Okay, so Halloween is technically over, but like most Halloween and horror junkies we have to stretch it out for as long as we can. When it’s all over, you can go into withdrawals if you’re not careful. Not that we need an excuse to but, in that mindset, let’s keep it going and talk about great horror actors, shall we?
This is a very short list for me. There are many great actors that have been in great horror movies so before you bombard me with a million actors that have been in great horror movies, remember; very few have made the horror genre a home for their entire career. Also, very few have done it without being typecast as one certain “character” for their whole career, as well.
Here’s a list of some no-brainers.
Let’s get this started with my all-time personal favorite and arguably the all-time greatest: VINCENT PRICE. Price starred in over a hundred movies in a long career that was dominated by the horror genre and earned him the well-deserved moniker: “The Merchant of Menace”. Just his voice alone is synonymous with horror and fright. There’s way too many of his movies that I love, but here’s just a few that I would recommend.
1. The Conquer Worm (The Witchfinder General) – (1968) Here you’ll find Price at his absolute worst/best as he portrays witchfinder Matthew Hopkins. Price is so convincing in this role as a witch-torturing evil motherfucker that you’d swear the guy had to be an asshole in real life to pull it off. There’s no camp or humor in this role, just pure vile and sadistic evilness. With his roots as a classically trained actor, this role plays right into Vinnie’s wheelhouse. Being one of the few Price movies where he doesn’t die in a fiery blaze, Vincent finds his demise in a much more brutal fashion. Highly recommended.
2. The Masque of Red Death – (1964) Surprise, surprise, Vincent plays another evil jerk in this really cool Roger Corman directed film. Although Corman is known for making many of his pictures on shoe-string budgets, I think this picture is really filmed beautifully. Cool visuals, trippy effects, elaborate costumes and broad bright colors really make the movie visually exciting. Price plays a rich prince who gives death the middle finger and decides to throw a raging party when the plague is running rampant on all of the poor fuckers outside his castle walls. What a dick…but he gets his.
3. The Raven – (1963) This film holds a special place in my heart. I remember watching this movie when I was little. Here, Vincent stars as reluctant sorcerer who has to battle the great Boris Karloff for magical dominance. Although there are images and scenes that spooked me out as a little kid, this movie is a comedy and I still find it funny to this day; mostly due to the fantastic “Abbott and Costello” style combo of Price and the amazing Peter Lorre (who almost steals the show). It’s a great example of Price’s ability to pull off comedy in a horror setting which is something that his contemporaries never quite embraced as Price did; and he does it very well. This movie also co-stars, a young as fuck Jack Nicholson in one of his earlier roles. Also check out Comedy of Terrors for another great Price/Lorre comedy combo; not one of Price’s best, but a fun movie and definitely a box-office success for him.
As I said before, this is merely a sliver of my Price favorites; there are way too many for me to list. The Fly, House of Wax, The House of Usher, Dr. Phibes, House on Haunted Hill, the list goes on and on for me. Hell, I got all pumped up when he was on Batman and The Brady Bunch. As far as a horror movie actor, NOBODY tops Vincent Price in my book.
Moving on. Next up: CHRISTOPHER LEE
Okay, not that I have to prove a point here with this guy, but he’s fucking 91 years old, has 276 movie credits to his name and still has movies in the chamber? WTF?! What can you say about Christopher Lee? The definition of classically trained actor which, if you were born in 1922 like this guy, I’d imagine you’d have to be. The KING OF HAMMER HORROR. He was Dracula and he can scare the shit out of you without even really saying a word. He was Frankenstein and he could scare the shit out of you without really saying a word. He was The Mummy and he could scare the shit out of you without really saying a word. But when he speaks, he’s a master thespian. Although Lee played many non-horror roles in his ridiculously long career, the horror genre is truly his home. Here are a few personal highlights for me. And the same that went for Price goes for this dude; not ALL of my favorites but just a few to get us started.
1. The Horror of Dracula – (1958) This is the first of the Terence Fisher directed Hammer Productions where Lee portrays Count Dracula. I knew it wasn’t much, but according to imdb he has thirteen lines in this movie; quite effective indeed. This is a total break away from the classic Bela Lugosi Universal production of Dracula and it’s very refreshing. Nothing against the elegant original, but the Hammer version strips it down and gets carnal with it, which I enjoy a whole lot more. This movie is excellent. It also stars Peter Cushing who is amazing as Van Helsing and is just one of the many movies in which Cushing gets choked the fuck out by Lee. Just watch it.
2. The Wicker Man – (1973) – Lee plays Lord Summerisle, the “leader” of an island community whose residents still practice “ancient pagan traditions”. When a mainland police officer comes to the island to search for a missing island girl things get a little “hot”. Lee delivers a great performance in an excellent movie. Watch this. Please do not watch the remake with Nick Cage.
3. Dracula: Prince of Darkness – (1966) Lee reprises his role as count Dracula and in this one he’s looking for revenge. Terrence Fisher directs this movie and it is considered by many to be a somewhat sequel to The Horror of Dracula. Yet another good Christopher Lee Dracula flick and definitely worth checking out.
Again, these are just a few of Lee’s movies that are worth watching. The guys made nearly 300 movies. Not all good but, comparatively if a baseball player retired with a .775 average after nearly 80 years of playing baseball, he’d be the greatest baseball player to ever walk the Earth. He’s had a million roles that, although not always a starring character, just his menacing presence gave the film credibility. Not to mention that Lee has (and currently) plays two critical roles in two of the biggest movie franchises ever; Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings (The Hobbit)…ever heard of ‘em?
Last, but certainly not least, we come to another of the original “Highwayman of Horror” (I just invented the term “Highwaymen of Horror” so I own that, I guess): PETER CUSHING
He’s the quintessential Van Helsing. He gets nearly choked to death better than anyone you’ve ever seen. He’s Victor Frankenstein. The mad scientist. He was Sherlock Holmes. Cushing, like Lee and Price is cut from the same “classically trained” actor cloth. By the time Peter passed into the next dimension in 1994, he appeared in close to 130 films. The guy ruled. If you don’t know, you should. His elegant frame, thin facial features, and wild abrupt intensity made him amazing and believable in just about everything he did. Here are just a few of this fine fellow’s better moments.
1. The Horror of Dracula – (1958) A rare occasion when two horror icons appear in the same movie and both actors share the glory of a great film equally. Cushing as Van Helsing is the yin to Lee’s Dracula’s yang. His intense, uptight and energetic performance as Van Helsing has never been bested by any actor since, in my opinion. Lee’s quiet evil as Dracula is equaled by Cushing’s high intensity which carries the movie perfectly into the film’s unforgettable climax. Again, just watch it.
2. Shock Waves – (1977) Here’s a movie that was not critically acclaimed but is still dear to me and definitely a fan fave. Cushing plays an ex-Nazi scientist who is in hiding on a “deserted” island that turns out to be home to a sleeping squad of zombie Nazi super soldiers. Cushing’s role in this is not huge but adds immensely to the film. C’mon…Peter Cushing and Zombie Nazis? That equals awesome in my book. Damn straight.
3. The Mummy – (1959) Cushing brings the same sensibility to his role as The Mummy‘s (Christopher Lee) nemesis, John Banning, as he did as Dracula’s nemesis Von Helsing in this Hammer Productions re-telling of The Mummy. His character is nearly identical to Van Helsing but that’s ok with me because he does it better than anyone and I never get tired of it. Much like Price, who gets burned to death in every film, he nearly gets choked to death by Lee in this great re-telling of a Universal Classic. This was again directed by Terrence Fisher, who seems to get the best out of these two every time. I wonder if they had a laugh when reading scripts and got to the part where Lee gets to choke out Cushing again.
Aaand not to mention his great role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars (1977), The Skull, The Gorgon and a boatload of others. Shit, he was in Top Secret!
Now, to be sure, this is a small list of greats. There are, of course, more. We cannot forget to mention Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, and others but in modern day horror vernacular very few actors have been able to establish themselves so profoundly and consistently as these guys. There’s also Tony Todd, Jeffery Combs, Udo Kier, Tom Adkins and Brad Dourif to name a few more. However, until those guys manage to rack up a career that lasts upwards of 70 years and amount to hundreds of films, they can’t quite be in this elite club just yet.
Next up: The First Ladies of Horror, xoxo