Dark Dreams
Dracula Vs. Frankenstein: The Lugosi/Karloff Rivalry

Devan Sagliani | 13 Oct 2014 16:30
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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!


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