John Wayne had no qualms being known as a cowboy. Bob Hope embraced his profession as a screwball comedian. Arnold Schwarzenegger will proudly tell you he's an action hero; Julia Roberts a romantic heroine. But what actor will willingly stand up and be counted as a horror movie star? It's a stigma that has been avoided since the genre was first brought to the big screen.
Even the men behind the classic monsters of the 1930s and '40s—Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney Jr.—had complex relationships with their fame. The mild-mannered Karloff resigned himself early on to being typed as a lumbering bogeyman, but escaped to more challenging work on Broadway (in such shows as Peter Pan and The Lark) whenever he got the chance; Chaney took up his father's mantle, but mourned the downgrading of the genre that happened due to the mass production of the 1950s and '60s, and all are aware of the spiral that Lugosi's professional and personal life took in later years as popularized in the film Ed Wood. Indeed, while horror movies may never have been the most respected of genres, sometime in the early '60s they became synonymous with B movies—and with a sordidness distinct to the underbelly of Hollywood. They've been straining, with little success, to shake this connection ever since.
It hasn't helped that, while many actors get their start in horror films, just as many have tried to distance themselves from the genre the first chance they get. The examples are numerous: Tom Hanks in He Knows You're Alone, Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th, Jim Carrey in Once Bitten. Early-career slashers have become dirty little secrets for many stars, who pray the video copies will have a limited shelf-life and hope talk-show hosts won't bring them up somewhere down the line. Other actors haven't managed to get in and out of the genre quickly enough to avoid the taint. These performers struck such a chord in a single role, that, try as they may, years passed before they could completely escape from the shadow of their spooky turn: Carole Kane in When a Stranger Calls, Sissy Spacek in Carrie, Shelley Duvall in The Shining.
However, with Halloween right around the corner, Back Stage West has taken up the challenge of defending the horror genre as a place where real acting work can be done—even whole careers forged—and examining what exactly makes a great horror film actor, those talented few who have mastered the craft of creepy.
The first lesson in horror acting is to realize it's really not about the actor. That's to say, filmgoers are paying their money not to see a heart-wrenching Meryl Streep-like turn but to be scared out of their pants. In the less ambitious films in the genre, acting's second seat is made painfully clear. Technique is boiled down to a few varied expressions of panic or piercing screams, dialogue reduced to mindless jokes bandied about by scantily clad teenagers in ill-lit summer-camp cabins before the murderer strikes again. In the finer films, great acting is possible, but only in its proper place. Character above all else simply serves the plot, much as in farce. For example, the audience may marvel at Donald Pleasance's shaky bravado masking true terror as he answers a phone call in the wee hours of the morning in the Halloween sequels, but what we're really concerned with is, Michael Myers is on the loose again.
In craft terms, serving the plot often means subtly heightening your stakes by gradations as the film progresses, not leaping onto the screen already scared out of your gourd. George C. Scott demonstrates his mastery over this kind of subtle build-up in the spooky, underrated supernatural mystery The Changeling. Scott's large, expressive mask, his deep-set, sad eyes, his rumbling baritone, all create a symphony of emotion that can at turns terrify in its cold deadness, or telegraph shivers in its abject terror. And emotionally he doesn't give it away or turn on the works too soon. As a recent widower haunted by the ghost of a dead child, Scott takes us with him along the continuum of human fear from timid curiosity to bowel-shaking horror.
It's a performance that also typifies another horror-film commandment: Always underplay it. This might really be the Golden Rule of terror, because it separates the B movies from the fright classics. Deadpan can make the hokiest of plot twists seem plausible, but more importantly invested emotion and small choices bring a weight to lightly sketched roles, and can make the difference between camp and drama. The more "real" the characters seem, the more frightening things get when the screaming starts.
Pleasance and Scott are two actors who excelled at throwaway delivery and guarded emotion, but the turn that perhaps best embodies this quiet style is Donald Sutherland in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That Sutherland is initially so boringly normal, so commonplace, lulls us into a plot that eventually, outlandishly involves pod people from outer space. It helps that half the film must be performed in whisper, because Sutherland is trying to avoid getting assimilated. However, scenes—such as the final confrontation between Sutherland and his shrieking female pod-person companion—that in less skilled hands might have been just fun and kind of goofy become truly shocking and disturbing because of the actor's careful, low-key setup.
Sutherland's skill with a well-timbered whisper brings up another point. The image of blood pouring from an elevator on a 70mm screen may creep anyone out, but sound is what really makes a movie scary. Nowhere is this clearer than in the recent films of David Lynch. In Lost Highway, a camera winding down an empty hallway in a darkened apartment is enough to make one grip the arms of his chair just because of the eerie soundscape that envelops the theatre. Because sound is so important, vocal control is a key to any great horror film performance, if for no other reason than, let's face it, you might be under two inches of makeup, so your voice will be working overtime. But, more important, the quality and style of the vocal delivery can make the difference between, say, Mia Farrow's helpless murmurs in The Haunting of Julia and Jennifer Love Hewitt's patently un-scary shouting in I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Hall of Scream
While any truly scary turn is hard enough to pull off, more deserving of horror fans' awe and adoration are those actors who have actually made a career in the genre—and considering the obsessive and attentive quality of the average scary-movie fan, they get it. Among their ranks are those actors who have not only proven they can act, but have a certain quality that is so distinctive that it challenges even the most awarded "legit" actor to match its brilliance. (As Marlon Brando proved in the remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau, a great actor doesn't always equal a great horror-film performance.)
The top of the list of this special few has to be Bruce Campbell—or, as director and longtime collaborator Sam Raimi calls him, Bruise Campbell. Campbell is the only actor to have consistently pulled off the cartoon-like, over-the-top style required of that trickiest of genres—the horror/comedy. In Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness—and even playing it straight in the original Evil Dead—Campbell is like Bugs Bunny with a chainsaw. With his ridiculous soap opera chin, Campbell's intentionally cheesy, loaded line delivery is a textbook for aspiring camp horror actors.
Then there are the scream queens. Reigning over these imperiled beauties is undoubtedly Jamie Lee Curtis. In Halloween (and its sequels), from The Fog to Prom Night, no one actress has pulled off the good girl who's going to make it through the gore better than Curtis. Less appreciated but arguably as impressive is the mom from E.T., Dee Wallace-Stone. In Cujo, we got to see the full range of the actress' craft front and center, because half the movie is close-ups of the panicked Wallace-Stone in a broken-down car, warding off the attacks of her canine stalker. But also not to be forgotten are her turns in such almost-greats as The Hills Have Eyes, The Howling, The Frighteners, and the campy Critters.
Wallace-Stone, Pleasance, Lugosi—all have a special place in a horror fan's heart. However, each fan has a personal favorite—one whose brief, perhaps unspectacular career is nonetheless a source of inspiration. Mine is the British child actress Chloe Franks. Franks' lifespan on-film was seven short years, 1970-'77. She never starred in an Academy Award winner; but in such films as The House That Dripped Blood, Tales From the Crypt, and The Uncanny—often opposite the great Peter Cushing—this ghostly pale waif with her pumpkin grin was the epitome of sweetness and spookiness. Her most impressive turn came in the obscure, campy gothic gorer Who Slew Auntie Roo?, which retells the Hansel and Gretel story through two orphans and an over-the-top Shelley Winters as the rich old woman who brings them into her home to replace her dead child. It could have been silly—and admittedly, occasionally is—but Franks is so totally committed and yet so otherworldly, it makes for a fascinating and creepy watch. Franks may not have had a career that many actors would envy, but it was a career nonetheless—further proof that, though it hasn't yet gotten the respect it deserves, horror acting is a talent unto itself and one we should all appreciate anew this Halloween season. BSW