Thoughts from the ledge on Bruce Dern: The original psycho


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 wickedly diverse actor, Bruce Dern.  From B movies to Academy award nominations, he is a compelling personality and when he’s bad, he’s even better.

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

Blue Bloods in the Windy City

Bruce Dern comes from an atypical Chicago family. With his pedigree, it is interesting that he chose a career in the arts. According to IMDB, his paternal grandfather served as the US Secretary of War from 1933-1936.

Ivy league educated, Dern went to the Choate School. After graduation, he entered the University of Pennsylvania as a journalism major. However, a career as a newspaper scribe was not meant to be because he dropped out to pursue a career in acting.

Part of a group of insanely talented thespians, Jack Nicholson and Karen Black to name a few, Dern honed his craft acting as the villain in a slew of B movies during the 60s. He is known for portraying more psychopaths than Anthony Perkins. Now, that is impressive.

Although being a working actor for many years, 2013 saw him being rediscovered by director Alexander Payne. That inspired bit of casting resulted in an Oscar nod and countless award nominations for his turn as Woody Grant in Nebraska.

With a resume as vast and varied as Dern’s it comes as no surprise that he has ventured into the land of horror. So, as it is customary here on the ledge, we take a look at some of his efforts in the genre starting with The Incredible 2 Headed Transplant.

The Incredible 2 Headed Transplant (1971)

Bruce Dern – Courtesy of AIP

It doesn’t get more B movie than this title. Bruce plays Dr. Roger Girard, a scientist who is working on transplanting heads. Of course, an accident occurs and he gets to bring his experiments to fruition with wait for it……disastrous results.

This movie also starred Pat Priest of The Munsters fame and Casey Kasem the golden voice of the iconic American Top 40 radio program. It is also written by James Gordon White who did the Ray Milland and Rosey Grier classic, The Thing with Two Heads.

The Burbs (1989)

Bruce Dern – The Burbs – Courtesy of Imagine Entertainment

A bizarre comedic thriller directed by Spielberg disciple, Joe Dante and starring Tom Hanks, The Burbs has become somewhat of a cult classic. The plot revolves around the residents of Hinkley Hills and their belief that their new neighbors, the Klopeks are murderers.

Dern plays veteran Lt. Mark Rumsfield. The action starts when Bonnie Rumsfield finds a lost dog in the neighborhood that turns out to belong to an elderly neighbor. Knowing that the neighbor wouldn’t deliberately let his dog run amok, Ray (Tom Hanks), Rumsfield and Ricky Butler played by horror veteran, Corey Feldman go to his house to investigate.

To me, this entire movie seemed like a comedic cousin to the great Twilight Zone episode, The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. Neighbors turning against one another and suspecting the worst makes for a potent mix of one-part Hitchcockian thriller and one-part farce.

His performance is spot on and he proves himself quite adept at bringing the laughter. This is something that he is not readily known for since he is usually cast as a psychopath or other type of “heavy.”

Swamp Devil (2008)

Bruce Dern – Courtesy of Muse Entertainment Enterprises

A Canadian horror film, this little gem is directed by David Winning and it is part of the Maneater series.  Bruce plays Howard Blaime, the former sheriff of a town called Gibbington. Unfortunately, some grisly murders have taken place and the likely suspect is him.

His daughter returns home to do some amateur sleuthing to prove her father’s innocence. With the help of her boyfriend, they dig deep to discover something may be lurking in their hometown. There is an interesting scene dealing with vines that is eerily reminiscent of Evil Dead.

Dern, of course, is perfectly cast and lends his considerable talents to this funky little creature feature. While this may not be the best film ever, it is still worthy of consideration for the horror list.

The Hole (2009)

Bruce Dern – Courtesy of Bold Films, BenderSpink, Hole

Another Joe Dante effort, this film is shot in 3-D. Bruce Dern plays the character of Creepy Karl in this little chiller. Two brothers unite in their efforts to find out why an enigmatic hole in their basement is a portal to your worst apprehensions and nightmares.

In this role, Dern clearly shines as the weirdo who used to own the house where the brothers reside. Akin to Walt Gorney in Friday the 13th, he functions as the harbinger who warns the kids not to mess around with the evil inside that hole.

Bruce is at his best when he can let his inner crazy shine. He is always a pleasure to watch on screen and imbues his roles with such conviction that you believe he might be half a bubble off plumb in real life.

Tool Box Murders 2 or Coffin Baby (2013)

Bruce Dern – Courtesy of Atlantic & Pacific Pictures

Dern stars as Vance Henrickson in the sequel to the 2004 movie, The Tool Box Murders. The story is about a young woman who is kidnapped and then forced to watch the torture and murder of several people. There is even a scene depicting cannibalism.

Not for the faint hearted but for fans of gruesome horror, this is the type of film that sticks with you. Although Dern has a cameo, he makes it memorable. Which just goes to show you that there are no small parts.

Bruce Dern is truly a versatile character actor and one of the best that Hollywood has ever produced. At eighty-one years of age, he is still working consistently and keeping busy. Hopefully, we will continue to be graced with his unique screen presence for many years to come.

Next: Thoughts from the ledge on Stephen King’s inspiration Shirley Jackson

Have you seen any of the above-mentioned movies? What is your favorite Bruce Dern role? Please feel free to let us know your thoughts in the comment section below. We want to hear from you!