If I pick Bela for one, I have to pick Boris later on. It’s a rule, but even if it weren’t, Karloff would be here either for The Body Snatcher, or or his episode in Black Sabbath, “The Wurdulak” (1963). Eventually I chose the latter because while The Body Snatcher could use more attention, Karloff’s episode of Black Sabbath is technically superb. It’s practically a guarantee of nightmares an unpleasant dreams. It is also the only time in his career that Karloff ever played a vampire.
This short, maybe half-hour, sketch features Count Mitterhaus, who, due to bad weather is forced to take shelter with a peasant family. The family is terrified that their father will return to the house that night. He left several days before to kill a certain bandit who was also a vampire. Mitterhaus, who found the bandit’s headless body, assures them that he is dead, which is of no comfort to the family, for if one kills this kind of vampire– a wurdulak– and does not return home before a certain period of time, then the curse descends upon them and they are doomed to pass it on to those they love. They were always afraid of their father because he was a harsh man, but now they fear him because he loves them.
It is fair to say that Karloff is not the only scary thing in “The Wurdulak.” Upon arriving, he immediately turns his very small grandson into a vampire, and the child quickly infects his mother with the curse. The grandson is arguably scarier than Regan McNeil, without the benefit of pea soup, and a spinning head.
But back to Karloff. Look at that face. He had help from the make-up and lighting departments, but the expression it carries is all Karloff, and his fine acting. In that particular still, he’s watching the yet not vampiric (full of blood) grandson be led away by his daughter-in-law. Later, while his character’s daughter speaks with the count in her bedroom, he watches at the window, and his face shows incredible, and terrifying rage. Maybe a little jealousy, too, but let’s not dwell on that. But maybe we should because even if the love for the daughter was purely platonic, it carried the gravest of consequences– vampirism. And that’s what really makes these vampires scary, besides the good acting that went into making the short. The wurdulak preys on its loved ones, and when the family gradually falls, their love paralyzes them. They cannot bear to stake each other and thus desecrate the bodies, denying them the right to be buried on sacred ground, and they cannot escape their loved ones’ pleas to be let in from the cold.