Schlock & Awe 01: Karen BlackA column article, Schlock & Awe by: Adam Barraclough, Daniel Elkin, Shawn Hill, Ben Martini, Paul Brian McCoy
In an apocalyptic film landscape littered with cash-bloated blockbusters and soul-curdling cynicism, sometimes the only films worth praising are those with the guts and the heart to risk everything. These are the films that tap primal energies and deliver the goods in ways that make manifest the magic of moviemaking. These are the films and performances that fill us with Schlock and Awe!
On August 8, 2013 the world lost one of its brightest stars, the incomparable Karen Black. She was an actor, a screenwriter, a singer, a composer, a wife and mother. Above all, she was an inspiration. What better way to launch an ongoing column celebrating the fringe film world than by gathering our friends and family and sharing our memories of the Queen of Horror (And All Things Film)? Please feel free to share your favorite memories of Karen Black with us below.
Rest in peace, Ms. Black. Your horror was voluptuous.
I suppose my first impressions of Karen Black were similar to those of other kids growing up in the 70s and 80s: That she was a bit of a sexpot. I’m pretty sure Easy Rider was my first exposure, though I was so young at the time I certainly didn’t catch on to much of what was going down in that film. It was probably an episode of the HBO series The Hitchhiker that left the first indelible thoughts of Karen Black in my young mind.
She played a rather sultry businesswoman, and as that series was known for its penchant towards soft-core erotic action, it’s likely that I took a trip or two to Boner City as I watched late at night with the volume down low when I should have otherwise been in bed asleep. It left enough of a mark upon me that I recognized her immediately as the mother in Invaders from Mars. Until actually writing this, I don’t think I understood exactly why I was so (ahem) drawn to her in that film, but I think we can safely chalk it up to lingering thoughts of that episode of The Hitchhiker.
I was always quick to note her presence in films from there out. Post-adolescence I revisited Easy Rider, Burnt Offerings and The Day of the Locust, getting a taste for the actress Black was in her prime, while also taking in her run through the B and C list roles handed her throughout the 90s. I probably didn’t think too much about her outside of all this until I finally laid eyes on Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses in 2003-2004.
If you were a horror fan at the dawn of the new millennium, you probably first started hearing about Ho1KC in 2000-2001. If you also happened to be a fan of the band White Zombie, you were likely pretty goddamned excited to see it. Prior to his solo career and morphing into a horror-host cartoon caricature of everything he once was, Rob Zombie brought considerable menace to heavy music at a time when most were content to tie a flannel shirt around their waist and call it a day. So it was difficult to wait, as the film was rather famously shelved (completed, in the can, ready to go) for another three years before the studio decided to let it see the light of day.
And well, some things just aren’t capable of living up to the hype, the urban legends, the legacy of an amazing rock band. But that’s a film review unto itself. What certainly DID impress me in House of 1,000 Corpses was the presence of Karen Black. Perfectly cast as Mama Firefly, Black brought enough experience and gravitas to the role to help stabilize the off-kilter lunacy and amateur-hour performances of the remaining cast. Her presence, as well as Sid Haig’s, also felt like a kind-of passing of the torch.
One of Ho1kC’s greatest successes came in bringing the grimy patina of 60s and 70s exploitation film back to the screen. And including Black and Haig felt like an appropriate nod to those influences. Though it’s easily argued that said influences were much more heavily present in the sequel film The Devil’s Rejects, an unfortunate contract dispute kept Black from reprising her role as Mama Firefly; a true shame given the vampy and lurid dialogue I know she would have delivered oh-so well. When I first heard of her passing, it was this role that came first to mind, before fading back into her previous roles, and those few late nights we spent together with but a television screen and an adolescent erection separating us.
-- Adam Barraclaugh
They say the eyes are the window to the soul. She's got Bettie Davis Eyes? The Eyes of Laura Mars? Screw that. Give me the eyes of Karen Black, for within those light green, slightly askew peepers rests all of our salvation. What Karen Black saw was a way out of our troubles. What Karen Black saw was our sin's forgiveness.
In October of 1974, I had what some may call a spiritual awakening. It happened in a dark theater in Dallas, Texas. I was seven years old.
Nixon had only just resigned as President of the United States. As a country, our wounds were deep and, like so many other pre-teens of my generation, I was rudderless, unabashed, and looking to fill my brain with as much plastic jelly they could give me to shove in there. Left to my own devices, I would have sat quietly in the living room, staring at the television sucking deep from the goodness that was Land of the Lost, Shazam!, and Hong Kong Phooey, but my parents insisted that we go to the movies.
See, at that time as a country, we were all dressed in disaster gear. The utopian dreams of the late 60's had been churned through the blender of amphetamines, mass marketing, and exhaustion. We had thick talking enemies with nuclear capabilities and our leaders were more drunk and paranoid than Roky Erickson had ever been, even before his stint in the Houston psychiatric hospital, even when he was playing Two Headed Dog with The Aliens. We were groping for sunlight, a way out of the fire, and waiting for the hero to wrap a blanket around our shoulders and telling us everything would be fine, now.
Airport 1975 was a disaster movie. They were popular at the time. Actually, it was a disaster avoided movie, for though horror upon horror was heaped on our heroes, in the end they had to persevere. Someone got to wrap a blanket around their shoulders and tell them everything would be fine, now.
We needed this message then as much as we need it now, and its avatars at the time were the eyes of Karen Black. Awry, askance, cockeyed, catawumpus, her eyes honed it on a new vision of the future. There's a hole in the plane, the auto-pilot is failing, and we're headed as quickly towards a mountain as we are a fiery death. BOOM!
But Karen Black saw another way through and she grabs control of the plane's descent and flies embracing Elvis' If I Can Dream admonition from the '68 Comeback Special:
We're lost in a cloud
With too much rain
We're trapped in a world
That's troubled with pain
But as long as a man
Has the strength to dream
He can redeem his soul and fly
– and oh, how she flies!
Except she doesn't, really. Airport 1975 is a horribly misogynistic film. A gun-toting Moses has to step from the sky through the hole to save them; Karen Black move aside and let Charlton Heston fly this fucker.
Through Karen Black's eyes, though, she could see a new runway over the mountains to a land of plenty and peace. It was a vision we craved and deserved, but, of course, they stomped in as they do, put on our blinders, and set us down back where we were all along.
I understood all of this at the time. It is only now – now that the eyes of Karen Black have shut for eternity – that I can put this understanding into words.
Oh, Karen Black – the things you saw with your eyes. The places you envisioned as you stared askew into the void. We are but Google Glass to your keen apperception.
-- Daniel Elkin
Karen Black’s portrayal of Connie White in Nashville (1975) shines despite being a rather thankless role - as are all of the women's roles in the film, if pondered in a strict light. Lily Tomlin’s model citizen and mother has a sordid, sexually liberated fling. Shelly Duvall’s flower child groupie is more visual enigma than person. Ronnie Blakely’s tormented singing star is a basket case, riddled by insecurities and addictions. Geraldine Chaplin’s sort of intrepid reporter is a flake, and a kind of groupie herself. Gwen Welles’ talentless waitress becomes a literal object of derision. These are not flattering takes on femininity, or gendered social roles, especially in the microcosm of the effect of generational change on a proudly old-school community.
But, then, it’s an Altman film, and nobody really gets out unscathed. Other targets include our political system, patriotism (the movie’s imagery may as well be from Lee Friedlander or Gary Winogrand photo albums), the media-frenzy surrounding overblown celebrity fandom, and the manipulations of predatory managers. As he has done in his other ensemble films, what Altman really puts on display is the sense of hierarchy that keeps the pecking order clear in such a close community. Outsiders like Barbara Harris’ fleeing wife and Christina Raines’ folksinger are straining to break out of the oppressive system, putting them more in line with the zeitgeist than Black’s established country music star.
Connie is completely entrenched in the Grand Ole Opry status quo, long-accepting of her status as the understudy called on whenever one of Barbara Jean’s periodic binges recurs. Rather than wearing Barbara’s delicate flower curled hair and sister-wife gowns, she lets her big blonde hair and brightly colored gowns serve as patriotic emblems of conformity and Southern grace. Her place isn’t at the top, she’s not an artist, but merely an entertainer, and thus her value is ensured.
Connie accepts reality with a wide-smiling grace that is only disrupted in a few key scenes where she has to confront a world larger than the one she’s so complicitly embedded in. She may not even be fully conscious of how strictly the reigns are being held. Her reaction to a visiting Julie Christie (playing herself as a European sophisticate) is as naïve as it is dismissive, and thus comical.
I don’t know if Altman is literally referring to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette (the two biggest country stars of the 1970s, along with Dolly Parton) with these character types, but it doesn’t really matter. Barbara Jean’s epic demons predate (and prefigure) the Sissy Spacek Lynn biopic, and White’s real purpose is to represent the status quo of all women in the Nashville of the time. She’s living propaganda for conservative values, something her larger than life features are perfectly suited to portray. She’s a spectacle; one who behaves exactly as expected, a woman who is regularly rewarded for knowing her place.
-- Shawn Hill
For those who may be unfamiliar with the work of Karen Black, the made-for-TV anthology, Trilogy of Terror (1975), may be the best starting point. This obscure triptych of Richard Matheson short stories is a nothing short of an actor’s showcase. In it Karen Black plays sultry vixens, bookish matrons, stone cold killers, and a woman terrified nearly out of her wits. I say nearly because somehow she manages to hold onto enough of her wits to remember how to open a suitcase and turn on a stove. Given the situation, I doubt I could have done the same.
Trilogy of Terror shows Black as a consummate character actor. All of her personas ring true. Not once did I find myself thinking she had stretched herself thin in any capacity. In the final story, she not only plays terror as effectively as I have ever seen anywhere, but she also does a number of painful looking falls that surely demonstrate the level of her professional commitment. I think what many people forget about her is that it wasn’t her sexiness, or her ability to play over-the-top that made her a star. It was the fact that she was damn good actor.
If you do decide to pick up Trilogy of Terror, I’d suggest looking for a copy that includes the extra feature, Three Colors Black. It’s an excellent interview with Karen where she discusses in detail some of her acting choices and provides anecdotes about working on the movie. Now I think I’m going to go watch Five Easy Pieces and Nashville. It’s early and I have a lot of popcorn left.
-- Ben Martini
Karen Black ruled the Seventies. Kicking off the start of the decade with Easy Rider in '69, Five Easy Pieces in '70, then working steadily through to The Great Gatsby in '75 and the already discussed Airport 75, Trilogy of Terror, and Nashville, if you needed a woman who could play anything you could throw at her, Karen Black was your actor.
My own personal favorite work of hers from that time period hit theaters in 1976: The William F. Nolan (Logan's Run) and Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) collaboration, Burnt Offerings. They had already worked together in '75 on Trilogy of Terror so it seems only natural that Black would be involved this time around as well. The plot is interesting; a family rents a run-down country home for the summer, promises to take care of the elderly lady who lives upstairs, and then the house torments them, rejuvenating itself with every pain and hurt it inflicts on the family until everyone is dead.
Or are they?
Without Black, this movie probably wouldn't have stood out in my mind, despite also starring Oliver Reed, Bette Davis, and Burgess Meredith. The fact that Black holds her own and becomes the heart of the film is testament to her talents and her bravado. I can't think of another rising star who could stand out against the maelstrom of egos and creativity shut up on that old house.
Her character's slow decent into madness mirrors Reed's, played as an internal change where he thrashes about externally. And while there are moments when you feel like she's passively accepting the horrific events around them, by the end you realize, she's not only playing the mother and wife, but maybe the will of the house at the same time.
It's a layered role and a brilliant performance that was overlooked by critics at the time, but has grown in esteem over the years. However, the Sitges Horror and Fantasy Film Festival saw what I'm talking about and named Karen Black Best Actress of 1977.
I'm gonna miss her.
-- Paul Brian McCoy
Adam Barraclough is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Hi-Fructose Magazine and on crowndozen.com. At some point in the future he will likely appear on one of those shows that details how a person's addiction to purchasing and consuming media has ruined their life. Until then, his obsessions include sci-fi, horror and cartoons. He can be found tweeting acerbically at @GentlemanSin.
Shawn Hill knows two things: comics and art history. Find his art at http://cornekopia.net.
Ben Martini watches lots of movies, plays lots of video games, and sometimes reads things. He is not lazy, he is just conserving energy for the apocalypse. Which, by the way, will not involve zombies, and is taking way too long to happen. One day he is going to do some stuff or something. But right now he doesn't give a shit. He also wants to know what happened to his hat. The green one.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.