Of all the stars of the 1930’s and 40’s, few can claim to have the continued following in the 21st Century that Boris Karloff has.
But if things had gone as planned for William Henry Pratt, born November 23rd 1887, film history itself would be different. He was expected to follow in the family footsteps of working for the British Government. That family included his Grandfather, Father, and all his 7 brothers.
The Pratt's were known to be very dignified, educated, and men of integrity. They were also known to be a bit boring and dull. William, or Billy, as people called him, did not want to take up their pursuits. He wanted adventure, to explore new opportunities and try his hand as acting!
In 1909, after flipping a coin, he decided to pack up, leave his mother country and go to Canada, with the hopes of being an actor, which he knew nothing about. A year later, after working at many manual labor jobs, he decided to answer and ad for a stock company looking for an experienced actor. Before he wrote to them, he thought it might be best to change his name. he chose a first and last name, that would be revered years after his death. He choose BORIS KARLOFF.
21 years later, in August 1931, in a closed set on the Universal Film Studios Lot, Boris Karloff stood behind the door to a laboratory set in the costume of a hulking, mute monstrosity – created from freshly unearthed corpses. Despite his 22 years in the business he was still a virtual unknown, an actor known to only a few particularly observant viewers, still struggling to make a living in his chosen career. But when the door opened, and Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster turned to face the camera for the first time, film history was made and a star was born.
Not that Boris realised this as he stood there. He understood this was a great part, possibly even a great movie, but he had experienced other moments of apparent break through that came to nothing and simply hoped it would lead to regular work. For seven weeks following Frankenstein’s wrap and it’s release Boris went straight back to the supporting and sometimes bit parts he had played beforehand appearing in 3 low budget films.
Boris didn’t even get to witness the first audience reaction to his breakthrough performance, no one thought to invite him to the Dec 1931 premier – after all he was only playing a mute creature.
Yet Boris would achieve a truly meteoric rise to fame in the wake of Frankenstein’s release. For, as frightening as it was, everyone loved his Monster. Not since Lon Chaney had a horror film featured such a simultaneously disturbing and yet pathetically touching creation. It was a mark of Boris’s great skill that this part so established him.
And while never regretting that he might have become type-cast in so called Horror roles, Boris Karloff managed to carve a career which mingled some of the greatest Horror films, with a startling variety of other parts – from comedy, to tragedy, and with a career which encompassed Screen, Radio, Stage ,TV and even Records.
With “Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster” Tom Hamilton and Ron MacCloskey intend to make the definitive documentary and celebration of the life and career of one of the true icons of 20th Century cinema and one whose appeal seemingly continues into the 21st Century, with film makers such as Guillermo Del Toro (who has also agreed to be interviewed) discussing the affect Boris Karloff movies had on his own creativity.
As well as looking at the various stages of his career and the way in which he bridged three or four generations of screen terror from the Universal classics through the Val Lewton era, the late 50’s British resurgence and the Roger Corman horror revival of the 60’s, we will also explore less publicised aspects of his life such as his early and vital support of the embryonic Screen Actors Guild, which he bravely promoted at a time when his career could have been affected. Other aspects are his unloved early years, the family that wanted him to go into the diplomatic service, his shyness and staunchly British outlook even after so many years abroad.
As well as Boris’s daughter Sara Karloff, Tom and Ron are interviewing Norman Jewison, Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Bean, Stefanie Powers, Daniel Haller, Donnie Dunagen, Jack Hill, Nehemiah Persoff, H.M Wynant, John Elliot, Miles Kreuger (who recalls seeing Boris onstage in Arsenic and Old Lace) Valerie Yaros (SAG-AFtRA archivist), Ron Simon (Archivist at the Paley Media Centre, Sir Christopher Frayling, Diane Aubrey, Stephen Jacobs, Gordon Shriver, Greg Mank, and more to be confirmed.
We are looking to raise at least £13,000 (approx $17,000) in order to keep this film going. This is to ensure we can fly to New Jersey in late October, then LA in November to film all of the interviews we need to construct this film.
While £13000 will enable us to film all the interviews there are many other expenses that we hope to be able to meet, including Legal fees (for Fair Use Lawyers), Errors and Omissions, Off and Online Edit costs, Stills and rostrum work, Music composition, clearance of archive interview footage, much of it with Boris himself, and final post production and sound mixing. The more we raise, the further through this post-production phase we can get and at the same time we are exploring other sources of potential funding to make up the difference.
That’s why we’re offering such a wide range of rewards, for anything from a £5 ($6.50) up to £7500 ($9800) contribution. These rewards range from individual postcards and A3 Posters of artwork designed for the film, through DVDs of the film (when it’s complete) and behind the scenes dvds of the uncut interviews) to thank you’s and credits within the film to an exclusive invitation to a unique celebration event in honour of Boris Karloff – in the presence of Sara Karloff and at which we will screen the rough cut of “Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster”
NOTE – Although the reward Pledges are shown in UKP, we are accepting pledges from all over the world and are happy to dispatch rewards accordingly.
All DVDs on offer will be all regions and playable in any country. For those who do not have a DVD player we will offer a password protected download from VIMEO.
Risks and challenges
The Greatest Challenge of all – mortality?
Boris Karloff passed away almost 50 years ago. So on this project, depending on newly filmed interviews with friends and co-workers, we are interviewing people ranging in age from their mid-70’s to late 90’s. Some have never spoken on film about their friendships and work with Boris. In a few years many will either be gone or too ill to speak to us. So there’s no time to waste and I’ve moved with the greatest speed possible to interview as many as I can – even digging into my own savings to do so.
I have personal experience of the danger of waiting. On my last film “Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn”, I was dealing with the life of someone who died 63 years earlier, so living witnesses to his life were few indeed. A few people who were alive at the beginning of filming were either too ill (one had advanced Alzheimers) to be able to talk on camera or died before I could arrange to interview them. These losses were tough, but an unfortunate reality in this kind of project.
My key interviewee was Leslie Howard’s daughter, 82 when I met her and a still strikingly vibrant and youthful woman. “Doodie” lived in Toronto and my British producer was initially hesitant about spending the thousands necessary to hire a local crew, fly me out to Toronto and transfer the Home Movies, wanting to postpone all of this till the following summer. Fortunately he rethought his position and we were able to carry out the interview and transfers with Lesley Ruth Howard in December 2006.
Everyone always remarked that she looked and sounded great in this interview and how much she adds to the film. It would have been very different if we had waited till the following summer. For though just 7 months had passed, when my wife and I again visited Lesley Ruth, we found her much aged and noticeably frail, a shadow of the person we’d filmed the previous December.
So knowing how rapidly an older subject can decline, when I find someone who knew and wants to talk about Boris Karloff, I want to film them asap. That’s why, as soon as Ron and I decided to make this new film, I started organising interviews in the UK, Toronto (where I am based from now till November) at conventions in New Jersey in October and LA (where we will film them in early November.) Other interviewees, who live in more remote parts of the USA and Canada will be interviewed by locally hired camera operators – using a Skype link so that I can carry out the interviews in real time. Then finally when my wife and I return to the UK in late November, I’ll film the last few interviews in London and begin off-line editing.
As you can see, we are aiming to get all of these time sensitive interviews “in the can” as quickly as possible – preferably by December this year. With those safely filmed, we will have the core of the documentary.
What about getting clips from Boris’s favourite films – don’t those cost a fortune?
Many copyright owners will charge exceptionally high fees for use of clips of the films they own, if they are approached. Quotes of around £5000 per minute are common and often come with conditions that would make many a film-maker shudder. That’s too expensive for most production companies, and many try to find ways around this.
As a result we see many TV profiles on stars like Boris, in which the producers cut corners by utilising poor quality trailers and public domain footage in an attempt to save money. But the result of this is to simply debase the value of the star they are trying to celebrate – giving the impression that their films were cheapjack, shoddily made productions.
This will not be the case on “Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster”
Following my experience of using the provision Fair Use on my Leslie Howard film, and knowing the process I need to go through to legally achieve this, I am confidant we can produce a film which utilises the best quality material on Boris’s career, with clips that will properly showcase what made Boris the great star he became and stayed and still stay within a reasonable budget.
Do you believe the finished film will be able to attract an audience.
Definitely. In the two months since we announced starting this project, weI’ve had a great deal of communication from people who are interested in the project and eager to be involved. My previous film on Leslie Howard was a much harder “sell” – since it’s subject is not so widely known as Boris Karloff. Yet that film won the audience prize for Best Documentary at the San Francisco Mostly British Festival, enjoys regular screenings on Turner Classic Movies (in the US & Canada) & Talking Pictures TV in the UK. It has built up a nice following, with excellent reviews on imdb and other classic cinema sites. Yet, when I was making it, many doubted that I would be able to sell a documentary on an “obscure” figure such as Howard.
Boris Karloff on the other hand is an actor with a still strong following – thanks to his legendary status as the great star of the Classic Universal Horrors, the more subtle Val Lewton classics, his 60’s series “Thriller” and of course The Grinch.
I therefore feel great confidence that this film will be both easier to complete and will be eagerly anticipated by Horror related film festivals and events, as well as TV and DVD outlets.
- (30 days)