Thoughts from the ledge on Karen Black: The Original Scream Queen


Welcome to my weekly series where I pay homage to those unsung heroes of the horror genre. The topic of discussion this week is the underrated Karen Black.  From scaring us to co-starring in psychedelic B movie productions, she was a versatile actress who deserves a mention.

So, get comfortable, grab your favorite beverage & let’s talk!

Demented Vixen

No one played crazy and sexy quite like Karen Black. Whether mixing it up with everyone’s favorite lunatic Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces or fending off a knife wielding maniacal doll, she managed to do it with style. With her come hither cat eyes and tousled hair, she was like Brigit Bardot of the cult movie circuit.

With a body of work dating back fifty-seven years, I would like to focus on several of her most influential films in the realm of terror. Now, let’s grab a little taste of Black!

karen-black-in-trilogy-of-terror courtesy of ABC Circle Films, Dan Curtis Productions

That Damn Doll!

I thought I would start with the role that cemented her as a scream queen. Before Jamie Lee (and I am bowing my head as I write this!) Karen exercised her lung power in Dan CurtisTrilogy of Terror. This was actually an anthology film that had three parts.

The one that sticks out in most people’s minds is the very last segment, Amelia. This is about her horrific encounter with the Zuni doll. Things were bound to go wrong from the get go with that little fellow.

Much like a Gremlin that shouldn’t be fed after midnight, the Zuni doll wasn’t supposed to have its gold chain removed. Of course, if things went according to plan, there wouldn’t be a reason for this movie, right?

Amelia’s evening is pretty much ruined because she spends it running from this doll who keeps stabbing her. The apartment gets wrecked, blood is everywhere and in the end, she gets taken over by the Zuni’s spirit resulting in a horrendous transformation.

No wonder this particular little number had such a profound effect on me as a kid. Wow. I thought about that damn doll every night. Now, that is the power of acting, my friends.

Karen Black- Courtesy of Produzioni Europee Associati (PEA), Dan Curtis Productions

Burnt Offerings

This is a favorite horror film of mine with an equally powerful cast. In addition to Karen, we have Oliver Reed, Bette Davis and Burgess Meredith. Oliver and Karen decide to purchase a glorious summer rental.

The only thing that seems a bit wonky is old Mrs. Allardyce that resides in one wing of the house. She is not to be disturbed. Karen being a sweet and caring soul takes charge and brings the ancient lady her meals every day leaving them outside the door.

For a while the family is happy but then the weirdness starts. The pool becomes homicidal, people meet with unfortunate accidents and Karen starts becoming obsessed with restoring the house. Her descent into possession is haunting, frightening but very delicious.

In the end, she remains with the house as its “Mother.” The evolution is complete and the result is definitely eerie.

Karen Black – Courtesy of Cannon Pictures

Invaders from Mars

This is a remake of a film from 1953 directed by the Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s own, Tobe Hooper. Written by Alien scribe, Dan O’Bannon, the story centers on a young boy named David Gardner played by Karen Black’s son, Hunter Carson, who witnesses a spaceship landing. Subsequently, his parents and the townsfolk get taken over by alien life forms.

No one believes David except for the school nurse Linda Magnusson played by Karen Black. Together they enlist the US Marine Corps to help them fight the unwanted extraterrestrials. If you have never seen this one before, I highly recommend it. The Faculty is a descendant of this wonderful little sci-fi/horror B movie.

I remember watching this late at night on HBO when I was in high school and it was always fun. Karen is especially convincing as the nurse who truly takes an interest in David.

Karen Black – Courtesy of Larco Productions

Attack of the Mutant Babies or Just Another Larry Cohen Flick

In the 70s and 80s, horror director Larry Cohen did a variety of films with his muse, Michael Moriarty. It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive happened to be one of them. In this film, Moriarty is married to our stunning Ms. Black. They have a mutant child that is sent away to an island to be with other mutants.

Moriarty decides to lead a mission to save the mutants and sets off on a ship to liberate them. Of course, the crew ends up being kibble for the assorted malformed lot. Only Moriarty and another man survive.

Karen ends up raising her mutant son’s child after he and his mate die from the measles. This film played up the humor and wasn’t as serious in tone as its predecessors but let’s face it mutants on an island? That screams B movie heaven and Karen is in the middle of it as a beautiful angel.

Karen Black – Courtesy of Dimension Films

Stephen King- Do We Need This Sequel?

In 1996, they decided to make another Children of the Corn movie called the Gathering. Why anyone felt the need to keep this franchise going is beyond me. Anyway, Karen plays the agoraphobic mother of Naomi Watts.

Since she refuses to leave her house and has a slew of other foibles that probably require medication, Naomi has to return home from school to take care of her. In addition, Ms. Watts has to look out for her younger siblings.

Of course, in the town kids are becoming ill and exhibiting weird symptoms. They are turning into the children from the past and are running amuck killing people right and left. Unfortunately, Karen’s character meets with an untimely demise. Even though her fate is drastic, her mark on the film is indelible. No one plays neurotic quite like her.

Karen Black – Courtesy of Spectacle Entertainment Group, Universal Pictures

House of 1,000 Corpses

Rob Zombie, a lifelong lover of horror debuted as a director back in 2003 with this film. What an eclectic cast! Sid Haig, Karen and Bill “Chop Top” Moseley, the story revolved around the Firefly family capturing and torturing hapless young people who are touring the country with the hopes of writing a book.

This film is a smorgasbord of subgenres in the horror genus including exploitation. In this offering, Karen is like the grand dame of gore. She gets just as crazy as Captain Spaulding and Baby. Although this was perceived to be a hot mess by critics, it is worth the watch to see Karen shine.

Although Karen is no longer with us, her legacy as an original Scream Queen is undeniable. One just needs to look at her body of work. With the ability to float between A list ventures and gritty B flicks, she was a consummate professional who radiated elegance and grace in each portrayal.

Next: Thoughts from the ledge on Bruce Campbell: Best selling author

Do you know Karen’s work? Are you a fan? Do you feel she is the predecessor of Jamie Lee and company? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below. We want to hear from you!