There were macabre and fantastical American films in the silent era, many starring "Man of a Thousand Faces" Lon Chaney. But horror as a Hollywood genre arguably didn't exist before 1931, when Universal released what may be the two biggest monster franchise titles in cinematic history.
One was Tod Browning's Dracula, starring Hungarian émigré Bela Lugosi as Bram Stoker's suave bloodsucker. The other was James Whale's Frankenstein, which starred, uh, "???? — as The Monster." That was the actual on-screen billing, though word soon leaked out that portraying Mary Shelley's "Modern Prometheus" under grotesque makeup was a certain English actor named Boris Karloff. Well, renamed: Onetime farmhand William Henry Pratt had changed his moniker long before, the better to snatch those multiethnic roles his imposing features could encompass.
Karloff, whose huge film legacy is commemorated in a Balboa Theater retrospective starting this Friday, had labored without much recognition in nearly 80 bit and supporting parts since 1919. Public clamor to identify Frankenstein's hulking yet plaintive monster ended that once and for all — making Karloff as notorious as the already Broadway-famed Lugosi overnight. Forever after they'd be linked as Hollywood’s twin ghouls. Both were typecast by genre fame, relegated to endless B-, then Z-grade productions. (Unlike Lugosi, Karloff managed to avoid working with legendarily inept Ed "Plan 9 from Outer Space" Wood — but he did end his career laboring on four back-to-back Mexican horror films of almost equally hilarious artistic bankruptcy. Check out the demented Torture Chamber, released well after his 1969 death and most definitely absent from the Balboa slate.)
Heavy on Golden Era classics, very light on the schlockier work that dominated Karloff's later years, the retrospective is full of rarities and 35 mm restorations. All the Universal Frankenstein films are represented, plus 1932's The Mummy — another primary horror figure Karloff made his own. The series' surprise is its several gangster flicks — a genre that hit the fan just before horror did, affording glower-faced Karloff plenty of employment opportunities. He's eighty-sixed in a bowling alley in the 1932 Scarface and plays a killer convict in another Howard Hawks film, 1931's The Criminal Code. You can also see him as a crazed Islamic fundamentalist(!) in 1934's The Lost Patrol, one rare occasion in which he worked with a "prestige" director like John Ford.