R.I.P. Karen Black: A Favorite Actress in Horror Movies

Burnt Offerings movie poster
Photo from SlasherStudios

One of horror’s  most prolific actresses, Karen Black, has passed away at the age of 74. While the Washington Post article talks mainly about her mainstream work, the film that I most remember Black from is Burnt Offerings, one of those ’70s movies that I probably saw when I was a little too young to be watching it, and which has stayed with me since then. The movie was directed by Dan Curtis and also starred Burgess Meredith, Oliver Reed, and Bette Davis (playing Aunt Elizabeth, who had a really bad hand dealt to her).

At first, it seems like the family has scored big – they get to house sit a huge old mansion for the summer. There’s even a pool! All they have to do is promise to take care of the reclusive Mrs. Allardyce, who lives up on the top floor, and never moves away from her window, or talks to anyone, or seems to do much of anything. (Yeah, not weird at all – right?) However, soon things start happening that are pretty terrifying – especially where the pool is concerned – and then this creepy dude turns up in a big black car:

Creepy hearse driver
Photo from ScaryOldFilms.com

Needless to say, things do not turn out well for the family in the end. Lesson learned: if the housesitting job seems too good to be true, it probably is.

 

Trilogy of Terror African doll
Not too scary, right? (Photo from Examiner.com)

Black was also in another horrific, nightmare inducing movie from the same time period called Trilogy of Terror. Surprise, surprise, this was another Dan Curtis production (it is to this man I owe many of my childhood fears). While all three stories in this one are creepy in their own right, it was the last one, the one about the African doll, that always really got to me. They film part of the story from the doll’s perspective, as it is sneaking up on Black’s character, who had no idea that she is about to be attacked by a doll possessed by evil. The memory of that doll skittering around the rooms and mercilessly attacking the woman over and over again haunted me for years.

Fortunately for me, I have a perverse enjoyment at being haunted. In the years since I first saw both of these horror movies, I have watched them over and over again. I have discussed them with others, who have also been pleasantly haunted by them over the years. These were some of the first films that sent that tingle of terror up my spine, and they helped opened up the door to a genre that I have taken enjoyment from ever since. Thanks for the memories, Ms. Black.

The Conjuring: Not Just Your Typical Paranormal Horror Story

The Conjuring movie poster
Photo from filmofilia.com

Over the past few years I have gained a new appreciation for a paranormal horror story done well. For several years now, movies have tended to stray into what I call the “torture” zone, which is just not what I’m into right now. The Conjuring manages to blend two of my favorite more old-fashioned genres — a ghost story and an exorcism — in a way that doesn’t compromise the scares. All the basic components are there:

  • creepy old house — check
  • weird haunted toys — check
  • defenseless cute little girls — check
  • haunted history of murder and mayhem — check
  • plenty of “make you jump” moments — check
Creepy doll from The Conjuring
Creepy, haunted toys = good paranormal horror! (Photo by timeinc.net)

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Ed and Lorraine Warren, two early paranormal investigators are called into help Carolyn and Roger Perron (played by Lily Taylor and Ron Livingston) when the farmhouse that they recently bought at auction turns out to have some severe paranormal issues. (Why does no one ever check the floor plans and history of these places when they purchase them?) The theme here is pretty standard – think Amityville Horror with some Poltergeist and The Exorcist thrown in. However, there are enough new turns and twists, along with some truly creepy and scary moments, that the movie ends up working just fine.

So, what made the movie scary for me? I think a lot of it had to do with the setting. The movie is set in the early 1970’s, which provides an interesting contrast relative to my life experience, and probably that of many others. This is the period was when I was a child, and there are a plethora of familiar images running through the movie, from the wood paneled station wagon, to the horribly loud patterned and mismatched clothing, to what I think were FireKing coffee mugs. All of these things created little nudges to my memory and represented a sort of nostalgic innocence, so having this setting disrupted by a haunting and demonic possession is especially jarring. I think that all of these little touches really nail down the setting and definitely pay off in the end. It brings back all of those old fears from your childhood: the dark basement, thinking that something is hiding in the corner of your room, and the freaky haunted closet.

The other thing that worked for me — and which always works for me — was the idea of something (not someone) grabbing your foot in the night while you are asleep. This was actually taken to new heights for me in the Paranormal Activity movies, but it always scares me. The Conjuring also uses an old game — the clapping game — effectively. This combined with the foot grabbing made me think back to the first time I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. That scene where our heroine tells her friend to quit holding her hand so hard, and her friend says that she isn’t holding her hand — it’s a total creep out.

So, be prepared for bumps and bangs, physical assaults, pop-up scariness, an interesting twist on the old ghost under a sheet, and unplanned exorcismic activity. The Conjuring definitely delivers.