Wednesday, November 6, 2013

13 (OK, 20) Horror Icons

Writer/editor note:

This year, I threw together a list of top horror performers on my Facebook page in a run-up to Halloween. After wrapping it up, I thought it might be nice to put all the info in one place. It makes an excellent companion to my horror-film history from two years ago. Enjoy!

To laud horror-film performers in and of themselves doesn’t suffice. They didn’t create themselves; they are performers filling in the outlines drawn by others. Still, it takes special skills to scare us. No matter how genial an actor or actress is in real life, they must be able to reveal depths of danger and madness, triggering catharsis in the audience. At their best, they became inextricably linked with the horrors they portrayed. No one can think of Frankenstein’s Monster without thinking of Karloff, or Dracula of Lugosi.

Here’s a list of key figures in the horror-film pantheon. I reluctantly limited myself to 13, then had to revise that to 20. This still leaves a long list of significant performers, who are appended. If there is a common thread in most of these careers, it’s a grounding in classical stage training and experience. American mythos doesn’t let tragedy in; maybe only in horror films can we indulge in that sense of struggle against doom, and defiance of fate, that is usually found in epic drama. Great horror performers make their creations, however bizarre, sympathetic enough to allow us identify with them.

Haruo Nakajima, the original Godzilla. From 1954 through 1972, he cemented his reputation as the premier "suit actor" in film, also donning the costumes of Rodan, Varan, Baragon, and many more. In cheesy sagas such as "Destroy All Monsters," “The Mysterians,” and "Frankenstein Conquers the World," Haruo kept us entertained with his pro-wrestling fight moves, and cardboard-skyscraper-crushing enthusiasm. Thank you, sir!


Robert Englund is best known for his portrayal of Freddy Krueger in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" film series. (I saw him, and he stuck in my mind, as Whitey in his first film, the awful 1974 hick-trauma saga "Buster and Billie," which of course we saw at the drive-in.) Englund, a classically trained actor, has brought a strong, complex, and even . . . sympathetic? . . . charm to the part. Like the Golden Age horror actors, he gives this and other roles a combination of watchability, gravitas, and just enough distancing to give the role of fillip of ironic humor. It seems to that, unlike other typecast actors who bemoan their fates, Englund has retained a healthy sense of balance, using his niche fame to enable him to do the projects he's interested in, building a satisfying career.


Laird Cregar seems an odd choice for this list, as his career was so short. However, in four specific films – as the obsessed Inspector Cornell in “I Wake Up Screaming,” as the fussy villain Willard Gates in “This Gun for Hire,” the demonic Mr. Slade in “The Lodger,” and the doomed protagonist composer George Harvey Bone in “Hangover Square,” he made a great impression. Another classically trained actor with maturity and presence far beyond his years, the tortured undertones to his villainous roles are exquisite! Unfortunately, the fairly bulky Cregar went on a crash diet for “Hangover Square” to assume a svelter outline onscreen. It caused his death by heart attack on Dec. 9, 1944, two months before his final film’s premiere. It is tantalizing to imagine what other great roles he could have filled!

The most criminally under-regarded horror actor in film history is Paul Naschy. Born Jacinto Molina Alvarez in Madrid, he was so fascinated by horror film that he made his life’s work of it. He wrote, directed, and starred in more than 100 horror films, most memorably as the doomed Count Waldemar Daninsky, aka El Hombre Lobo (the Wolfman) in 12 films. However, he explored the full gamut of the genre’s possibilities – he is the only film actor to have played Dracula, the Wolfman, The Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster, Rasputin, Edward Hyde, Satan, along with assorted warlocks, zombies, Fu Manchu, hunchbacks, serial killers, vengeful knights from the dead, and medieval inquisitors. He single-handedly launched the Golden Age of Spanish horror – a heavily Catholic, Bunuelian stew of extreme gore, sadomasochism, misogyny, and barely repressed sensuality – the lunatic cry of society under Franco leaking out onto the screen.

Despite low budgets, bad special effects, and incompetent assistance, Naschy took his mission seriously, willing himself despite his looks (in contrast to many physically imposing horror actors, he was short and burly, with a face like that of a placid John Belushi) to embody a spectacular range of nightmarish personas that influenced future key filmmakers such as del Toro and Amenabar.


“Ich bin der Zorn Gottes.” Klaus Kinski was a force of nature. A schizophrenic, this unconventional and intense performer started off in the German “Krimi” films, moving on to roles as spaghetti Western villains, psychopaths, anarchists, and murderers. He played Renfield in Jesus Franco’s “Count Dracula,” SS men, the Marquis de Sade, and Jack the Ripper. His biggest fame came as the muse of Werner Herzog, and Kinski was at his best in these films. He terrified me as the doomed, insane Woyzeck, the reincarnation of Max Schreck as Nosferatu, and most of all as the power-mad conquistador Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Kinski was violent, spiteful, and quite possibly molested his daughters. A fascinating actor I would cross the street to avoid.

Meet Dwight Frye, the original minion. He originated not only the role of Renfield in “Dracula,” he did the same as the hunchbacked assistant in the original version of “Frankenstein” (although his character is named Fritz, not Ygor). A talented stage actor, he started off like Peter Lorre, specializing in musicals and comedy. He found himself typecast on film as madmen, village idiots, murder suspects, and the like. He appears in the margins of many of James Whale’s films. No one could hit his high-pitched, manic note as a demented malefactor. Before he got a chance to diversify onscreen, he died in 1944 of a heart attack on a city bus, on his way home from watching a double feature with his son. All evil helpmates to follow, from Bela Lugosi through Marty Feldman to Manservant Hecubus, owe a bit of thanks to Frye.


It’s bitterly ironic that the Ultimate Screen Nazi would be forced to flee Hitler’s Germany. Conrad Veidt will forever be Major Heinrich Strasser from “Casablanca,” but his horror work permeated his career. He was seemingly made for bad-guy roles -- tall and thin, with a beetling brow and penetrating eyes. He started in silent film, and played a key role in the groundbreaking “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” – Cesare, the somnambulist. It brought him enormous fame, and he went on to several key roles in the horror pantheon. He was the first to play the pianist given the hands of a killer in “The Hands of Orlac,” and also Ivan the Terrible in Paul Leni’s “Waxworks,” the first horror anthology film. As Gwynplaine in 1928’s “The Man Who Laughs,” he served as the model for Batman’s nemesis The Joker. Again, as Jaffar the evil vizier in the 1940 Korda “Thief of Baghdad,” he was clearly the model for the villain in Disney’s “Aladdin.”

A fervent anti-Nazi, married to a Jew, he was on Goebbels’ hit list in 1933. They escaped and he continued to work in Britain and the U.S., finally playing the men he most despised. (He could play good guys, too, as in “Contraband” and “Above Suspicion.”) Like Robert Ryan, Veidt was a nice guy who wound up playing heels. A gem.

You have no idea who Andy Serkis is. You would probably pass him on the street unnoticed. Still, you have seen him quite a bit. The new cinematic tool of motion capture has made Serkis the go-to guy for portraying unworldly creatures – King Kong and Gollum for Peter Jackson, Caesar in the new “Planet of the Apes” movies . . . and Captain Haddock in “The Adventures of Tintin.” He’s a fine actor in the flesh as well – witness his turn as the terrifyingly strung-out, abusive record producer Martin Hannett in “24 Hour Party People,” or Capricorn in “Inkheart,” or serial killer Ian Brady in “Longford.” Pretty sure he can play anything, the closest thing we have to Lon Chaney, Sr. now.

At least in his performance capture work, let him also stand for all those who toil away in horror behind the mask, unrecognizable. Doug Bradley (Pinhead from the “Hellraiser” series), Warwick Davis (The Leprechaun), Tobin Bell (Jigsaw), Brad Dourif (the voice of Chucky), and Kane Hodder (1/4 of the 12 film Jasons from “Friday the 13th”) likewise don’t get the credit they deserve.

The First Leading Lady of British Horror is Barbara Shelley. Working the spectrum from victim to perpetrator, she headlined a lot of Hammer horror in its prime – “Blood of the Vampire,” “Village of the Damned” and “Children of the Damned,” “The Gorgon,” “Dracula, Prince of Darkness” (her best bit as the undead Helen Kent) and “Quatermass and the Pit.” In an age when horror and sci-fi brought bimbos and helpless Hannahs to the screen, Shelley brought intelligence and class to the game. She was also able to break that invisible but steel-strong barrier against non-grotesque-looking women acting out evil roles on screen.

Lon Chaney Jr. My tragic hero. No one on this list suffered more than he did from his calling. Trapped in the deep shadow of his more accomplished father, The Man of a Thousand Faces, as Creighton Chaney he tried to break into the movie business and was bitterly rebuffed. “They starved me to take his name,” he later said, and as Lon Chaney, Jr. he found himself trudging along through the roster of classic characters – the Son of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, killers, nutjobs, a man-made monster, The Indestructible Man. Still, he was a deeply interesting actor when he got the chance – he is the definitive Lenny in “Of Mice and Men,” of course, and is riveting as Martin Howe in “High Noon.” But he did originate and make live that unique creation of Curt Siodmak -- the Wolfman. Cursed forever (? I am happy to let you know that he is cured AND gets the girl in “House of Dracula,” his last furry appearance) to turn into a murderous beast on the full moon, the constant undercurrent of despair he displays as Larry Talbot transforms him into a tragic figure. He is an unwilling monster, and the parallel to his alcoholism, which plagued him for decades, is inescapable to me.

Name: John Carradine. Profession: Theatre, with an r-e, of course. Career span: 1925 to 1987. Screen credits: A jaw-dropping 340 (per IMDb). A master of fustian bombast and persiflage, Carradine was, spiritually, the last of the old Victorian-era  hams. An ardent admirer of the Bard, to his credit he took many thankless film roles simply for the money, which would allow him to continue to lead his repertory company in tours of the sticks, overawing crowds with ripe renditions of the classics. Like Lon Chaney, Jr., he could produce wonderful performances if he was supervised and restrained sufficiently. His Casy the Preacher in “Grapes of Wrath” is a tortured saint; Hatfield in “Stagecoach” is a textbook gentleman. As to horror, he played Dracula twice in the Universal cycle; starred as Heydrich in “Hitler’s Madman,” various mad doctors, the Cosmic Man, the Wizard of Mars, and on and on. No one could sell a line, no matter how ridiculous, like Carradine. There is the charming whiff of the charlatan, the mountebank, the barnstorming histrion about him. A good base line for his horror work is his rare starring horror role, 1944’s “Bluebeard,” directed by Edgar Ulmer. Both the film and Carradine are breathtakingly uneven!


I usually played these roles where I represented the dark side. I was always a predatory bitch goddess in all of these movies, and with all kinds of unspeakable elements. Then what is life without a dark side? The driving force of drama is the dark side. These women that I played usually suffered for it, and I guess men like that.” Barbara Steele’s honest self-assessment of her powerful, transgressive horror work led her away wearily from the genre after a time, but while she did it, she was extraordinary. A pale, voluptuous brunette with huge eyes and a capacity to convey evil, she was fascinating and frightening. Among her great performances: “Black Sunday,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock,” and “Castle of Blood.”

Peter Cushing is my absolute favorite horror actor of all time. That this mild, friendly, gracious man should become synonymous with scary movies seems a bit silly, really. However, he could scare the living bejeezus out of an audience almost off-handedly, maintaining a clear, cold line of emotional turbulence and sheer weight of presence anchored him amidst the mayhem. (Mainstream crowds know him best as Grand Moff Tarkin in “Star Wars.”) He was a Hammer Horror stalwart. He played Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing numerous times, always to good effect. He was very often a “good guy” as well, fighting mummies, skulls, the living dead and the like. He even played Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes. No one was better than he at seeking to learn that which mankind must not know, or fighting the forces of evil with grim determination. And he could do comedy as well! An actor I really would have loved to have known.

One of the few horror stars to be honored properly in his lifetime, Christopher Lee is unmatched in his ability to play evil. From 1957, when he played his first horror role, the Creature in “The Curse of Frankenstein” with his dear friend Peter Cushing, to today, his towering presence, rumbling bass voice, and penetrating eyes have made him unmistakable. He is, at least in my mind, the definitive Dracula – much more commanding, seductive, and animalistic than Lugosi. It would be difficult to list his every role, but here’s a nice selection to choose from – Resurrection Joe the grave robber in “Corridors of Blood,” Kurt Menliff in “The Whip and the Body,” the Mummy, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Lord Summerisle in “The Wicker Man,” Rochefort in Lester’s “Three Musketeers” trilogy, Bond villain Scaramanga in “The Man with the Golden Gun,” Saruman in Peter Jackson’s “Ring” films, and Count Dooku in the “Star Wars” saga. Like Cushing he can do comedy – his Capt. Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt is hilarious in Spielberg’s “1941”; and he can play heroes, such as Count de Richleau in “The Devil Rides Out.” Lee has stated that he prefers the terms “cinema of the fantastic” to horror, and he’s helped create hundreds of flights of imagination. Salute!


Poor Bela Lugosi. The original Dracula suffered from a career typecast as monsters, mad doctors, and the like, becoming a poster child for drug addiction and the pitfalls of life in Hollywood in the process. All this pathos covers over the story of a strong performer with a fascinating life. Bela Lugosi was a classically trained Hungarian interpreter of Shakespeare. After serving as an officer in World War I, wounded three times, he was forced to flee to Germany on account of his left-wing, pro-union activities (he went on to help found the Actors’ Guild). His three-year run as Dracula on Broadway prepped him for the movie version, and he quite literally never looked back after that. Part of the stiffness and exaggeration he brought to the role is due to him facing what all stage actors moving into early sound film faced – not knowing how to underplay and work to the camera. But his extremely poor selection of roles, combined with his other debilitating factors, means that there is a lot of dross to pick through when looking at his oeuvre. However, his genuine screen magnetism and his ability to send waves of dread through an audience powered him through a handful of top-notch performances. Besides “Dracula,” he can be seen to advantage as Dr. Weredegast in “The Black Cat,” the Sayer of the Law in “The Island of Lost Souls,” Joseph in “The Body Snatcher,” ‘Murder’ Legendre in “White Zombie,” Dr. Mirakle in “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and Ygor in “The Son of Frankenstein.”

Oh, my goodness. Though she only appeared in two of the Hammer canon of films, Ingrid Pitt changed the game for horror actresses. In “The Vampire Lovers” and “Countess Dracula,” she played drop-dead gorgeous, intelligent, assertive women – which meant, of course, that she was an agent of the undead and as such had to be destroyed, in keeping with horror-film and Western cultural conventions. In contrast to so many of the interchangeable, eyelid-fluttering Hammer-heroine victims, she was vital and sympathetic. She made being a vampire seem like a swingin’, sexy, viable alternative to the obviously repressed ho-hum lives of the living.

It’s hard to imagine anything other than a career in horror roles for Peter Lorre. However, like James Cagney, he started off in stage comedies and musicals. Eventually, he worked his way to primary Berlin stages, working extensively with Brecht (“A Man is a Man,” “Happy End”). It’s almost unfortunate that his first significant screen role was in one of the greatest films ever made – Fritz Lang’s “M,” in 1931. As the serial child-killer Hans Beckert, Lorre is repulsive, compulsively watchable, and by the film’s end, tragically sympathetic. It would mark his film work forever. When he made it to America, he was immediately slotted as a freak, a monster, a slimy character actor. In “Mad Love,” his insanely possessive Dr. Gogol is an indelible portrayal. His typecasting as a horror figure soon became a gag, exploited in films such as “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “Beat the Devil.” However, he could play positive characters, such as Marius in “Passage to Marseille,” and even the lead, as he did as Cornelius Leyden in “The Mask of Dimitrios.” His single independently created film, which he wrote, directed, and starred in, “Der Verlorene (The Lost One)” is a disturbing meditation on German war guilt – it throws into stark relief the kind of thoughtful, nuanced work he was capable of. He wound up on the Corman roster, still going strong in “Tales of Terror,” “The Raven,” and “The Comedy of Terrors.”

He noted, “I don’t play monsters. I play men besieged by fate and out for revenge.” Did anyone in horror have more gusto than Vincent Price? I think not. The Prince of Peril, the Merchant of Menace! He could chew the scenery as few could, and did so as happily as anyone could. Although he played many of his more campy roles with a big wink to the audience (Dr. Goldfoot, anyone?) he was resolutely professional when it was time to play in a serious manner. He started off as a leading man and player of “goody-goody” roles, but soon found that villains were more fun to play and offer an actor a longer career path. After strong roles in film such as “Dragonwyck,” “Laura,” and “The Baron of Arizona,” Price hit his horror stride with 1953’s “House of Wax.” After that, he worked with many horror stalwarts, including directors John Brahm (“The Mad Magician”), Robert Fuest (the Dr. Phibes films), and William Castle (“The House on Haunted Hill,” “The Tingler”). His biggest impact was at the helm of so many Roger Corman horror films, including “House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Raven,” “The Haunted Palace,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Tomb of Ligeia.” He had that special something . . . that scared the crap out of me.

Boris Karloff! Childhood friend. It didn’t take him reading “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to endear him to us. Long before that, in the first late-night flicker of the TV screen, we knew that his Frankenstein’s Monster was essentially harmless, violent only when abused. He was just a big kid! We loved him. Unlike some other players on this list, Boris, born as William Henry Pratt, kept his personal demons, if any, out of the equation. He loved to play make-believe, and his energy and powers of persuasion brought us into the story too. Neither was he ungracious – 10 years barnstorming onstage, followed by 15 years of Hollywood obscurity and day jobs, taught him to keep his fame in perspective. Among his many great roles – the evil Fu Manchu, the original Mummy, satanic priest Hjalmar Poelzig in “The Black Cat,” Dr. Bolton in “Corridors of Blood.” His best work is in the trilogy of films he made with Val Lewton – “The Body Snatcher,” Isle of the Dead,” and “Bedlam.” Who knows how horror would have developed without him? In an age when the monsters are soulless and interchangeable, Karloff’s work reminds us how much more powerful horror is when rooted in a sympathetic soul.

The father of all horror stars. The joke of his time was: “Don’t step on that spider, it might be Lon Chaney.” This amazingly inventive, expressive, determined artist astonished the world with his ability to assume seemingly any shape or form. Beginning with “The Miracle Man” in 1919, through to his untimely death in 1930, he epitomized the chameleon qualities of acting. He and Paul Muni fascinated me – actors who vanished into roles instead of molding them to fit themselves. His gallery of grotesques naturally led him to defining roles as Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame; the Phantom of the Opera, Alonzo the Armless in “The Unknown,” Phroso in “West of Zanzibar,” Professor Echo, Mr. Wu, Blizzard in “The Penalty.” (He could act without makeup as well – he’s great as a hard-bitten drill sergeant in “Tell it to the Marines.”) “I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice,” he said. ”The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. . . . The parts I play point out a moral. They show individuals who might have been different, if they had been given a different chance.” Of all film actors, only Chaney Sr.’s work approaches the level of transformation, of magic.

And the others:

David Warner
Oliver Reed
Donald Pleasance
Lionel Atwill
Cedric Hardwicke
George Zucco
Richard Carlson
Bruce Campbell
Jamie Lee Curtis
Grant Williams
Claude Rains
Henry Daniell
Dana Andrews
Charles Gray
Andrew Keir
Michael Gough
Asia Argento
Caroline Munro
Udo Keir
Anthony Perkins
Bruce Dern
Coffin Joe
Basil Rathbone
Michael Berryman
Rondo Hatton
Ralph Fiennes
Helena Bonham Carter
Ian MacKellen
Doug Bradley (Pinhead)
Warwick Davis (Leprechaun)
Tobin Bell (Jigsaw)
Brad Dourif (Chucky)
Kane Hodder (Jason)
Rudolf Klein-Hogge
Howard Vernon

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