Saturday, November 26, 2011

From Movie Star to Horror Star

The horror film has always been a somewhat disreputable genre, and its biggest stars have traditionally been in a ghetto. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, for example, were well known for their horror roles but always found it hard to get work outside the genre. However, the reverse did not hold. Mainstream movie stars have always been able to dip into the horror genre for a film or two--think Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense and Nicole Kidman in The Others--then go back to their mainstream careers. And movie stars who were aging or otherwise on the decline could always find a haven in the horror genre. This was what happened to Ray Milland.

Born in 1905, Milland was a major movie star whose credits included The Lost Weekend (for which he won the 1945 Best Actor Oscar for playing an alcoholic), The Big Clock, Ministry of Fear, the Hitchcock suspense film Dial M for Murder, and even a dip into the horror genre, with the ghost movie The Uninvited. But by the 1960s, the roles were drying up, and Milland made a decisive turn into the arms of American International Pictures, makers of cheap horror movies. Three films in particular stand out: X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963), directed by Roger Corman; The Thing with Two Heads (1972); and Frogs (1972).

These are not necessarily good films, but Milland is good in them. He brought to them professionalism, star wattage, and an interesting turn on his screen persona. Throughout his career, Milland played suave, intelligent, flawed characters (flaws such as alcoholism in The Lost Weekend, or attempting to murder his wife in Dial M for Murder). In his horror roles, Milland continued to project polished, articulate intelligence, but the flaws took over, particularly a cranky impatience with any lesser beings who stood in his way.

You could sympathize with Milland in these roles. In X, he was determined to perfect a formula for seeing through things; in Thing with Two Heads, he was a dying man who wanted to save himself by grafting his head onto someone else's body; in Frogs, he was a plantation owner who wanted to have a nice Fourth of July family celebration.

But something always went wrong. In X, his super vision became his downfall; in Thing with Two Heads, despite his bigoted attitudes, his head was grafted onto the black body of Rosey Grier; in Frogs, swarms of malevolent frogs, snakes, lizards, spiders, and other swamp creatures invaded his plantation, apparently in revenge for humanity's assaults on the ecology. Milland responded the same way in all three cases: through grouchiness. It was insufferable to him that pesky little things like race and pollution should get in the way of his calm ambitions. He became angrier, more insulting, more cutting. He fought the horrors the way a civilized person does: through sarcasm.

For his contributions to the horror genre, Ray Milland should be remembered.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

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