Five Questions I’d Like to Ask
BORIS KARLOFF—To what degree was your performance and characterization as Byron Orlok in the 1968 film Targets autobiographical, and how much of his thoughts and feelings regarding his career mirror your own?
While most serious students of Horror will of course say that Karloff’s first two performances as Frankenstein’s Monster, in 1931’s Frankenstein and 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, are his finest work, I’ve always been especially impressed with one of his last roles, that of Byron Orlok in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 thriller Targets. Shot for Roger Corman on a shoestring budget, this is one of the finest psychological thrillers ever produced, and is even better as a character study of an aging Horror star, and his disillusionment as he looks back on his career.
Running parallel to this plotline is the story of a disturbed young man, played by Tim O’Kelly, who is planning to murder his family and go out in a blaze of glory. He assembles an armory for this purpose, and we are witness to both his preparations and his deepening madness. The two plots weave and dart about, drawing together to intersect at a personal appearance of Orlok’s at a Drive-In theater.
One of the facets of this movie that has always appealed to me is the sense that this is Karloff as he truly was, rather than as the stereotyped, packaged, processed Horror Icon he had become. The reason that I love this movie so much is the same reason I love John Wayne’s final film, 1976’s The Shootist: in no other roles do we see these men, each so much larger than life, as human and as vulnerable as in these films. Each is, in his own way, bidding farewell, both to an adoring public as well as to an image of themselves that had been carefully grown and nurtured over the long decades of their careers. Both men were, and are, immensely significant to me.
Wayne, second only to my father, represented the ideal of American manhood to me, the virtues and the vices that, when combined in harmony, symbolized what it meant to be a man to generations of young boys. And Karloff was the symbol of all that a young Unimonster loved about Horror… from the sound of massive boots without, as Colin Clive and Edward Van Sloan conversed darkly in hushed tones; to the vaguest sense of motion, as the eyes of Im-Ho-Tep slowly fluttered open. It was Karloff’s face that graced the covers of Famous Monsters, at least, the memorable ones; and it was his face that was the face of Horror for nearly twenty years. I’ve often wondered, as I watch him in the role which transformed him from unknown to icon, if some portion of him resented the path his life took, or the road down which the monster led him.
BELA LUGOSI—You once stated that Dracula was always there, always a part of you. To what degree would you say that the role of Count Dracula has been a blessing, and to what degree a curse?
While never possessed of the raw talent of frequent collaborator (and more frequent rival…) Boris Karloff, it would be wrong to judge Bela Lugosi’s talent by the roles he chose to accept. When gifted with decent writing and direction, he could more than hold his own with his more talented castmates, and when he shined, as in the role of Vitus Werdegast in Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 classic The Black Cat, none were better.
But Lugosi’s career had one defining moment, a moment which forever linked him with one character to the point that their names became synonymous… Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula.
Where Karloff’s name soon came to symbolize Horror in general, Lugosi was much more closely tied to his iconic creation, despite having only played the character of Dracula twice. While his performances as both Werdegast and as Ygor, the friend of Frankenstein’s Monster from Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein, are superior to that of Dracula, it is the latter role that came to dominate his career… and his life.
It is no secret that Lugosi battled many demons late in his life, most notably, and eventually publicly, an addiction to morphine. Doubtless these struggles had much to do with his selection of roles throughout the 1950’s, from films such as The Black Sleep to the Ed Wood movies with which he ended his career. Lugosi seemed to accept every role offered, and played every one exactly the same… at least, by this point in his career. It’s as though every director had the same instruction: “Just like you played Dracula, only not so understated …” Karloff too was in some abysmal productions—The Terror and The Snake People are two that come to mind—yet he never lost the ability to bring his unique talent to every character he played, often transcending the quality of the script he was dealt. Lugosi, in the few films he made following his final major studio production, Universal’s 1948 classic Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, never rose above the level of the writing and direction … which for the last decade of his life, was almost uniformly bad.
Both icons have their adherents, and a strong case can be made on either side of
the argument “Which was more important to Horror.” Nevertheless, not even
Lugosi’s most ardent fans can deny that, despite a career filled with memorable
performances, Bela could never escape the shadow of Dracula.
LON CHANEY, Jr.—It is no secret that, despite your efforts to distance yourself from your famous father, your career led you into Horror Films, much as it did him. The studios even insisted on billing you as “Lon Chaney, Jr.” despite the fact that your given name is Creighton. Do you regret the path your career took, one that so oddly paralleled your father’s?Born Creighton Chaney in 1906, the young boy who would grow up to become one of the greatest Horror stars ever, spent most of his formative years apart from his famous father, silent-movie icon Lon Chaney. That, as well as the senior Chaney’s abandonment of Creighton’s mother, did not foster a close relationship between father and son.
When Creighton decided to try acting, he deliberately avoided a connection with his father’s name, partly to demonstrate he could succeed on his own; partly due to his wish not to become typecast as a “Horror actor.” In fact his breakthrough role was as Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s 1939 version of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, for which he won critical acclaim.But the studio system of the 1940’s was too strong, and so was the public fascination with horror. Not only did Universal want to play up his famous father, they wanted another Lon Chaney … Creighton be damned. With 1940’s One Million, B.C., Lon Chaney, Jr. officially came to be. The next year was to be the seminal one in Creighton’s life, as Lon became the Monster-Man at Universal. That year, the definitive Universal Horror Film of the 40’s was released, The Wolf-Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot, the son of a Welsh lord cursed to an unholy existence by the bite of a werewolf.
The die was cast, and Creighton was gone forever, buried under a studio generated image of a second-generation Horror Icon. He would carry Universal on his often-furry back for the next seven years, only to be cast aside when the Golden Age of Horror ended in the mid-40’s. For the next twenty-five years, he would appear in dozens of Horror and Science-Fiction films, none of which would approach the quality of his work at Universal. While there would occasionally be dramatic roles, such as a minor part in the Oscar®—winning High Noon, he would forever be remembered as a Horror Film Star, and the only actor to portray all four of Universal’s Classic Monsters—the Wolf-Man, Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Mummy Kharis. Only Lon … excuse me, only Creighton Chaney could say that.
TOD BROWNING—In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, you were Hollywood’s leading director of what are now regarded as “Horror Films.” You worked closely with Lon Chaney at the end of the silent era, creating some of his most memorable films; and with 1931’s Dracula you began the reign of Universal Studios as the original “House that Horror Built.” All this came to a halt in 1932 with your return to M-G-M, and the release of one film: Freaks. This was an intensely personal project for you, and despite the belated recognition the movie has earned in the decades since its brief release, you must acknowledge that this film effectively ended your career. Do you regret making the film, and with hindsight, would you have done it differently?
As 1931 ended, Charles “Tod” Browning was riding a hot streak. He had established a reputation as perhaps the premiere director of macabre films in Hollywood, and the success of Dracula had guaranteed him the freedom to move whatever project he deemed worthy. He had returned to M-G-M, where he and star Lon Chaney had had such success, to direct the most personally involving film of his career, Freaks.
Browning, who had spent much of his early adulthood in carnivals, circuses, and traveling shows, had a deep affinity for the people who had shared this life with him, an affinity that he repeatedly demonstrated in the themes of such films as 1927’s The Unknown. He intended Freaks to show the plight of these sideshow performers; instead, critics and the public regarded it as exploitative in the extreme, as well as highly offensive. After a very brief release, M-G-M pulled it out of theaters and buried it deep in their vaults. There it sat for the next 50 years or so, except for poorly edited versions that made the rounds on the exploitation-film circuit.
Beginning in the 70’s however, critics and fans alike rediscovered Browning’s
film, recognizing both the movie’s strengths and the sincerity of Browning’s
intentions. Film historians began to rethink their opinions of this film, and as
more people began discussing it, the more people wanted to see the film… the
raw, unexpurgated film. As they did, the truth of Browning’s vision became
apparent, as did the quality of his creation. It’s truly a shame that that
realization took more than fifty years to occur.
VINCENT PRICE—You, more than any other actor, symbolized Horror in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Your filmography is replete with titles that are classics of the genre—The Fly, House of Usher, The Abominable Dr. Phibes—however you, more than any other icon of horror, had a foundation as a straight dramatic actor, with films such as The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Laura, and of course The Ten Commandments to your credit. Which type of work gives you the most satisfaction, the minor part in a critically acclaimed film such as The Ten Commandments, or the fame and recognition you gained from roles such as the murderous Dr. Phibes?
With a career that spanned parts of seven decades, Vincent Price was one of the most accomplished actors to have ever worked in genre film. His filmography reads like a best of Hollywood list, both in normal dramatic roles, and the genre roles that made him a household name.
Though he never sought to be a Horror star, Price’s ability to project such a palpable air of menacing evil quickly led him into Universal’s Horror Films of the late thirties and early forties, first in 1939’s The Tower of London, then as Geoffrey Radcliffe in 1940’s The Invisible Man Returns. However, he successfully avoided the typecasting that marked the careers of other Universal stars such as Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney. The same year that he starred in The Invisible Man Returns, he also appeared as Clifford in The House of Green Gables, and as Joseph Smith in Brigham Young. In fact, it wasn’t until his starring role in M-G-M’s House of Wax, in 1953, that Price became known as a “Horror Star”.
This time there was no avoiding destiny, and the type was cast. Though there would be the occasional straight role in his future—most notably that of Baka, the Egyptian overseer in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1957 version of The Ten Commandments—the roles that would bring Price the greatest recognition would be those in the world of genre films. From his performance as François Delambre in the 1958 classic The Fly until the mid-1970’s, Price was the face of Horror to a generation of Monster fans. The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, The Haunted Palace, The Tomb of Ligeia, Theater of Blood, Madhouse … these are but a fraction of the films he made, films that fueled a love of Horror in thousands of young boys and girls … and continue to do so today. I wonder if the satisfaction of that was sufficient to one with dreams of Shakespeare.
So those are my five questions. Questions that cannot be answered, but that I cannot help but ask. I can imagine what the responses would be, but how much of that is based on my knowledge of the subjects, and how much is my projecting my opinions onto them, I cannot say. Perhaps someday, if Heaven is as I hope, I’ll be able to ask my questions … and have them answered.
Creature Feature © D. Dyszel 2020
Dick Dyszel - Voice Actor