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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Hump-Day Harangue: Whither the Horror Movie Icon?

Vault dwellers, allow me to take you back to an earlier time in the history of our fair genre. Go ahead and hop in the Delorean--just watch your head on the door, I don't know what genius designed it that way, but what are you gonna do? Anyway, we're headed back to a simpler, more innocent time, when horror was dominated my living legends, by giants who walked among us and filled our minds with delicious nightmares, fusing their very personae with the essence of the genre itself. This is the age of the horror icon.

Our first stop is the 1920s, when a brilliant actor and makeup artist by the name of Lon Chaney became horror's first bona fide movie star. After his star faded and the industry entered the age of sound, Universal gave us the likes of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon's baby boy to continue the tradition, populating the terror landscape with a platoon of unforgettable movie monsters. In later decades, the likes of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and of course, the one and only Vincent Price ensured that the cult of the horror icon remained undead and well.

But then something happened. Something changed with the onset of what we now call the "modern era" of horror. For the benefit of creating a handy cutoff point, let's say that from the 1980s onward, the phenomenon of the horror movie icon suffered a swift decline. Sure, there were still actors making their living in the horror genre. But icons? In the sense of the folks mentioned above? Hardly.

Who have we been given over the course of the past 30 years to match the majesty of the likes of Karloff, Price, Cushing, et al? I ask this as an honest question. Am I, as I have sometimes been a accused of being, a horror snob? Forgive me if the Kane Hodders of the world just don't do it for me. I'll never get tired of looking at pictures of him pretending to choke people at horror conventions, but honestly, he's a stuntman in a hockey mask. A buoy with arms could've played Jason Voorhees. Robert Englund? A delight as Freddy Krueger, to be sure, but beyond that? A merely amusing character actor who would've remained best known as the "good alien" on V had it not been for that hat-wearing son of 100 maniacs.

Who else do we have? Doug Bradley? Tony Todd? Linda Blair? Maybe Brad Dourif comes close... I may be off-base here, but while these are all actors who have done a fine job crafting specific characters, I think even they would agree that they don't quite belong ranked in the category of the immortal legends of yesteryear mentioned earlier. Quite literally, they don't seem to make 'em like that anymore.

So what happened? What is it about modern horror that seems to inherently discourage the notion of the horror icon? Perhaps it is the stress on realism, the need to downplay the more obvious elements of showmanship and bombast that once played a larger role in genre entertainment. I firmly believe that horror films of the golden and silver ages of the 1920s-1960s were more "personality"-driven then they are today. Hell, I'd say that movies in general were more personality-driven back then, for better or for worse. Those larger-than-life figures have a hard time carving out their niches when the funner, "Famous Monsters of Filmland" approach to horror has come to be considered passe.

Quite frankly, these days, when we talk about horror film icons, it's easier to use the term to refer to directors than actors. After all, the true visionaries of horror these days, the names and personalities most closely linked to the genre in the minds of fans, are those of the likes of Dario Argento, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, George Romero, et al, rather than the actors who appear in front of the camera. This is a shift that has certainly occurred within the past 40 years, no question about it. But unfortunately, directors are more visionaries than personalities for the most part, so in the end it's a very different dynamic.

I'm not trying to say that the supernatural horror film has completely given way in the face of reality-based horror--far from it. There still remains more than enough room for monsters and entities of all shape and form, but whether we're talking serial killer flicks or zombie movies, there's a greater stress on realism, and I feel that realism, while it has its pluses, is decidedly the enemy of the horror film icon. There are standout characters, but for the most part, the actors who play them are linked pretty much 90% to one role alone. For the most part, Gunnar Hansen is Leatherface. Warwick Davis is Leprechaun. Clint Howard is the Ice Cream Man. Ahem, ok that one was a stretch, but you get the point.

They may have been before my time for the most part, but I miss those genuine, transcendent icons. Those individuals who literally embodied horror, and who in many ways towered over it. I hope we get to see more rise to that level one day. If they're out there, and I'm just not giving them their due, please put me in my place, by all means...

9 comments:

Lela Richmond said...

An excellent post. I too miss the true icons of the horror genre, and I fear we'll never see their like again.

Emily said...

Agreed, bring back Bela Lugosi I say. Even though he's dead....maybe one day they could bring him back...

watchweedsonline said...

Agreed, I have been watching horror since I was a wee babe. The things people can think of to try and scare you!

The Divemistress said...

I think you might have answered your own question, there. We don't have the same horror icons, or the same kind of horror icons, because of the way film has evolved. And not just filmmaking, I'm talking stories, audiences, culture, celebrity, everything.

Horror's always been a money maker but, oddly, it's still a marginalized genre and there are few high-profile actors who are willing to work, if not exclusively, then predominantly in horror.

Also, because, as you say the genre today is less "personality-driven" there are fewer opportunities for actors to build and create lasting characters. The more "situational" horror of the present day lends itself to events (the Saw and Final Destination franchises, for example) as opposed to people (Dracula, Frankenstein, and to a lesser degree Freddy, Jason).

Todd said...

I would say the difference is the emphasis is placed on Characters rather than the actors playing them anymore (Freddy, Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees...all Icons, but anyone can play them). We also place a lot of emphasis on the director now. Wes Craven is an icon of horror, as is John Carpenter and George Romero.

Actors want to use horror as a stepping stone a "real" acting career now, instead of being happy to do it their entire career. Bruce Campbell is one exception, but we all know it's him playing a version of his famous character in most movies.

So, I'd say that's what changed: horror fans care more about the characters and the directors than the actors nowadays, and actors know this so they don't mind just using horror as a stepping stone.

B-Sol said...

You guys are right, I think I did basically answer my own question, in that the horror genre seems to have largely moved on from an emphasis on "horror icons". And yes, most actors do distance themselves from the genre as soon as they get a little mainstream recognition. I mean, I can hardly even wrap my head around the notion that Bradley Cooper starred in The Midnight Meat Train...

fromhell13 said...

I disagree about Robert Englund. No he is not a star on the level of Lugosi or Karloff or Lee, but in the 1930's horror movies weren't so much "horror movies" as they were just "movies." Filmmaking in America was in it's infancy, and genre distinctions were not as strong as they are today. Theaters generally got 1, maybe 2 films at a time, and people went to see them regardless of genre. Therefore these men weren't "horror icons," they were simply "movie stars." In today's movie industry movies are so classified that very few genres (romcom, action, drama, and comedy) can really be considered "mainstream." This has reduced the horror actors' ability to break out into a true movie star.
Secondly, you say that without Freddy, he would have been known as the good alien from V. Iconic Characters make iconic actors in horror. Without Frankenstein's monster opening him up to the horror world, Karloff would have gone down in history as a second rate wannabe leading man. Without Dracula Lee would have been just another British character actor and Lugosi just wouldn't have been known at all. Basically my point is this, take the example of his recent appearance on Bones. That whole episode worked because whether or not people identify him as Freddy Krueger, on a deeper level he brings a certain immediate set of expectations to any character because even to the mainstream audience he REPRESENTS THE HORROR GENRE. If that isn't a horror icon, then I'm not sure what the definition would be.

Sorry, you brought out the film school geek in me, I could argue thias one with you all day. Perhaps a response piece on my blog...

davidfullam said...

The good old days of the Horror Star are over, sadly. I miss when we had an actor or actress who made a mark by playing varied characters in different films.

B-Sol said...

Glad I culd bring out your inner film geek, FromHell! I also hope this inspired that response post. Let me know if it goes up.

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