Beloved late actress and cult queen Karen Black had commanded the screen with beauty, prowess, and power; here are ten of her most memorable performances.
Karen Black poured her heart and soul into her roles, which made audiences believe her characters’ anger, vulnerabilities, and desires for truth. There is no question that she breathed life into several intriguing, unforgettable, and complex roles throughout the span of her career.
Born Karen Blanche Ziegler, in Park Ridge, Illinois, on July 1, 1939, she enrolled in Northwestern University, but left behind her studies to hone her craft in the performing arts, under the tutelage of renowned acting teacher Lee Strasberg. She graced the screen in box office successes such as Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Great Gatsby (1974), The Day of the Locust (1975), and Nashville (1975).
Years later, she rose to cult status, taking roles in underground/low-budget productions. In addition, Black wrote movie shorts and plays and starred in television guest spots. Her talent was evident, not only in acting, but also in singing, as demonstrated in The Pyx (1973), Nashville, and Gypsy 83 (2001). Unfortunately, on August 8, 2013, Karen Black lost her battle with ampullary cancer, at the age of 74. She shall always remain immortalized by loved ones, co-stars, and fans.
The following movies, for me, represent Karen Black’s most memorable performances. This is my tribute to this incredibly talented ingénue.
*Warning movie trailers may contain spoilers.*
10. Mirror Mirror (1990) – Susan Gordon
In this wicked splatter fest, Beverly Hills transplants Susan Gordon and daughter Megan (Rainbow Harvest) move into a house, which has a haunted mirror that is hiding a dark past. Megan does not realize the mirror is exercising control over both her emotions and desires. As a result, loved ones and enemies, alike, find themselves at the mercy of the mirror’s wrath, unleashing a dark force much greater than she is.
Harvest excels at channeling a Goth teenage outsider; whereas Black pours her soul into the sensitive, out-of-touch Susan, who wants nothing more than to establish a close mother-daughter relationship, since her husband’s death. This role garners immense praise, particularly because she reveals intricate layers in a similar fashion to Megan, in terms of trying to find love, as well as find herself. Therefore, this gore-laced masterpiece reaches deep down to the core, not only focusing on inhibitions, but also themes of identity, alienation, and loss.
9. Invaders from Mars (1986) – Linda Magnusson
Director Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)) entices with this cheese-tastic science fiction/horror remake of the 1953 movie bearing the same name. Strange things have taken place, since young David Gardner (Hunter Carson) witnesses a UFO. Suddenly, residents act emotionally detached, while adorning bandages on the back of their necks. David confides in school nurse Linda Magnusson because he cannot trust his parents, let alone his peers. The two end up on the run because Martians plan to use their bodies, to serve as hosts.
Black exhibits prominent chemistry with her co-star and son Carson in this maternal, heroic role. She emanates genuine fear upon first witnessing the Martians. Her performance is by no means mediocre, providing the movie with worthwhile substance. Hooper’s vision still maintains an element of camp, as found in the remake.
8. Night Angel (1990) – Rita
Mysterious murders enshroud a fashion magazine publication when new stranger Lilith (Isa Jank) entrances employees, and soon becomes their newest cover model. Clearly, publication supervisor Rita has gone from being composed and professional, to becoming dazed, sexually aroused, and submissive to Lilith’s demands. Employee Craig (Linden Ashby) and Rita’s sister Kirstie (Debra Feuer) appear to be the only ones taking notice of her drastic, unusual behavior. It seems that Rita and other staff members are under a spell, which is making them unconscious of the chaos unfolding.
Black is incredibly alluring as her villainess counterpart in this darkly mythical gem, sprinkled with frightening, gory, and bizarre imagery. It is deliciously wicked also for its intense dream/nightmare and seduction sequences, accompanied by several memorable scenes. In addition, the script is both well written and executed, thanks to its top-notch cast performances.
7. Burnt Offerings (1976) – Marian Rolf
I get an eerie feeling from just witnessing the old house, enraptured by a plethora of vines, in this screen adaptation of Robert Marasco’s 1973 novel bearing the same name. Marian and Ben Rolf (Oliver Reed), with their young son Davey (Lee H. Montgomery), think they have found their perfect summer home. At first glance, things seem idyllic; however, unusual occurrences take place. Ben becomes violent and paranoid; house guest Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) eventually falls ill; and Marian ends up feeling weak and tired (even citing her hair is prematurely graying). Nonetheless, Marian has become attached to the house, spending every waking minute, fixing and cleaning, while caring for the homeowners’ elderly mother, the invisible Mrs. Allardyce.
Black completely turns the switch on and off with Marian. In addition, she plays off effectively against Reed, as they both re-enact somewhat of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation. Marian, once a concerned wife and mother, now acts both cold and callous towards her family. Black proves her worth, commanding the screen alongside legendary performers Reed and Davis.
6. Eternal Evil (1985) – Janus
Filmmaker Paul Sharpe (Winston Rekert) tries to fill a void in his life through exploring astral projection in this gritty piece. Dark, mystical scenes illustrate outer body experiences, accompanied by exotic soundscapes. Paul eventually finds himself teetering on the edge, wondering if he has committed the murders of his loved ones. He confides his deepest fears in his mistress Janus, a New Age astral projection practitioner.
Black’s temptress Janus entices the audience with both ethereal appeal and sexual magnetism. At the same end, she exposes her character’s vulnerability upon discussing the unknown expectancy of her terminal illness. In the grand scheme of things, uncertainty works in favor of the plot’s central theme of entering into the unknown.
5. Children of the Night (1991) – Karen Thompson
In this Fangoria Films vehicle directed by Tony Randel (Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)), town residents have turned into vampires, and Karen Thompson happens to be one of those unfortunate immortal souls. Thanks to an encounter-gone-wrong with her vampire daughter Cindy (Maya McLaughlin), she had transformed into a fellow nocturnal bloodsucker. Father Frank Aldin (Evan MacKenzie) believes both Karen and Cindy have become vampires because he broke his sacred oath as a Priest by having an affair with Karen (his brother’s widow). In order to save others from the vampire curse, the vampire master Czakyr (David Sawyer) must be killed.
Black exhibits comedic timing in this memorable role, while donning special effects makeup with oversized fangs, causing her to speak with a lisp. In fact, she delivers the best performance in this movie, consumed by madness, jumping up and down, berating Fr. Frank, while locked inside a room. Randel’s horror endeavor is the epitome of awesome cheesiness, given that most of its acting performances sink down to the level of sheer mediocrity.
4. Trilogy of Terror (1975) – Julie (Story One), Millicent and Therese (Story Two), Amelia (Story Three)
Black plays the main character in each story of this spine-chilling trilogy. In the first story, teacher Julie ends up turning the tables on her student Chad (Robert Burton), who drugged and raped her. However, Black manages to take the movie up to new heights into the psychological thriller realm in Millicent and Therese. Millicent perceives her sister Therese as an evil harlot with interests in both demonology and the occult. She plans to murder Therese as a means to rid darkness from her world. Nonetheless, true terror is spawned in the story of Amelia. Amelia assumes she just purchased a harmless Zuni warrior doll for her boyfriend. Soon, her hallucinations prove to be true when the doll comes back to life.
Black brings depth to the screen by understanding the importance of character formation. Millicent and Therese Larimore are the most complex characters within the trilogy, considering the incredible distance that she places between them. She effectively channels both the conservative churchwoman and coy tease through distinguishable dress, voice, and mannerisms. Millicent appears beyond her years, wearing a frumpy dress and coke-bottle eyeglasses, with hair tied back, while speaking in a haughty voice. Therese, on the other hand, has a penchant for prancing around in provocative clothing, while speaking in a cutesy-type voice. Meanwhile, Julie and Amelia are not complex characters when compared to the latter.
3. The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (1977) – Miriam Oliver/Sandy
This psychological thriller, that was made for late night television viewing, is enshrouded by mystery, intrigue, and suspense. Miriam is a docile, conservative homemaker, who is married to Greg Oliver (George Hamilton). She has nightmares of a fire, followed by her own funeral. She wonders if these nightmares represent an unconscious need to change her life choices. Miriam eventually changes her look, which goes more than skin-deep. By taking on a new appearance with a blonde wig, hoop earrings, and tight clothing, she allows herself to become the carefree and adventurous Sandy. Through Sandy, she is able to escape from both her wifely duties and the pressures of starting a family.
Bear in mind, I have not seen this movie in several years, so I found myself asking the following questions: Is Miriam actually experiencing a deep desire to become a different person? Is she suffering from dual personalities? Is she afflicted with demonic possession? Black effectively intertwines two personalities into one being. Obviously, this TV gem excels at transporting viewers into ironic territory, allowing missing puzzle pieces to come together, to deliver a surprising ending.
2. House of 1000 Corpses (2003) – Mother Firefly
Musician/writer/director Rob Zombie delivers this psychedelic, acid-induced mind trip, which also serves as homage to retro horror/Grindhouse movies. Set in 1977, four friends take a road trip down south, seeking unique roadside attractions, on the night before Halloween. Along the way, they meet local hitchhiker Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) and her demented, colorful family members, which include Otis (Bill Moseley), Tiny (Mathew McGrory), Grandpa Hugo (Dennis Fimple), and, of course, Mother Firefly.
Black entices as the vivacious and flirtatious southern belle-on-acid matriarch. Underneath the surface, she is a loving mother, helping her children in their endeavors of bringing torture and no mercy upon innocent victims. Zombie’s sadomasochistic throwback contains plenty of twisted humor, but does not fail to keep you frightened of whom or what is going to pop up next. I only wish Black were able to reprise her role in its equally captivating sequel The Devil’s Rejects (2005).
1. The Pyx (The Hooker Cult Murders) (1973) – Elizabeth Lucy
Set in Montreal, Canada, Detective Sgt. Jim Henderson (Christopher Plummer) is investigating prostitute Elizabeth Lucy’s murder case. Elizabeth was wearing a white clergy gown and a St. Peter’s cross (upside-down cross) necklace when she had fallen off a balcony. He also finds a pyx (small box containing host/Holy Eucharist) inside her apartment, hoping that it can lead to clues about her death; in turn, leading to information on the recent deaths of other prostitutes. Scenes switch back and forth between his ongoing investigation and Elizabeth’s final days. Flashbacks expose a fragile woman fighting her own demons in the forms of both drug addiction and denial. She finds herself also doing things against her own will, at the discretion of others.
Black steers this movie into unadulterated territory, allowing the audience to witness her character at her most weakest and vulnerable states. Elizabeth’s unveiled innocence and confusion pierce through the gritty surface. She presents herself as a lost soul, without a purpose, looking for a way out. In addition, Black lends her hauntingly beautiful, ethereal voice to the folk music soundtrack in this well-executed cult classic.
On a final note, for further insight on Karen Black’s legacy, you may want to consider the following two productions: Karen Black: The Last Interview (2013) and Karen Black: On Acting (2014).