Once upon a time there were a group of actors, known as the ‘screen boogiemen’ who created the horror film/monster movie genre (starting in Universal Studios and later in Hammer Studios.) They were specialists who understood the psychology and performance style of horror cinema and became legends in the industry. The first was silent film star Lon Chaney Sr. (Phantom of the Opera, London After Midnight, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Unholy Three, the Monster, the Unknown, Flesh & Blood) who gave birth to the idea of a horror film specialist. His death in the 1930s opened up the door for a successor, leading to the ascension of Karloff and Lugosi as the reigning kings of fright films. Boris Karloff is probably the one with the best claim to being the king of horror with his extensive resume (Frankenstein, the Old Dark House, the Mummy, the Ghoul, the Black Cat, the Bride of Frankenstein, the Raven, the Black Room, the Invisible Ray, the Walking Dead, the Man Who Lived Again, the Invisible Menace, Devil’s Island, the Man They Could Not Hang, Tower of London, Son of Frankenstein, Isle of the Dead, Bedlam, the Body Snatcher, the House of Frankenstein, Etc., etc.) but Lugosi certainly made his mark during the Golden Age of Horror. (Dracula, White Zombie, Murderers in the Rue Morgue, Island of Lost Souls, Night of Terror, the Black Cat, Mark of the Vampire, the Raven, the Invisible Ray, the Son of Frankenstein, the Gorilla, the Phantom Creeps, Black Friday, the Devil Bat, the Wolf Man, the Ghost of Frankenstein, the Corpse Vanishes, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, Return of the Vampire, the Body Snatcher, etc., etc.).
After they established the mold, along came future horror niche specialists, such as Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolfman, the Ghost of Frankenstein, the Mummy’s Tomb, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, the Son of Dracula, Calling Dr. Death, Cobra Woman, the Mummy’s Ghost, House of Frankenstein, the Mummy’s Curse, the House of Dracula, the Black Castle, the Alligator People, etc., etc.) and Vincent Price (The Tower of London, the Invisible Man Returns, Shock, House of Wax, the Mad Magician, the Fly, the House on Haunted Hill, Return of the Fly, the Tingler, the Bat, the House of Usher, the Pit & the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, the Last Man of Earth, the Masque of the Red Death, the Oblong Box, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Dr. Phibes Rises again, etc., etc.)
After the golden of horror began in Hollywood’s Universal Studios, the legacy of horror was picked up by Britain’s Hammer Films Studios, who introduced their own horror/monster movie superstars. Peter Cushing (The Curse of Frankenstein, the Abominable Snowman, the Horror of Dracula, the Revenge of Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Flesh and the Fiends, the Brides of Dracula, the Hellfire Club, Night Creatures, the Evil of Frankenstein, the Gorgon, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, the Skull, Island of Terror, Frankenstein Created Woman, the Blood Beast Terror, Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, Scream & Scream Again, Incense for the Damned, Vampire Lovers, Dracula AD 1972, Tales from the Crypt, Horror Express, the Creeping Flesh, the Satanic Rites of Dracula, etc. etc.) and the very recently deceased star Christopher Lee (The Curse of Frankenstein, the Horror of Dracula, Corridors of Blood, the Man Who Could Cheat Death, the Mummy, the Two Faces of Doctor Jekyll, the City of the Dead, the Hands of Orlac, Scream of Fear, Horror Castle, Crypt of the Vampire, Castle of the Living Dead, the Gorgon, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, the Skull, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, the Psycho Circus, Blood Fiend, the Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, the Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again, Count Dracula, the Scars of Dracula, the House that Dripped Blood, Dracula AD 1972, Horror Express, the Creeping Flesh, the Satanic Rites of Dracula, the Wicker Man, etc. etc.)
One by one, all these great icons of the genre have left us. Lee was the last of the old guard, having lived to be 93. With his passing, the final screen ‘Big Screen Boogie Man’ has gone to his reward. Who is left to claim the mantle of Horror Star or Horror specialist? Is the concept of such an actor no longer coveted by modern stars? If so, why not? We still have comedy specialists and action film specialists (going back to Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, up to recent stars like Simon Pegg and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.) So where are the future horror stars?
For a time, it looked like Robert Englund—the man who brought Freddy Kruger to cinematic life—might become the next big thing in horror, but sadly, his career has progressed little on the big screen beyond Freddy. Aside from him, who can be called the next Christopher Lee or Boris Karloff?
The big difference between a horror specialist and a dramatic actor who happens to be appearing in a horror film, is that a horror specialist can make a film into a horror film by his very presence. If you put one of these guys into a film that might otherwise be considered a mystery or a thriller or a period genre, all of a sudden it becomes a horror movie. The Screen Boogie Men had a special style that oozed a sense of the ominous. Who can do that today?
Anthony Hopkins could have made quite a good horror star if he’d been inclined to go in that direction. His interpretation of Hannibal Lecter was chilling. However, that wasn’t where his interest laid and so he has relatively little horror on his resume. Alan Rickman also could have found his niche in horror. He has a way of making anything sound menacing, especially when he’s playing Severus Snape. But like Hopkins, he has a wide scope of genres to his credit and does not specialize in horror.
And what about the women of horror? They are still called Scream Queens. The line of which goes back to Evelyn Ankers and Faye Wray, up through the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis in the Halloween Films and The Fog. Is there a current candidate who could be called a Scream Queen today? It seemed perhaps that Naomi Watts was moving in that direction after the Ring films and King Kong but she veered off in another direction.
Lots of big stars dabble in horror films but it seems that no one wants to claim the genre as his or her own. Has being a horror star lost its luster? It seems so. The possible reason for that is that in recent decades, there have been so many low budget scare franchises, spinning out endless sequels which are embarrassingly unscary, that horror is sometimes seen as the bargain basement of cinema.
Having grown up watching the classic big screen boogie men, I lament the loss of the horror specialist. It’s a pity that being a scare master is such a lost art.
RIP Christopher Lee