Yesterday, August, 8, 2013, Hollywood lost one of its most versatile and memorably quirky character actresses, Karen Black. Ms. Black passed away at the age of 74 following a two-year battle against cancer.
She originally earned a name for herself playing unforgettable supporting parts in prominent Hollywood films such as Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Great Gatsby (1974), and Nashville (1975). She was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Jack Nicholson’s sleazy girlfriend in Five Easy Pieces. She also did live theater, performing in both Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, including the drama Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 1982, which was directed by her Nashville director, Robert Altman.
However, to her bemused dismay (as expressed in this interview with the Chicago Tribune), she suspected the role she would be best remembered for would be that of Amelia in the third segment of the classic made-for-TV horror anthology movie, Trilogy of Terror (1975). In one of the most indelible TV performances of the 1970s, Ms. Black played a single apartment dweller who unwisely brings a Zuni fetish doll home as a tchotke, only to discover that it has a disturbing tendency to become ambulatory and hunt… most savagely.
Following her triple performance in Trilogy of Terror, she continued working very steadily, but the mix of her movies tended more and more towards horror and the macabre. Over the next three decades, she would carve out a reputation as one of Hollywood’s premiere low-budget scream queens. She starred in a score of horror and science fiction pictures from the mid-1970s to the first decade of the new millennium, oftentimes, as she grew older, playing the eccentric mother of the movie’s protagonist. Here’s a list of Karen Black movies which would appeal to the Midnight Movie set:
Burnt Offerings (1976) – a big-budget haunted house film starring Bette Davis (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), Oliver Reed (Curse of the Werewolf), and Burgess Meredith (Rocky)
The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (1977) – made for TV horror pic
Capricorn One (1978) – conspiracy-minded thriller about the government falsification of a manned journey to Mars (starring O.J. Simpson)
Killer Fish (1979) – an Italian rip-off of Jaws, featuring Lee Majors (The Six Million Dollar Man) versus piranhas
The Blue Man (1985) – a.k.a. Eternal Evil, a supernatural thriller about astral projection
Cut and Run (1985) – Italian “cannibals in the jungle” thriller
It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1986) – the cannibal baby returns (again with the cannibals?)
Invaders From Mars (1986) – Tobe Hooper’s remake of the 1953 low-budget cult SF film
The Invisible Kid (1988) – a comedy about, well, an invisible kid
Out of the Dark (1989) – an “erotic comedy horror film” and Divine’s last role before his/her death (sounds right up my alley!)
Mirror, Mirror (1990) – a horror film also starring Yvonne De Carlo of The Munsters fame
Evil Spirits (1990) – Karen runs a boarding house for misfits; kills them off and collects their government checks; woo-hoo!
Zapped Again! (1990) – a high school kid with psychokinetic powers versus the Key Club; direct-to-video (are you surprised?)
Children of the Night (1991) – vampire thriller
Haunting Fear (1991) – supernatural thriller about a woman with a phobia of being buried alive
Plan 10 from Outer Space (1994) – apparently has no connection, plot-wise or otherwise, with Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space; instead, a science fictional spoof of Mormonism(!)
Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996) – the first installment in the series to go straight-to-video
Teknolust (2002) – a SF thriller about a scientist (played by Tilda Swinton, so memorable in Orlando) who clones herself and spreads viruses throughout both the computer and male populations
Curse of the Forty-Niner (2003) – a.k.a. Miner’s Massacre (between the two titles, kinda self-explanatory)
House of 1000 Corpses (2003) – homage to the splatter films of the 1970s; Rob Zombie’s directorial debut
Suffering Man’s Charity (2007) – a.k.a. Ghost Writer, a comedy horror film about a would-be writer who kills a real writer so he can lay claim to the dead man’s script (what an incredibly lousy initial title)
Mind you, the films I’ve listed above form only a portion of Ms. Black’s workload during those decades. Along with all the horror dreck, she continued to perform in slice-of-life dramas and off-beat independent films.
In her 2008 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Ms. Black reflected back on the “horror-ble” turn her career took following her performance in Trilogy of Terror:
“Q: You’ve done all types of films, from Five Easy Pieces to horror films such as House of 1,000 Corpses. But why do you think horror directors have been drawn to you?
“A: Scary movies I’ve done — there have been about 14 out of 175. They are not dominant in any way, shape or form. I can tell you what happened, but it was sort of like a mistake. It’s like I went on a bad path and couldn’t find my way back. Being remembered for it is only interesting when you measure it against the few films I’ve done of the genre. When I did Trilogy of Terror, with that [demon] doll, I filled the role very well. It was very real to people, and they just fell in love with it. And that got to be incredibly popular. With my last name being Black… so it got to be kind of an unconscious thing, [my association with horror movies]. But I’m not interested in blood.
“If this latest film I’m in, The Blue Tooth Virgin, were seen all across the country rather than Rob Zombie’s movies, I’d be remembered differently. It’s chance. It’s too bad. But frankly, I’m not that bothered by it because of the plays and movies I’m doing now.”
Well, Karen, it’s better to be remembered than not to be remembered, I suppose. I’ll always remember you for your roles in Five Easy Pieces and Trilogy of Terror.
But why, oh why couldn’t you have hung in there just a few years longer? Someday, somebody’s going to make a movie version of Fat White Vampire Blues. And you, Karen Black, could have played Dorothy Edna Duchon, obese vampire Jules Duchon’s mother, like no other scream queen alive or dead.