It’s the most wonderful time of the year and to celebrate, let’s look back on the two men who defined movie horror for generations.
Despite what some peppermint cocoa swilling, reindeer loving, fat man in a cheap red suit worshipping miscreants might have told you, Halloween is in fact the most beloved and anticipated holiday to ever be dreamed up – one full of terrifying thrills, ghoulish delights, and at the end of it all, sugary treats to appease the darkness in you and hopefully lull it back to sleep once more until next year. It’s a time when all of the normal rules get flipped on their heads, children are encouraged to take candy from strangers, and people let the world know which dark fantasies lurking in their telltale hearts bubble up closest to the surface through their choice of slutty or blood drenched costumes – or in some cases both. This year as the leaves turn and the shadows grow and the great pumpkin begins his magnificent approach I wanted to take us back to the old school, the original roots of horror cinema, to explore the history of two of its finest princes who despite once being pitted against one another as rivals shared a shocking number of things in common.
Horror fans all over the world are familiar with names Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, or, as they came to be known in their most famous and iconic roles, Frankenstein and Dracula. Their images and the characters they popularized once chilled the blood of movie goers, quickening their pulse and sending shivers down movie goers spines, a fact worth remembering since today these same monsters are used to sell a wide variety of consumer goods including sugary cereal to kids in the form of Count Chocula and Frankenberry. Karloff and Lugosi were Hollywood giants who played a crucial role in establishing horror cinema, often starring together in titles, many of which went on to be classics. Boris was a self-effacing English gentleman who fought for social justice while Bela was charismatic and domineering, or as critics referred to him in his time “a Hungarian Valentino” known to leave ladies swooning. Their lives were forever intertwined by a chance act of fate in a cafeteria that led to the discovery of Karloff but whereas Boris soared ever higher into the type of fantastical life an actor can only dream of Lugosi’s became a cautionary tale in nearly every sense.
As times grew tougher for working class Americans they began turning towards the grand escape of cinema, showing up in droves for both the distraction as well as a cool, dark place to relax a spell and forget their endless worries. It was an environment ripe for monsters, with many normal folks already living in crushing poverty and fear. In 1929 America felt the full weight of the Wall Street crash and the onset of the Great Depression. Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, was running out of money, like just about everyone else in Tinsel town. His son, Carl Jr, had glorious ambitions of taking Bram Stoker’s timeless vampire novel, Dracula, and turning it into a lavish and unforgettable production that would make him a household name. He’d eventually manage the daunting task, but first he needed to convince his father he could do so on a budget. “Junior” Laemmle, as he was often called, had a reputation for going well over his original estimate that stuck with him through several studio hits, including Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, and ultimately ended up getting him forced out of the studio altogether.
Stoker’s classic had been adapted for the stage by a British touring company and gone on to be an unexpected hit with theater fans. This version featured a well groomed, charismatic version of the Count, more palatable to London society at the time than a blood thirsty monster that transformed into a bat. Junior convinced his father that by using a smaller set and relying on dialogue to tell the story they could dramatically increase their production value while trimming costs. Now all they needed was a star to bring the story to life. Universal had their hearts set on using Lon Chaney, the famous man of a thousand faces for the part. That dream was dashed to pieces when shortly after as Chaney announced he had throat cancer. The search was on for a suitable replacement to bring the dark role to life. Surprisingly Lugosi, who had popularized the play with his dramatic renditions wasn’t originally considered. He had to campaign for an audition and went to great lengths to get one.
Bela, who quite literally was born in the shadow of Transylvania in a small Hungarian town named Lugos from which he took his stage name, was the absolute embodiment of the famous blood sucking Count. To suggest that audiences loved him would be an understatement. In fact they often conflated his performance with Lugosi himself, which eventually led Universal to bill him using Dracula as his middle name! Lugosi’s sensual and provocative performance married sex and death, embodying the very essence of the vampire mythos at its bloody core, and leaving audiences reeling by its borderline erotic portrayal. Fan mail begins to pour in from women taken by his exotic accent and piercing eyes who wished to become his next willing victim. The boy who had defied his father and run away to become an actor had gone from headlining in obscure Hungarian plays to being a literal household name. He was the definition of an overnight success, with reporters clamoring for interviews with the mysterious and laconic sex symbol.
Universal was hot to repeat their original success and Bela was their bright new star. They were intent on cashing in on the name he’d made by casting him as the Mary Shelley’s monster but Lugosi was horrified when the script for Frankenstein finally arrived. It had no dialogue and required him to wear upwards of thirty pounds of heavy makeup and bolts on his neck. The proud actor who was fond of telling anyone who would listen about his classical training didn’t see himself as a moaning monster. Even though he thought it was beneath him he agreed to do a test shoot, enduring hours of makeup while biting back his indignation. The experience only strengthened his resolve not to play the oafish imbecile. Bela immediately set to work concocting a way to get out of playing the role, even using a medical excuse, but in the end the studio management were so offended by his rejection that they let him go without a fight. It’s the first of many decisions that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Along came Boris Karloff. Boris had already been working in Hollywood a decade playing small parts by the time he was discovered at the Universal Studios cafeteria eating his lunch. Like so many others Boris dreamed of making it big in Hollywood, and just like Bela he worked in plays before migrating to California to try making it in pictures. For the most part the roles he took were unforgettable and inconsequential. He spent an equal amount of time acting as he did driving trucks and doing odd jobs like digging ditches, shoveling coal, and laying street car tracks. Despite being raised in comfort he was barely scraping a living hoping for his big break, which came in the form of director James Whale. Boris, who had worn his best suit that day, was surprised to learn the director was considering him for the role of Frankenstein’s monster but agreed anyway.
Frankenstein was his eighty first role in a movie and it put Karloff’s name on the map for good. It would require that Boris report at four in the morning for a grueling makeup session every day of shooting, and remain perfectly still. Then, after a full day of having the heavy, toxic sludge caked on his face Karloff would patiently sit another two hours to have it properly removed. To make matters worse the director ordered Karloff to cover his face when leaving set after the timid actor accidentally frightened a studio secretary so badly that she fainted at the unexpected sight of him. Between the tedious hours, the heavy wardrobe, the poisonous makeup, and the unbearable heat, Boris, a thin man to begin with, lost almost thirty pounds.
When Bela heard about the working conditions on the Frankenstein set he was convinced he made the right choice but his bubble was soon burst. Frankenstein turned out to be a smash hit at the box office. Karloff’s performance of the monster left horror fans, and studio heads, clamoring for more. His days of driving trucks were officially over. Lugosi would later say it was his biggest mistake in life, and that by turning down the role he had created his own Frankenstein’s monster in Karloff, a rival that would steal his fame away and plague his career until the bitter end. In 1932 Universal, the new kings of horror cinema, set up a publicity stunt pitting their two great stars against each other at a meet and greet and capturing their first encounter on film. The studio was eager to cash in on a rivalry even if they had to invent it.
Karloff received a handsome contract from the studio and the two began to fight over roles in upcoming horror films, each vying for the better part. Lugosi snatched up a role in White Zombie while Karloff took his chances on playing The Mummy. Once again Karloff’s gamble paid off as he terrified fans with his ghastly performance. Finally in 1934 the studio decided to cast the fearsome duo together in their first movie, a horror film called The Black Cat about a deranged Satan worshipper and his doctor that ends with Lugosi skinning Karloff alive. Some critics have gone as far as to suggest that Lugosi’s ghoulish final scene belied his true animosity towards the man who had quickly eclipsed his fame and stolen his spotlight, but to his dying day Bela’s only voiced complaint about Boris centered around his routine tea breaks on set, saying he loathed tea and the breaks and found them equally insufferable. No matter how much he was prodded he refused to sink so low as to openly bash his rival, but he couldn’t hide his jealousy.
One year later they were teamed up again in a movie called The Raven, in which a mad scientist mercilessly tortures a gangster. Karloff, originally set to play the mad scientist swapped roles with Lugosi at the last minute. Bela was grateful to have a chance to show off his acting skills once more. He eagerly hoped to raise himself back up to full billing, instead of living in Karloff’s shadow on the marquee, and increase his pay scale to where he felt it belonged. Unfortunately the film turned out to be too much for audiences, with its shocking mixture of lust and torture. In fact the movie was considered so disturbing that it caused the country of Great Brittan to ban American horror movies altogether for a period. Instead of being catapulted back into the limelight Bela was the star of a doomed picture. The Raven became an albatross around his neck that dragged his career further down while Karloff walked away from the movie virtually unscathed.
To make matters worse unlike Karloff who had from the start saved his money, expecting his run in horror to come to an abrupt end one day, Lugosi liked to live lavishly and was generous to a fault with other actors, musicians and artists. When the time came that he needed financial help himself Bela found he was on his own. Bankrupt and owing creditors all over town, Lugosi saw his roles and his pay shrinking up while being cast at second billing in Karloff pictures where his on screen nemesis was making considerably more than what he made. After the dissolve of the Laemmles with Universal and the British embargo on American horror films in 1936, Karloff and Lugosi found themselves in a career slump. For two years, horror films were out of the New Universal Studios line up. It looked like the end was truly near.
On April 5, 1938, a nearly bankrupt theatre in Los Angeles staged a desperate stunt by booking Frankenstein, Dracula and King Kong on a triple bill. The result became a phenomenon, and soon Universal decided to make a big budget Frankenstein sequel. Son of Frankenstein was to be Karloff’s last time playing the famous monster. He was offered four thousand dollars for the role while Bela was given a small bit part and offered a meager five hundred for the use of his name. Knowing he needed the money the studio wasted no time in attempting to exploit the suffering Hungarian star. Having just lost his house Bela was in no position to argue and happily accepted the role regardless of the insulting salary. Costars Karloff and Basil Rathbone (who played Baron Wolf von Frankenstein in the movie after Peter Lorre fell ill and dropped out) fought with the studio to get Bela’s pay increased. Karloff would later risk his career and his personal safety as a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild. Some historians believe his desire to stick up for the little guy came from being bullied by English classmates over his darker complexion, owing to mixed Indian heritage.
Director James Whale was in a slump almost as bad as Bela himself and publicly announced he was no longer interested in making horror movies. Universal hired Rowland V. Lee instead, who turned the focus towards more dramatic themes and made the monster duller than he had been in Bride of Frankenstein by taking away his ability to speak. He also reversed the studio’s decision to release the movie in color after test clips revealed the makeup wasn’t up to par and would be more comical than frightening to audiences. The film was a tremendous success, and Lugosi shined in his role as the affable, broken necked Ygor, stealing the show from Karloff with his unforgettable performance in a role he kept expanding. For the moment it seemed as if things might turn around for Bela, who seemed light hearted and jovial on set, joking to Karloff that perhaps one day their newborn children would marry and carry on the family business. Instead things quickly take another turn for the worse. Still the studio’s darling Karloff snatched a role originally intended for Lugosi, leaving him nothing but a bit part instead. Bela fumed but unable to change his terrible luck. Karloff spoke perfect English which assured him an advantage over Hungarian born Lugosi, who struggled with his thick accent.
Soon afterward Bela took to heavy drinking as his career came crashing to the ground. Dracula was almost a decade behind him and the world of horror was changing before his eyes. The younger generation found horror campy and funny instead of scary so Bela attempted to cash in on the new craze by spoofing his earlier work. He took jobs were he was cast as the Dracula character in bad comedies and even tried his hand at playing the monster he once rejected in Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman but failed miserably. Lugosi felt like he was truly cursed. Meanwhile his nemesis Karloff was already doing what Lugosi intended to from the start, starring in a part written for him in a hit Broadway play called Arsenic and Old Lace. Boris played a homicidal maniac who, when asked why he committed the heinous act, responded “I killed him because he said I looked like Boris Karloff.” Crowds roared with laughter at his self-effacing humor. Bela took over the role later when Karloff dropped out of the national tour, changing the line to reflect his name. While some critics suggested that he did an even better job than Karloff it wasn’t enough to lift the veil of failure that seemingly hung over his career.
The two worked for the very last time together on the Body Snatchers, a Karloff picture where Bela was relegated to a minor role with limited screen time. By the early 1950’s Bela’s career had sunk to starring exclusively in B movies while Karloff continued to get top billing. The aging Lugosi was sinking like a stone. Taking roles from infamous Ed Wood and living alone in a rented apartment, Bela reportedly spent most of his time drinking and using drugs. His wife had left him and taken their only son. Eventually things grow so bleak that Bela feared he would die from his addiction. Ever a pioneer, Lugosi was the first actor to publicly admit he had a drug problem and seek help for it. He confessed to the media that he had been using morphine for nearly two decades and checked himself in to get help. Karloff, by comparison, had moved back to England and was living comfortably, working when he felt like it and being put up at the Chateau Marmonte when he came to town. Not having kept up with his old acting partner Boris learned about Bela’s addiction woes in the paper but didn’t contact him for fear he’d upset Lugosi if he acknowledged his weakness. Karloff knew only too well that despite how far he’d fallen Bela was a proud man who would see it as gloating rather than compassion.
After his release from the hospital Lugosi bragged about his impending come back, making films for despised schlockmeister Ed Wood. He befriended a local group of teenagers and let them hang out with him at home, enjoying the attention. Once while watching one of his films on television he told the kids “I used to be the big cheese” sending his newly discovered fans into hysterics. Bela had once again remarried and was happily working for Ed Wood making some of the worst films ever to be released, including the now infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space. Considered by most critics to be the worst movie ever made it was the final role for Lugosi, marking an extraordinary and tumultuous career. Not long after shooting his part in 1956 Lugosi died at home. He was 73. Bela had once said “Dracula is Hamlet to me.” Perhaps it was because of this comment that his wife and son decided to bury him in his full Dracula cape and make up.
A year later Boris Karloff appeared on the popular television show This Is Your Life, after being tricked by his friends. Jack Pierce, the makeup artist who had spent all those hours transforming him into Frankenstein, gave him the original electrodes he used on his neck that left him scarred for several years after shooting. Boris called him the greatest makeup artist he’d ever known and said he owed him a lot. Shy of attention and allergic to praise, Karloff seemed embarrassed to have his good deeds revealed on television, including donating his salary to a group of starving actors to help them build a theater. Little did he know he was about to be more famous than he could ever have imagined in his wildest dreams.
That same year Universal began to release fifty two of their movies on television in a package deal called Shock Theater, including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man. The unparalleled popularity of Shock Theater created a horror frenzy never seen before, giving birth to late night horror hosts like the delectable Vampira (my first real crush), the Monster Mash, and monster magazines. Once again Karloff was King of horror. He was more than happy to star in a rash of new horror films but also appeared regularly in variety shows, like the Carol Burnett Show making fun of his ghoulish past. Critics declared that what the Beatles were to music Boris Karloff was to horror. He worked with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Junior, spoofing himself in comedies or thrilling audiences with fiendish new films. He appeared in commercials selling steak sauce and lighters. There were toys made out of his image. He even narrated the Grinch Who Stole Christmas and earned a Grammy for his performance which he gifted to his agent longtime agent Arthur Kennard, joking that it looked like a doorstop more than a trophy.
Karloff worked until the end of his life, despite being in constant pain from emphysema and other ailments. He took on new roles that exposed him to the next generation of actors like the young Jack Nicholson in movies like The Terror. He died in 1969 in England at the age of 82 but for fans neither Karloff nor Lugosi would ever truly be gone. Their legacies live on as generation after generation discover their amazing body of work. This Halloween I dare you to watch some of these amazing actors’ films and remember the history of horror and the amazing princes who helped build a darker, more terrifying future for us fans.
You can learn more about the two onscreen rivals in Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster by Stephen Jacobs and Bela Lugosi – Dreams and Nightmares by Gary D. Rhodes and Richard Sheffield. Happy Halloween!