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...
"QUITE SIMPLY, THE BEST HORROR-THEMED BLOG ON THE NET." -- Joe Maddrey, Nightmares in Red White & Blue
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