Jul 19, 2013

13 Good Actors Who Did Bad Horror

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“Great stars have great pride,” said aging movie queen Norma Desmond in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard.  They also need health insurance, which might explain why so many serious actors often find themselves starring in bizarre, cheap, and/or trashy horror movies.  It’s too bad that high brow actors taking roles in low brow movies wasn’t a trend in 1950.  Norma could have had a career resurgence instead of going insane.  Some may laugh at these films.  However, their combination of elegant star wattage and cheesy lunacy bring many to heights of intoxicating pleasure that make fancy historical epics smell like mothballs.

1. Lauren Bacall (The Fan, 1981)

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In the late 1970s and early 1980s, horror movies gave you more for your money than just scares.  Terror Train (1980) offered magic shows by David Copperfield, Suspiria (1977) gave the audience a moment to take in some ballet, The Unseen (1980) intercut cheerful documentary footage of Solvang, CA’s annual Danish Day Parade with its scenes of incest and murder.  The Fan attempts to bedazzle spectators with numbers from a Broadway musical starring Lauren Bacall, with music by Tim Rice (The Lion King) and Marvin Hamlisch (The Way We Were).  Bacall plays Sally Ross, a diva who, when not dancing with sequin clad chorus boys, must deal with all the usual problems: a fading career, an ex-husband who wants her back, and the oppressive stalking of her self hating, gay “biggest fan.” He kills her entourage, including her personal assistant (Maureen Stapleton!), her maid, and her choreographer.  In the film’s “riveting” “climax,” he comes backstage to attack her on the opening night of her show, after crying through the entire performance.  Bacall probably thought that The Fan would be a high class melding of glamorous New York show biz melodrama and high style Hitchcockian thriller.  The Turning Point (1975) meets Dressed to Kill (1980), if you will.  Instead she got a boring, tacky, offensive, yet unforgettable mess that she ended up denouncing on talk shows. 




2. Marlon Brando (The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1996)

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Clad in caftans and headscarves possibly stolen from Little Edie Beale, his mouth seemingly filled with the same cotton he utilized in The Godfather (1972), Marlon Brando plays a mad doctor who has used genetic splicing to create a new species of animal-human beings.  He is ever accompanied by a little person wearing identical outfits who might have been the inspiration for Mini Me in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999).  Rumors abound about the disasters that marred the production of this film: Val Kilmer was a nightmare. Brando refused to learn his lines.  The film’s original director, Richard Stanley, was fired in the middle of shooting, but returned to the set as a human-dog extra in order to watch the car wreck.  You know you’re curious. 




3. Michael Caine (Jaws: The Revenge, 1987)

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Michael Caine could not accept his Best Actor Oscar for Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) because he was busy filming Jaws 4: The Revenge, once again establishing that he has admirable priorities.  In what many consider to be one of the worst sequels ever made, Jaws returns to avenge the family members of Brody, the man who killed him (played by Roy Scheider in the first two Jaws films).  Caine serves as “comic relief” in the role of Hoagie, the widowed Ellen Brody’s new boyfriend, who has a penchant for telling long, stupid jokes.  In one of the movie’s more notorious gaffes, Caine gets trapped by the shark in a sinking airplane, swims away, and climbs on to a rescue boat wearing a dry shirt and pants!  If Caine’s doesn’t provide enough high brow slumming for you, keep an eye out for performances by Melvyn and Mario Van Peebles and Lynn Whitfield!


4. Julie Christie (Demon Seed, 1977)

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The ever-luminous Julie Christie followed up a string of much heralded films by legendary directors, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Go-Between (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), and Shampoo (1975), with this high budget exploitation film about a wealthy woman who lives with an extremely jealous computer system that runs her home.  The computer, named Alfred, falls obsessively in love with Christie—who can blame him!—and decides that he will forcefully impregnate her in order to enter the human world.  It’s sort of like an unpleasant melding of Fatal Attraction and Small WonderDemon Seed did not receive much love from critics upon release.  However, looking back, one can appreciate Christie’s powerful, believable performance, and the story’s creepy prescience. 


5. Joan Crawford (Trog, 1970)

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Trog proves once and for all that, what ever her personal failings, Joan Crawford was a professional.  In one of the most embarrassing of the “aging actress horror movies” initiated by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Joan plays an anthropologist who discovers Trog, a primordial cave beast type.  She forms a relationship with him and tries to keep him from kidnapping children and going on a killing spree.  Trog looks like an extra wearing a plastic bag covered in polyester fur, which makes it even more impressive that Joan acts their scenes together with total dedication and sincerity. 

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Crawford’s highly mannered acting and Pepsi-board member hair get the best of her when she delivers lines like “Please Trog, let me have the child.”  Yet by the end of this film, Crawford’s last, you may find yourself shockingly…moved.


6. Faye Dunaway (The Temp, 1993)

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Speaking of Joan Crawford, Faye Dunaway’s acting career took a slight dip after she pissed off everybody in Hollywood with her astonishing performance in Mommie Dearest (1981).  12 years later she ended up playing the CEO of a cookie corporation where employees lose their hands to sabotaged Xerox machines, and a sweet old lady’s mouth bleeds as she munches on glass-filled baked goods during a focus group.  Lara Flynn Boyle also appears as the Temp from which the movie gets its title, killing people (there's a Xerox incident) in her rise to the top. The movie tries to keep the audience asking, “Which professional woman is evil and destructive, Lara or Faye?,” while the poor male executives run around weak and scared.  However, Faye munches the scenery as if it were a big, delicious oatmeal raisin confection.  The entire affair is worth it for her rageful delivery of the news that somebody has thieved the top secret recipe for “CHEWY…ALMOND...” cookies.  Eyes bulging, she announces the flavor of the stolen recipe with such ferocious intensity that co-star Hutton seems to repress a laugh. 


7. John Houston (The Visitors, 1979)

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John Houston - as in THE John Houston, actor/director responsible for classics like The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen and The Treasure of Sierra Madre - starred in this profoundly bizarre 1979 flick. Here's the plot, in a nutshell: Basketball team owner (Lance Henriksen)'s girlfriend has a weird daughter who constantly wears sunglasses and actually received alien powers in the womb. Henriksen tries to exploit her for evil, until angel/alien John Houston shows up to take her back to her home planet. Amidst all this you get murder at an ice skating rink, a cosmic demon named "Sateen", John Houston playing PONG, Franco Nero in an uncredited cameo as Jesus Christ and Kareem Abdul Jabbar as himself.


8. Ben Kingsley (BloodRayne, 2005)

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There is undoubtedly at least one person on earth who, when asked to name a fierce leader played by Ben Kingsley, would answer “That’s easy, Kagan, King of the Vampires, in BloodRayne!”  This knowledge should make us feel happy and content about the world’s endless diversity.  Yes, in addition to winning an Oscar for his performance as Mahatma Gandhi, Ben Kingsley also personified the head bloodsucker of eighteenth century Romania.  In BloodRayne, directed by legendary auteur Uwe Boll (Resident Evil), heroine Rayne (Kristanna Lokken) leaves a carnival freak show and seeks to avenge her dad, Kingsley, for raping her mother.  Kingsley seems to have a great time wearing long braids, fencing with his fierce yet scantily clad co-star, and uttering lines like “Ungrateful bitch!”  Gandhi might not have approved of such spiritually devoid cinema, but it serves its purpose.


9. Jessica Lange (Hush, 1998)

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Jessica Lange clearly has a sense of humor (the whole "The Name Game" dance number on American Horror Story proves our point) and can act the hell out of anything. So what in God's name was she doing in this 1998 stinker (read: amazing) movie about an overbearing mother who would make Norma Bates look hands off? Lange plays Martha, who tries to kill her daughter-in-law (Gwyneth Paltrow! She could be on this list too!) after stealing her baby, a laborious (pun intended) process that involves feeding her horse medication, screaming at an old woman in a sauna and smoking lots of cigarettes on staircases.  Despite the title, there's nothing quiet about Jessica - she just ACTS this entire movie. We're guessing. she had a mortgage payment due. Here's a moment featuring the supportive dynamic between Lange and Paltrow's characters:



10. Lana Turner (The Big Cube, 1969)

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Poor Lana Turner.  She was the quintessential femme fatale in the 1940s, and the elegant, Oscar-nominated matron of high-class melodramas in the 1950s.  Then, in the 1960s, she found herself repeatedly recreating the scandalous real-life trauma of watching her daughter murder her abusive lover, Johnny Stompanato, in various trashy movies.  Undoubtedly, the most bizarre of these torrid affairs is The Big Cube, which combines “classy” melodrama with the trendy “horrors of drugs” subgenre in a misguided effort to attract both kids and their parents.  Lana plays Adriana, a neurotic, wealthy former actress whose daughter and her drug addict boyfriend (named, ahem, Johnny) give her LSD in order to drive her insane and lead her to suicide (it may also explain the poor decision making behind the above hairdo and housecoat/mumu).  They aim, of course, to claim her dead husband’s fortune.  Endless scenes feature Lana running around the her well appointed, very 1960s mansion amidst a flurry of psychadelic lighting effects, while her perpetrators hide behind curtains crying “Adriana!  Adriana!  You’re going to die!”  Eventually, she survives with her sanity intact.  Appropriately, so did Lana. 




11. Jon Voight (Anaconda, 1997)

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In Midnight Cowboy (1969), Coming Home (1978), and The Champ (1979), Jon Voight made audience members cry and think about their fellow men.  In Deliverance (1972), he inspired them to reflect on corporate greed’s hazardous relationship with nature.  In Anaconda, he made them guffaw at his bad fake accent.  As a crazed Amazon resident who hijacks a film crew’s boat on his mission to kill the titular 40-foot snake, Voight seems to know what he’s doing.  Whether slapping around his sophisticated British co-star or lustily winking at J. Lo before his demise, he plays this over the top villain to the hilt in a delectably pulpy thriller.


12. Orson Welles (Necromancy, 1972)

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Orson Welles directed and starred in Citizen Kane (1941), which many have called the greatest movie ever made.  His films The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Macbeth (1948), and Touch of Evil (1958) have canonized him in film history scholarship.  This scholarship likely overlooks Necromancy, in which Welles (wearing a false nose) plays Mr. Cato, the Satanic leader of a hippie cult that inhabits the small village of Lillith.  The cult tries to bring Mr. Cato’s son back from the dead by luring a couple to the town and possessing the woman.  Rituals involving the wearing of goat-heads and crazy camera angles ensue.  This character study from Bert I. Gordon was re-edited in 1981 and re-titled The Witching.  The later version added sex scenes, nudity, a new ending, and an ‘80s synth score, further ensuring the film’s eternal absence from the AFI top 100 list. 


13. The Entire Cast (The Sentinel, 1977)

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The 1970s was the golden age of the all star horror movie, and fewer shine more weirdly than this New York City nightmare.  It features no less than four Oscar winning actors, and 11 who have been nominated!  Ava Gardner plays a classy but ominous real estate agent (aren’t they all?), who encourages Cristina, a model reeling from a break up, to move into a too spacious to be true apartment in Brooklyn Heights.  Naturally, it harbors the doorway to hell, and all of its eccentric residents are demonic minions. Beverly D’Angelo and Sylvia Miles, the most provocative representatives of the darkside, play lesbian lovers with a penchant for inappropriate displays of autoeroticism.  When Cristina asks what they do for a living, Miles responds “We fondle each other.”  Residing in another apartment is Burgess Meredith as a bachelor who holds a grandiose birthday party for his cat. 

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The “good guys” include Jose Ferrer, John Carradine, and Martin Balsam as the expected holy men, Chris Sarandon as the ex-boyfriend who discovers the building’s dark history, and Christopher Walken and Eli Wallach as detectives!  If that’s not enough star wattage for you, look out for Jerry Orbach, Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Dreyfuss, and Hank Garrett (!) in small parts. It’s as though Night of 1,000 Stars decided to capitalize on Satanic Panic paranoia by rocking a chic occult theme. For more all star supernatural ‘70s epics, see The Devil’s Rain (1975) and Burnt Offerings (1976).


What say you? What A-listers did a D-list movie despite their status? Tell us on our Facebook page or tweet us @ChillerTV using #Friday13!

Ben Raphael Sher is a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, where he also teaches.  His work has appeared in Fangoria, Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, and Back Stage. You can read more of his work here.

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