Second Breakfast: An Ode to the B-Listers

SecondBreakfast-01The heart wants what the heart wants, and in the never-ending quest for spiritual solace and a mental state of calm, none of us should hesitate to accept whatever presents itself as the truest remedy. What do I mean? Comfort food, dear reader. Comfort food. I have had a stressful few months, and while the exact nature of preferred comfort food might assume different forms from time to time, lately it has manifested as old B-horror films. I could waste a lot of time analyzing why the hell this particular genre of film appeals to me so unflappably, why I find not terror, but restitution in the snuggly mandibles of blood and shadows and blurry Dutch angles, why since childhood I have had nothing but deep affection and sympathy for the monsters of Universal Studios, why more recently that same love has morphed into a sincere and blatantly un-ironic appreciation of Vincent Price, and certainly one could question why I love these so-called “campy” horror films over the genuinely scary and occasionally well-directed genre installments that usually garner respect and acclaim, but ultimately, for me, the direction and the production values take second fiddle to the character of the films. I don’t necessarily mean the fictional personae, the murderers and maim-ers, the murdered and maimed, but the personality of the films themselves and the people who made them.

Take, as an illustrative example, any Vincent Price film. He made dozens, and I have reviewed a mere seven, and although he may appear to many as a sort of King of Ham, I have no choice but to consider him a truly great actor. The idea of a “great actor” conjures to most names like Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando and Daniel Day-Lewis, etc. etc. etc., and certainly those gentlemen have the craft honed to a science (a method, in the case of the latter two), but you would never catch them anywhere near a project like The House That Dripped Blood (1970) or The Screaming Skull (1958), neither of which star Price, but both of which happened to fill the role of comfort food for the soul this week. Why? Because even though Brando made The Island of Dr. Moreau, he still considered himself above that kind of project. They comprise the A-list, and make only A-pictures. People like Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and innumerable names that have since disappeared from the annals of time; they belong to the B-list. I think a lot of people set out into acting, and really any profession, with the singular goal of becoming the best, topping the A-list, but those people miss the point.

Cinerama You know you've made it when you're holding a waxen image of your own head.

Cinerama
You know you’ve made it when you’re holding a waxen image of your own head.

Horror offers a convenient microcosm of this point, I think, because it manages to at once stand tall as the most consistently successful and bankable film genre, and the least respected. Every so often you get something like The Exorcist or more recently The Babadook, that everyone pretty much has to admit qualifies as a “good film.” Still though, even when receiving critical applause, success in horror rarely seems to translate into success in film. Like winning the high school state championship in hockey doesn’t necessarily guarantee you Olympic gold, making good horror doesn’t mean anyone will ever truly recognize your talents. That doubtless discourages anyone attempting to build a career as a “serious actor” from dabbling in the genre.

Watch any movie starring Price, Cushing, Lee, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, or any of Claude Rains’ or Basil Rathbone’s horror films, and you will see sincere performances delivered by actors with utter surety. I mentioned before that I recently watching The House That Dripped Blood, a decidedly B-movie with a low budget and a relatively noncommittal script, and yet I found it a reassuring and even inspiration watch, because Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing made it that way, because no role is too small or undeserving of their undeniable talents, because their art is entertainment, and they know how many people try and fail to get the opportunity to do what they do, so who needs fame and fortune and everything that goes with it? Who needs a multi-million-dollar ceremony in which celebrities pat other celebrities on the back? Many consider Daniel Day-Lewis the greatest living male actor (I need that qualifier because, you know, Meryl Streep), because of his commitment to his roles and characters. He method acts. Frankly, sinking into a performance like that probably isn’t too hard when it’s Abraham Lincoln or a thinly veiled Edward Doheny surrogate. I’d love to see him tackle a loosely-realized, hammily-written horror villain and produce something sinister, thought-provoking, and tragic.

London-Cannon Films Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Peter Cushing, and Vincent Price

London-Cannon Films
Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Peter Cushing, and Vincent Price

There it is, I guess. As I said, I’ve had a stressful few months as I’ve tried and failed to sort out grad school applications, job opportunities, and, to over-simplify, the rest of my life. I suppose being the best there is at the best job in the world is one thing, but I find it so much more inspirational to watch people give the same quality and dedication to a less prestigious job. Vincent Price always, always wanted to make it big as a Shakespearean actor, but never broke out of Hammer Horror. A lot of people would have given up and phoned it in right then and there, tiredly walking through every role because a paycheck awaited at the end. Instead, he did the best he could with the roles life dealt to him. That’s inspirational. Life is going to be as gratifying as you make it, I guess. Many of my readers are college students approaching graduation or have graduated in the last few years and are still, like me, trying to work things out. I may not be saying this from a position of any great experience, but if Christopher Lee can produce the career he’s had from House of the Long Shadows and the like, then you can trudge through your menial internship with the confidence that no one staples paperwork quite like you do. It’s not Sunset Blvd., but it’s a start.

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