As Film Forum’s upcoming tribute attests, Boris Karloff looked the same with or without the makeup. Whatever combination of prosthetics, spirit gum, and neck bolts augment his visage, Karloff’s whole forehead appears overburdened to the point of falling off his face, held up only by the heroic efforts of his eyebrows, eyes burrowing out from underneath — a constant struggle against an invisible weight, uniquely resonant for an actor who seemed to feel everything more deeply than anyone else on screen with him was capable of.
The original Frankenstein expends much of its empathy on Colin Clive’s eponymous doctor, addressing the anxieties of scientific advancement as literally a matter of life and death. The sequel, though, reclassifies that examination as macabre absurdity (via Weird Scientist Ernest Thesiger’s mason jar Lilliputians) and grants Karloff direct access to audience heartstrings, the oft-referenced sequence in which a blind hermit teaches him to be human setting up his rejection, at the film’s adrenal climax, by the still-bandaged hands of Elsa Lanchester’s jaggedly primordial titular Bride.
The double feature programming parallels the Frankensteins’ developing monster-identification: the first screens with Karloff’s Oriental purr in the almost-too-racist-to-be-so-racist-it’s-funny Mask of Fu Manchu, while Bride is supported by Karloff’s pining Mummy (a movie about British Museum archaeologists who actually leave their loot in Egypt).
The next day brings a tripleheader led by The Raven — like most Karloff-Lugosi collaborations, notable for the creative permuting of their respective lurking and manic-obsessive personae; here Bela is a worldly torture fetishist and Boris an inarticulate hollow of a Plastic Surgery Disaster fugitive. The other triple’s an auteurist’s dream. James Whale’s The Old Dark House is a Dark and Stormy Night in an English manor inhabited by a cast of British stage vets so eccentric that Charles Laughton could only score a Stranded Motorist role (horror movie junior varsity); Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher is a psychologically deft, eloquently economic Val Lewton production. And The Black Cat presents Karloff as a satan-worshipper done up in heavy robes and Tomorrowland hair — sort of a Gregorian Jetson — via Edger G. Ulmer’s fascinating avant-garage garbling of basic film grammar.
The series closes with Karloff’s swan song in Peter Bogdanovich’s debut Targets and the late-period cheapie The Haunted Strangler. The latter’s seldom more than a gaunt aping of Body Snatcher’s Stevenson pedigree, but the melancholy underpinning Karloff’s schizoid contortions recalls the studio pun that invariably closed his reputation-making sympathetic monster movies: “It’s a Universal Picture.” Yes, they were.