Saturday, February 2, 2013

Winter Horror: Never Too Old To Scare The Pants Off Us!

Because I'm focusing on winter horror for two weeks, I decided to play with words a bit and highlight some of my favorite performances by actors/actresses in the "winter" of their careers.

 Now don't go all crazy on me if you think of someone I may have omitted.  When I started working on this post I thought of a few people, then a few more, then it started getting out of control!  So it's possible I may have to do a sequel to this post at some point.

(And please take note:  I did not include Jessica Lange from American Horror Story because she is only 63, not really old enough to be in the "winter" of her career.  I'm hoping she has years and years of good roles to give us! But I will be highlighting her at some point this month in FWF's Women in Horror Month posts! So stay tuned, Lange fans!)


MAX VON SYDOW in Shutter Island (2010)
You thought I was going to say The Exorcist, didn't you?  Well von Sydow was made up in heavy  makeup to appear over 80 for the 1973 devilish film, when he was actually only 44!  In Shutter Island he plays Dr. Jeremiah Naehring, a Nazi doctor who wanted to chain all the patients to the floor, remember? Basically wanted to lobotomize everyone.  Nice guy.  Von Sydow also starred in the film adaptation of Stephen King's Needful Things (1993) as devilish store-owner, Leland Gaunt. But of course he will be most-remembered for playing Father Merrin, at least in horror circles.

JAMES CROMWELL in American Horror Story: Asylum (2012-2013). 
Speaking of Nazis. Cromwell's chilling turn as Dr. Arthur Arden, mysterious doctor at the Briarcliff Mental Institution was some of the actor's best work to date, at least in my opinion.  When he was finally discovered as being an infamous SS physician, Hans Gruber, he knew his chance to continue his nasty and deviant experiments on human beings (to try to discover what made them crazy) was coming to an end. I've seen Cromwell in many a film and he is seriously one of the best character actors ever. I was pleased as punch to see him as a major player here.

BETTY WHITE in Lake Placid (1999)
At age 77, White took on the role of Delores Bickerman - a plucky widow who feeds blindfolded  livestock to a giant crocodile in the lake beside her home.  The role was simply hilarious, with White charming the pants of us with her trademark banter. While the film itself is plain old campy goodness, White certainly adds to the fun. She's a legend, and is still acting at age 91.

IAN HOLM in From Hell (2001)
Yes, it's that guy from Alien, but let's remember we're highlighting the roles they have portrayed as older actors.  Hence, From Hell.  Holm stars as Sir William Gull, a (real-life) English doctor who was the physician to Queen Victoria back in the late 1800's and was also a prime suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders. In the film, they (SPOILER ALERT) do in fact name him as the murderer, and Holm plays the part with obvious relish. Holm's other film credits within the horror realm include starring as Bilbo Baggins in the LOTR trilogy (as well as in last year's The Hobbit as "old" Bilbo), and played the father of Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994).

Not just one but four older gentlemen. It's the bonus round!  These four older gents were all legends in their time, so when Peter Straub's novel of four aging men who relive the horrors of their youth was put to the big screen, who better than these respected actors to take the roles?  I'm not sure Astaire or Fairbanks Jr. ever did another horror film, but John Houseman can be recognized from his small role in The Fog (as the around-the-campfire-ghost-story-telling Mr. Machen) and Melvyn Douglas Starred in both The Tenant (1976) and The Changeling (1980).
In Ghost Story, the men dub their ghost-story-telling club 'The Chowder Society', and seeing these legends standing around in tuxes as they tell stories and recollect old horrors, well that's something you're not going to see every day.

RUTH GORDON in Rosemary's Baby (1968)
While there were several older actors in Rosemary's Baby, none stand out like Gordon, who as the bizarre and nebby neighbor Minnie Castevet manages to gaslight Mia Farrow's Rosemary right into bed with the devil.  She feigns interest in everything Rosemary does, pushing her way into the young wife's life by giving her presents of strange jewelry and mixing up a special dessert that all but knocks Rosemary out. To what end? Well so she can be raped by the devil, of course! Gordon's take on Minnie was a lively one - at one turn seemingly harmless, at the next she is shouting God is Dead and the likes.  Great stuff!

No, it's not his best role (for me, I still love him in The Sound of Music, which he apparently hated), but it just goes to show that this man is an utter machine. He keeps cranking out films even at his advanced age of 83.  He's done plenty of genre work in the last several years, including Priest (2011), Cold Creek Manor (2003), Possessed (2000), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), and the aforementioned Dracula 2000, in which he plays a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing.  And while none of these listed films are especially great (the exception being The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - that was outstanding), his work outside the genre is exemplary, with him winning multiple awards (including an Oscar and a BAFTA). Truly one of the all-time greats.

FRANK LANGELLA in The Ninth Gate (1999)
The man who played Dracula himself back in 1979 is still quite active in film these days. Most recently he starred in The Box (2009) as a man who offers a million dollars to Cameron Diaz - if she would only push a simple button on a box. But my favorite recent outing is The Ninth Gate, when he played Boris Balkan, a wealthy book collector looking for a tome that was supposedly penned by the devil himself.  Now part of the reason I have a real affinity for that film is no doubt due to the added presence of one Johnny Depp, but Langella stands on his own as a creepy dude with a seriously crackbrained agenda. And let's not forget - Langella played Dracula. Seriously, you can't overlook that one.

CLORIS LEACHMAN in The Fields (2011)
Perhaps a little-seen film, The Fields starred Leachman as the grandmother of a young boy who is fairly certain something is stalking the family from the cornfields surrounding the farm. While it doesn't exactly sound like ground-breaking filmmaking, it is a very atmospheric movie. Set in the early 70's around the time that Charlie Manson was doing his thing, it evokes a certain delicious paranoia and is made all the better by Leachman, whose character of Gladys is a horror movie fan (we even see Carnival of Souls and NOTLD on tv). She shows these flicks to her grandson, probably making him even more frightened of the cornfields and the impending doom he feels is coming. Leachman is certainly not known for her horror films (though Young Frankenstein cannot be ignored!), but she did show up in Lake Placid 2 (2007) and the parody Scary Movie 4 (2006). And let's not forget that though she's a comedian (still working today at age 86!), she is an Oscar winner for The Last Picture Show (1971).

ANTHONY HOPKINS in Hitchcock (2012)
Hopkins has done quite a few genre roles over the course of his acting career, most notably as Hannibal Lecter - but also in films like Magic, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), and 2010's The Wolfman. He also starred in the dismal The Rite (2011). But most recently he played the master of suspense himself: Alfred Hitchcock.  He remains one of the classiest and most well-respected actors in film, regardless of year.  In his most recent outing, Hopkins transforms himself (physically as well) into the meticulous yet brilliant director as he sets about to film his most famous movie: Psycho.  Though it received mixed reviews, there's no way I won't have this film at my doorstep the day it's released on DVD, and I feel quite sure Hopkins' portryal of one of my favorite directors will be more than adequate.

BURGESS MEREDITH in The Sentinel (1977)
Only a year after introducing us to Mickey in Rocky, Meredith played a pet-loving eccentric neighbor to Cristina Raines' character, Allison Parker, in the creepy thriller.  Obviously Meredith has a long past in the realm of horror, with his multiple guest-starring roles on The Twilight Zone, and was also in Burnt Offerings (1976), Magic (1978), and The Manitou (1978), among others.

Ah, Buster & Virginia. Such a frisky couple they were. He the sheriff and she his deputy/secretary/wife.  They kept discussing that 'spark' they had, and they weren't lying. Farnsworth was 70 when Misery was made, Sternhagen 60.  He started out as a Hollywood stuntman who eventually was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 1999. She is a Tony Award-winning actress who has also starred in such genre faves as Raising Cain (1992) and The Mist (2007). But the two of them together had great chemistry in Misery and raised an already stellar film to new heights with their playful comic relief.

SCOTT WILSON in The Walking Dead (2011-current)
When he was just starting out as an actor he starred in two 1967 films: In the Heat of the Night and In Cold Blood, so he is no stranger to the genre.  But in 2011 at age 69, he was cast as Hershel Greene, a devoted family man faced with life and death decisions when the zombie apocalpyse hits near home.  He is a beloved member of the Walking Dead cast at this point, and here's hoping the now one-legged veterinarian is around for a long time to come.  As far as other genre work goes, he was also in The Exorcist III (1990) - do you remember?? And also in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon in 2006.

GENA ROWLANDS in The Skeleton Key (2005)
Rowlands was 75 when she starred as plantation owner Violet Devereaux in the voodoo thriller. Violet was relatively unhappy to have to hire a nurse to take care of her ailing husband (played by the equally awesome John Hurt), because it meant hiding more secrets and taking the mystery of the decrepit old manse to the grave with her - perhaps literally.  Rowlands has had a long and storied career and is one of the most respected actresses of her generation, so it was a thrill to see her at work here. Bonus tidbit:  she was the long-time (35 yrs+) wife of John Cassavetes of Rosemary's Baby fame.

CHRISTOPHER LEE in pretty much everything. (As seen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, above)
What can I possibly say about Sir Christopher that hasn't already been said.  He's starred in so many genre films I can't begin to list them. In fact, he is listed as the international star with the most movie credits to his name - apparently over 200.  And he is still working today, at age 90. Cast as Saruman in the LOTR series, he was 79.  In the last several years he has been in Season of the Witch, The Resident, The Wicker Tree, Dark Shadows, and the prequels to the LOTR series: The Hobbit trilogy (2012>>). And the best thing about Lee?  His voice.

In the Old Chief Woodenhead segment, the old couple played by Kennedy and Lamour have a nasty run-in with some delinquents but their wooden cigar store Indian seeks revenge on the asshole criminals. And gets it. Neither Kennedy nor Lamour were known for horror roles (in fact Lamour was famous for her roles with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and Kennedy was perhaps best known for his role as an airline mechanic in the Airport series of disaster films) - so it was a real treat to see these two in these short but memorable parts.

ANGUS SCRIMM in Phantasm (1979 and beyond)
Though Scrimm was only 53 when he originated the role of The Tall Man, he played the role in three additional Phantasm films - the fourth one (Phantasm IV: Oblivion) coming in when he was 72.  As much as I love him in Phantasm, my favorite role of Scrimm's was as King Vladislas in the first Subspecies movie (1991). (What can I say, I'm a sucker for good schlock!) He's shown up in many horror roles before and since that, making him one of our favorite older gents.  Who doesn't hear him bellowing "Booooyyyy!" when they see him, even to this day?

JUDI DENCH  in Jane Eyre (2011)
While I love Judi Dench in pretty much anything she does, she recently was part of the cast of the latest adaptation of Jane Eyre (my favorite classic novel, by far).  As the steadfast housekeeper Mrs.Fairfax, Dench played opposite Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender and put her own dignified style into the supporting role.  And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how much I love Dench as "M" in the most recent Bond films, in particular Skyfall - she is a consummate class act.

VINCENT PRICE in Edward Scissorhands (1990)
While not entirely horror, the small part as the inventor of the title character was written specifically for Price, and I couldn't leave him off a list like this.  Between Price and Christopher Lee, I can't imagine two people who have given the horror genre more.  Price's legacy lives on today, as you can pretty much find a classic horror film of his on television on any given day. His gentle Inventor in Scissorhands was his last role, and it serves as the cherry on the top of a towering sundae of horror films which most genre fans still cherish to this day.


Pax Romano said...

Outstanding. Kudos to the classic actors and actresses who have appeared in Horror.

Special love to Vincent Price in "Edward Scissorhands" (he breaks my heart in this one).

And Betty White in "Lake Placid" (she cracks me up in that film).

Well done!

Christine Hadden said...

Thanks, Pax!
I couldn't believe how many great actors/actresses have done horror - that's why there may need to be a part two!

Pax Romano said...

Bette and Joan did a ton of horror in their "Winter"...just sayin, you could combine the theme with Women in Horror!

Christine Hadden said...

True that. And that just may happen!!

Marie said...