Friday, January 8, 2010

Great Performances

A new year is a time for reflection, and here at Weird Movie Village, it's no different. Today I thought I'd take a look at some of the great performances in horror films. Some are great films, too, but others are just standout performances in okay efforts. This is going to be a continuing feature, so if you think I've unjustly left someone off, he or she may appear in a later post. And if you haven someone to suggest, let me know!

Here are some of my picks, in no particular order...

1. Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist (1973).

Burstyn is marvelous as Chris MacNeil, an actress shooting a film in Georgetown whose daughter develops a strange malady (and we all know what that is). A Method actress portraying a Method actress, Burstyn brings a wonderful naturalness to the role. Her interactions with the people in her life, including the household staff, her secretary Sharon, her ever-plastered director, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), and her beloved daughter, Regan (Linda Blair, of course), are very realistic. One telling scene has Regan listening in as Chris hurls obscenities at a hotel clerk who can't get her ex-husband to come to the phone on his own daughter's birthday. The scene serves a dual purpose: it shows how much she loathes her ex-husband and how much the divorce may have affected affected Regan, and it also foreshadows the screaming of obscentities yet to come.

Even when the supernatural begins to rear its ugly head, this woman is so grounded in reality she has trouble believing it, instead consulting with a series of expensive medical experts and reluctantly allowing them to perform horrible tests in search of a nonexistent brain lesion. The doctors throw up their hands, and Chris takes her daughter home to care for her, even as the demon's assaults become more and more violent and terrifying.

This leads to another key scene when she is visited by Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), a friendly but inquisitive detective who is investigating Burke's death. Serving coffee and maintaining an air of cool cordiality, she knows all too well that the thing upstairs inhabiting her daughter's body did it, but she does a beautiful job of keeping her emotions hidden. Only when Kinderman can't see her face does she let the mask slip, giving us a glimpse of the pain and terror she's feeling. By the time she meets with Father Karras to beg him to perform an exorcism, she's a beaten-down, abused victim who only wants salvation for her child. And when the big gun, Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow in another wonderful role), arrives to perform the exorcism, she regards him with a mixture of anxiousness and hope—without overdoing it. So many times Burstyn could have resorted to hair-pulling and rolling of eyes, but she stays grounded throughout the film. A landmark performance that just doesn't age.

2. Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire (1994).

I rewatched this recently in hi-def and while I continue to be impressed with the film as a whole,  Dunst's performance as Claudia, the child vampire, is still remarkable 16 years later. Only 12 years old, her transformation from malnourished waif cowering in her dead mother's arms to cold-blooded killer is splendid. She does a marvelously convincing job portraying a woman trapped in a child's body, yet retaining childlike feelings and mannerisms. Resentful that Lestat (Tom Cruise) and Louis (Brad Pitt) have made it impossible for her to ever grow up, she nevertheless uses her innocent appearance to stalk victims, and the gleam in Dunst's eye when prey is in sight is a wonder to behold. When she tricks Lestat into drinking dead blood and viciously slashes his throat, the unbridled fury she unleashes is galvanizing. Only when her maker's blood threatens to wash over her feet does she revert to childish reliance on Louis, pleading with him to lift her up.

I love her exchange with Louis at the Theatre des Vampires in Paris. After her explains that the actors are really vampires pretending to be human pretending to be vampires, she tosses off the line "How avant garde" just like a wealthy dowager enjoying an evening out. And in the bowels of the same theater, when the vampire troupe is getting its revenge on them for Lestat's murder, she becomes a child again, seeking shelter from the burning sun in the arms of the adult female vampire Louis has made for her.

The film is gorgeous. The art direction is magnificent, the score exceptional. Pitt is good and Cruise's stunt casting worked out (thank God), but Dunst's performance is the one that really sticks in the mind and bears repeating.

3. Jeffrey Combs in Re-Animator (1985).

I saw this film at the drive-in theater when it was originally released in 1985. When the score, a complete "Psycho" knock-off, began playing, I thought: "Oh, God." But then followed 86 minutes of deliciously gruesome goodness that I still enjoy warching to this day.

As over-the-top as this film is, it's most enjoyable for Combs' performance as Herbert West, the all-business medical student with an all-abiding interest in animating the dead. Pushy, single-minded and completely self-centered, West exists only to perfect his serum, and Combs portrays him as a man who is absolutely confident of his superiority over everyone else. He strides just this side of camp, but it makes West a much more interesting character than the typical two-dimensional "mad scientist." It also made this a much-beloved character of horror fans everywhere.

You can never really warm up to him—he doesn't want you to—but his matter-of-fact reactions to the ever-increasing mayhem he's causing and his droll delivery of choice lines—makes it a performance for the horror archives. I love the way he tells Dr. Hill, his re-animated nemesis, "Who's going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow."

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I saw Combs onstage as Edgar Allen Poe in "Nevermore," directed by Gordon. It was marvelous.

4. Danny Lloyd in The Shining (1980).

Kubrick must have truly been an actor's director, because this six-year-old's performance is one of the most amazing things about "The Shining." Those connected with the production say that Lloyd was picked for his "ability to concentrate for long periods of time" and that Kubrick told him he was making a drama, not a horror film.

Nevertheless, his scenes are so natural—talking with his invisible friend, Tony; realizing that Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) can also communicate via "shining" and his wonderful subdued reaction. When daddy Jack begins losing it and Danny uncomfortably sits on his lap in a robotic attempt to preserve the family relationship, it's  a squirm-inducing scene, since we know Jack had previously abused the boy.

Much time is spent rattling around the hotel on his Big Wheel, just being a kid, making the scenes of sudden horror even more jolting. Most spectacular of all is his reaction to the chopped-up bodies of the Grady twins in the hallway. Eyes widening in terror, he does what any kid would do—he covers his face.

It is said that Lloyd spontaneously wiggled his finger during auditions when he talked to "Tony," and Kubrick liked it so much he had him keep doing it. That is among the naturalistic touches Lloyd contributes to the role, whether consciously or unconsciously, and it contributes enormously to the power of the film.

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