Oh, why hello my Little Monsters, I didn’t see you standing there with bated breath, waiting to read about this weeks wonderful Woman of Horror. Of course having seen the image and the title before coming in to read this, you all will have already surmised that my focus today is on the legendary Karen Black.
Karen originally came into this world as Karen Blanche Ziegler, on July 1st, 1939. She grew up in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois, where she ultimately graduated from Maine East High School. Karen would decide to stay in state to continue her education, majoring in theater arts at Northwestern University. Looking to further her training in the dramatic arts, Karen would move to New York, where she would study under famed acting teacher, Lee Strasberg.
During the burgeoning years of her career, Karen had roles in many off Broadway productions, as well as making her screen debut in the 1960 film, The Prime Time. Karen’s first big role in a feature film would be in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1965 adaptation of David Benedictus’ novel, You’re a Big Boy Now. But it would be with her appearance in Dennis Hopper’s subculture classic, Easy Rider, that she would really break through. The next year Karen would appear with Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces in the role of Rayette Dipesto. This role would earn her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress and would win her a best supporting actress Golden Globe, an award she would win again for her portrayal of Myrtle Wilson in the classic 1974 film, The Great Gatsby. Two years later Karen would be nominated for an altogether different award for her work in the film Nashville, receiving a Grammy nomination for the Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special. That same year Karen would have the honor of working with a true legend in the industry, being given a starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, a comedy thriller called Family Plot.
It was during this time period that Karen took a stab (ha ha, get it? STAB?) at the horror genre, with a role in the 1973 film, The Pyx aka The Hooker Cult Murders. But it was for her multiple roles in the 1975 horror anthology, Trilogy of Terror, that Karen would truly show genre fans she definitely had some horror chops. Who can forget Karen battling it out with a crazed and homicidal Zuni fetish doll, named “He Who Kills”? That doll itself, has become one of the most iconic baddies in horror history. My personal favorite of Karen’s contributions to the horror genre would be her portrayal of Marian Rolf in the 1976 cult horror classic, Burnt Offerings.
In the 1980’s, 1990′ and the 2000’s, Karen would not receive the accolades or prestigious roles she garnered throughout the 70’s. Even her highly regarded performance in the 1982 film Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which she appeared in with horror icon and male scream queen Mark Patton, didn’t seem to reinvigorate her career in that respect. Perhaps it was her appearance in the low rent piranha horror flick from 1979, Killer Fish, that would be the death knell in that regard.
But that’s not to say she faded into total obscurity. Quite the contrary, as she was still a steady worker over the next 30 years. In fact over 150 of her 200 screen credits were earned between 1980 and 2013. Karen continued to regularly appear in films and on TV, utilizing her talent in all manner of genres like comedy, drama, romance, action and sci-fi. And luckily for us horror fans, a number of those credits were also in our beloved genre. Such titles as: The Last Horror Film, Invaders from Mars, It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive, Mirror, Mirror, Evil Spirits, Children of the Night, Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering, Oliver Twisted, Soulkeeper and House of 1000 Corpses just to name a few. In fact some would argue that it was her portrayal of the insanely eccentric Mother Firefly in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, that cemented her status as a horror icon.
In 2007 Karen took a brief jaunt down another creative avenue, becoming a playwright. Her play, Missouri Waltz, which she also starred in, opened in Los Angeles at the Blank Theater.
It would be in 2010 that Karen would be diagnosed with cancer. And it was at this time that she understandably stopped making any public appearances, having to endure a number of surgical procedures. Her condition would even make it necessary to decline an invitation to attend a viewing for the film, Dark Blood, which she appeared in with River Phoenix. A film that had finally been finished almost 20 years after River’s death. Despite the fact that the screening took place in the Netherlands, her frail condition might well have made it difficult for her to attend even if it were held here in the United States.
I remember when I heard that Karen had been announce as a guest for HorrorHound’s March 2013 Cincinnati Convention, I was absolutely elated. I thought, as many others likely did, that her health was on an upswing and I would get the chance to meet her and get my copy of Burnt Offerings signed. Unfortunately she would end up cancelling due to her health, but I was hopeful she might be able to appear at the Indianapolis HorrorHound Convention in September of 2013. However, in August of 2013, that dastardly and evil illness, known as cancer, stole Karen away from us all.
Perhaps my sadness was motivated by selfishness, but when the world loses a distinctive talent, as was definitely the case with Ms. Black, I think we are all a bit selfish. BUT, we still have an incredible body of work through which we can remember this incredibly talented woman, and not just in the horror genre. So in a way, one could say, Karen is one of the immortals, who will live on as long as we can see her movies.
So until next week, my Little Monsters, in the words of Casey Kasem, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars”…but DON’T touch them, because they are wicked hot.