Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Top 13: Most Iconic Horror Actors of All Time

compiled by Nickolas Cook (Editor-in-Chief)

This month's Top 13 pays tribute to the men who make horror. Putting together this particular list of iconic horror actors throughout the history of horror cinema brought me back to my childhood in a wonderfully unexpected way. All those nights and days, all those weekends, of watching old horror films, from Friday night to Sunday afternoon. Spending so many nights shivering in bed, afraid that Dracula or The Wolfman was going to find a way in my bedroom.
See, I grew up in Jacksonville, FL. in the 70s and 80s. Back then new local stations were beginning to pop up all over the country, and they were all scrambling to find cheap programming to fill up all that airtime. I was lucky enough to live in a time when the airtime fillers these programmers chose were classic (and some not-so classic) horror and sci-fi flicks of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. The folks who put together such weekly programs as CREATURE FEATURE, NIGHTMARE NICKELODEON, MONSTER MASH THEATER and many others had to be fans. Because of their horrorhead love for the oldies, I got the chance to see the best of Hammer and Universal Studios, those old MGM Technicolor sci-fi adventures, Paramount's big-bug movies, and tons of poverty row flicks that still hold a special place in my heart. In fact, you might even say they made me the man I am.
Like I said: lucky.
It was through these movies that I met the men who would alternately chill my blood with terror at the thought of being savaged by their vampiric teeth and razor sharp talons, or rouse my blood with their bravery in battles against giant spiders, radioactive mutant scorpions, invading aliens and ancient cursed creatures of the night.
What kid didn't want the power of Lugosi's fanged charmer? Or what kid doubted that Vincent Price as Verden Fell in TOMB OF LIGEIA wasn't the coolest mother you'd ever seen?
The criteria for choosing the actors who made this list was simple: they had to be known primarily for their work in horror films.
Some of the names I left off the list included several great modern day actors that deserve special mention, if only because they have each, in their own talented way, brought a sort of old school prestige to their various roles in horror films. They are all talented men; most of them have appeared in Oscar nominated/winning material before and after their work in the genre. The reason they did not make the list is because the greater body of their past and present work is NOT horror oriented, or because their collective work was nowhere near the number of titles of the men who did make the list. We're talking such actors as Anthony Hopkins, Brad Dourif, Tony Todd, Ken Foree, Sid Haig, Bill Mosley, Gunnar Hansen and Anthony Perkins. All of them would easily make a much larger list, but when you have only 13 to work with...well, you have to make hard decisions. The one that hurt the worst was leaving off Perkins, whose Norman Bates damn near created a whole sub-genre of films unto itself with his performance in Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO.
The actors who did make the list have, literally, hundreds of horror and sci-fi films between them, spanning some 90 odd years of horror cinema history. They are the biggest names in the business, and their movies are still considered required viewing for horrorheads the world round.
Sadly, there weren't many modern actors to include because studios no longer attempt to create horror actors. In fact, the prevailing Hollywood logic has been that anyone 'stupid' enough to appear in too many horror films is somehow less talented than any other actor, that they can't get 'real work' in big budget movies. They are, in short, treated as if they're one step above a porn actor.
Of course that's fucking bullshit.
Horrorheads know something that the 'straights' will probably never consciously recognize: creating the sensation of fear, and translating that sense of terror and sympathetic pathos, across a hundred years of cinematic history, and a blank silver screen, takes enormous talent. Sure, anyone can wear a mask and yell BOO! But it's the true artist that makes you scream one moment and cry the next. After all, are we not all a little monstrous ourselves sometimes?
There was a time when studios held a different belief in the way movies were made; they created movies to fit their stars--Lugosi, Karloff and Price, for example--and not the other way around. The stars were the property, not the screenwriters and directors and producers. The stars are who the people paid their hard-earned money to see during the Depression or when drive-ins were king in America.
But I won't preach about it here; because I'm sure it's to the choir, right?
So without further ado, horrorheads, The Black Glove presents, in alphabetical order, the Top 13 Iconic Horror Actors of All-Time.

13. Vincent Price (May 27, 1911 – October 25, 1993)

Best known for his horror career, Price didn't actually start his horror career proper until after he starred in HOUSE OF WAX in 1953. From there he was typecast for the rest of his life. Most people remember this actor for his appearances in Roger Corman's AIP Poe pictures of the 60s.

12. Bela Lugosi (October 20, 1882 – August 16, 1956)

Bela Lugosi came to the U.S. to star in Dracula the play, and then landed the screen role (against the producers' wishes) and forever became known as The Count. His later work were unfortunately not so great and he finally wound up starring in a few of Ed Wood's infamous movies, including the famous for all the wrong reasons, PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE (1959). His lonely drug addled death is well known, and unfortunately became his final Hollywood epitaph.

11. Sir Christopher Lee (born 27 May 1922)

Best known for his work in Hammer Studios from the 50s-70s, Sir Lee has remained a well known face in speculative films by playing villain roles in such high profile films as the last three Star Wars films and Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RING TRILOGY. He's still a huge force in all entertainment; he's even released a heavy metal album last year.

10. Boris Karloff (November 23, 1887 – February 2, 1969)

Boris Karloff spent 20 years working in obscure studio films until he caught the eye of director James Whale to play the role of a lifetime, Frankenstein's Monster, in 1931's FRANKENSTEIN. From there he became a horror icon, playing in expensive productions until the downfall of high profile horror cinema, and then he finished up his career playing in cheap foreign productions, acting even when he was crippled and had to remain in a wheelchair.

9. Robert Englund (born June 6, 1947)

Despite being covered in makeup for his first big time role in horror, Robert Englund became the face of Freddy Kruger for generations of horror fans. He still plays plenty of horror roles and can be seen in movies as recent as this year.

8. Richard Denning (March 27, 1914 – October 11, 1998)

Richard Denning played plenty of roles, but it's his sci-fi/horror flicks such as THE BLACK SCORPION (1957) and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) that horror fans will also remember him for.

7. Peter Cushing (May 26, 1913 – August 11, 1994)

Peter Cushing, like Christopher Lee, made his name in Hammer Studios films such as THE MUMMY (1959), THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) and THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958). He continued to act up until his death, but probably his most famous modern role was in 1977's mega-hit STAR WARS, as Grand Moff Tarkin.

6. Lon Chaney Jr. (February 10, 1906 – July 12, 1973)

Lon Chaney Jr. became a horror icon like his father (see below) in his first major horror film appearance, Universal's 1941 production, THE WOLFMAN. It was unfortunately his best role; afterward, his roles became more and more cheapjack as he sunk into a steady spiral of depression and alcoholism. Despite that, he always managed to bring a sympathetic face to horror.

5. Lon Chaney Sr. (April 1, 1883 – August 26, 1930)

His is easily the most recognizable face in all of horror. The irony is, of course, that his face was always covered by extreme makeup and prosthetics. In such roles as THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) and LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927), a notoriously missing horror classic, he became the first horror icon in silents. His school of makeups and special effects tricks became the Hollywood standard for many years to follow.

4. Richard Carlson (April 29, 1912 - November 21, 1977)

Actor Richard Carlson did just about every job one could do in Hollywood during his career, but it will be his sci-fi/horror works that keep his memory alive for horror movie fans around the world. His appearances in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) made him a new horror icon in his midlife.

3. Bruce Campbell (born June 22, 1958)

He became an instant cult figure after his appearance in Sam Raimi's THE EVIL DEAD (1981) and from there horror fans clamored for more Bruce! He has since then appeared in the remainder of the Evil Dead trilogy and in several other low profile sci-fi/horror productions. But it may be his BUBBA HO-TEP (2002) role as an aged King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, that will cement him in cinema history. How the hell he got ignored for an Oscar for that movie is beyond me.

2. Lionel Atwill (March 1, 1885 – April 22, 1946)

Known to his friends as "Pinky", for some rather sexually deviant reasons in old Hollywood, Atwill played sinister villains most of his 1930s and 1940s career in major releases and cheapo productions as well. He appeared in over a hundred films, including many horror classics as MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933), DR. X (1932), and THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933). His cherubic, yet saturnine, visage is one of the most recognizable in old Hollywood.

1. John Agar (January 31, 1921 – April 7, 2002)

Later famous for his marriage to Shirley Temple, John Agar appeared his several infamous horror/sci-fi opuses from Universal and Paramount, including TARANTULA (1955), THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956) and THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (1957). His easy smile and good looks kept him busy in various genres such as romances and westerns as well, but his final horror film appearance before his death was in Clive Barker's NIGHTBREED (1990).

--Nickolas Cook