster character in both Frankenstein and The Mummy (1932 – our retro review), Karloff was synonymous with some of the most important and influential horror villains of all time (read our deep dive into Universal Monsters here). Boris Karloff: The Man Behind The Monster is a documentary that examines Karloff’s impact, not just in the world of terror, but in the lives his humble and jovial personality touched. As there may be no figure more fitting for documentary treatment, I couldn’t wait to look underneath the makeup into why he worked so well.

Boris Karloff: The Man Behind The Monster was directed by Thomas Hamilton (Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave A Damn 2016), and written by Hamilton and Ron MacCloskey (Karloff And Me 2006). This ninety-seven minute biographical piece featured a litany of talking heads like director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth 2006), writer/producer Roger Corman (Little Shop Of Horrors 1986) and Karloff’s daughter, Sara. As the influential friends and filmmakers who grew up with Karloff told their stories, there was a wide variety of his films playing in the background. His career spanned from 1919-1971 (even two years after his death) with 205 actor credits to his resume.

Born William Henry Pratt in 1887, Karloff rose past humble beginnings and traveled to Canada on a whim. Down to his last fifteen cents, Karloff booked his first gig by telling directors that he starred in plays that he’d merely seen growing up. He went on book James Whale’s Frankenstein in 1931 after the original director, Robert Florey, and actor, Bela Lugosi, were no longer on the project. The flood gates opened from there, and terror had a new face. I use the word “terror” here instead of “horror,” because as Boris Karloff: The Man Behind The Monster tells us, Karloff hated the word “horror.” He thought “horror” meant something negative and revolting, while a word like “terror” better conveyed the surprising and entertaining mission of the genre.

From helping to spearhead the SAG union for actors to fighting through pain to deliver masterful performances, Karloff embodied a one-of-a-kind man and a fearless warrior simultaneously. From the cartoon, How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), to the television anthology, Thriller (1960 – our retro review), to the meta-drama, Targets (1968), he continually proved that he was both diverse and resilient in his illustrious career. He managed to keep his smile in spite of his proper expectations and keep his demure demeanor despite his broad stature.

Boris Karloff: The Man Behind The Monster proves that you don’t have to conform to any one avenue to be successful. Boris loved what he did, and he never lost who he was behind the weight of Jack Pierce’s revolutionary makeup. He waded through decades of work and broke the typecasting mold with a heart that was the size of Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster. If you’d like to check out this insightful documentary, it’s currently available on Shudder.

About Jason Burke

Hey there, I'm Jason. I'm a lifelong writer and lover of all things that go bump in the night. Under my production company name, Nostalgic Nightmare Productions, I write and produce films, novels, and photoshoots. I'm also an actor, activist, poet, and stand-up comic. I believe in deep, character-driven stories that engage the audience.

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