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Horror Stars - Wednesdays in October


With the approach of Halloween, TCM salutes five of the movies' greatest Horror Stars. Over the decades, many actors have tried their hand at the fright-film genre, but this handful of performers shared an uncanny ability to channel bone-chilling creepiness. Join TCM every Wednesday in October as we celebrate their terrifying films and unforgettable characters.

Lon Chaney (1883-1930) was born Leonidas Frank Chaney in Colorado Springs, CO, to deaf parents resulting in his development of early pantomime skills in order to communicate with them. He made his stage debut in 1902 and began working in films around 1912 or 1913. (Some of his earliest movies have been lost.) Chaney won fame as one of the most versatile and accomplished actors in film, becoming known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces" because of his skill with makeup and characterization that allowed him to create a gallery of memorable, often grotesque characters.

Our tribute to Lon Chaney is composed of six of his silent films. The Penalty (1920) has him as a criminal mastermind who has lost both his legs and seeks revenge on the entire city of San Francisco. In He Who Gets Slapped (1924), considered by some to be Chaney's masterpiece, he plays a scientist whose feelings of betrayal lead him to life as a clown in a circus, where he falls in love with a comely bareback rider (a young Norma Shearer).

The Phantom of the Opera (1925), one of his most famous vehicles, casts Chaney as the hideously disfigured Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House and is obsessed with a beautiful young singer (Mary Philbin). The Monster (1925) marked an early blending of horror and comedy, with Chaney as a mad scientist who conducts ghastly experiments after taking over the asylum in which he has been confined.

The Unholy Three (1925) has Chaney as a ventriloquist who masquerades as an old woman and joins forces with two other carnival performers, a strong man (Victor McLaglen) and a little person (Harry Earles) disguised as a baby, to operate a thievery ring. This film was so popular that Chaney remade it as a talkie in 1930. In The Unknown (1927) Chaney plays an armless knife thrower who performs with his feet and legs, and Joan Crawford plays the carnival girl he hopes to marry.

Christopher Lee (1922-2015), born Christopher Frank Carandini Lee in the Belgravia district of London, was a versatile actor who was said to have regretted his typecasting as Count Dracula - a role he played to chilling perfection in a series of films from England's Hammer Films.

Lee began acting in school plays and made his film debut in 1947. He had played more than 50 roles, most of them "background parts," before his breakthrough at Hammer Films playing the creature in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). This was his first film with Peter Cushing, who would become a close friend and costar in more than 20 movies.

TCM's tribute to Lee includes his debut as the world's most celebrated vampire in Hammer Films' Horror of Dracula (1958), a role he would repeat in six sequels including Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966). Lee smashed the Bela Lugosi stereotype of Dracula, with overt violence and sexual overtones (not to mention color photography) that lifted the character to a new and more explicit level.

The City of the Dead (also titled Horror Hotel) (1960), released by British Lion Films, has emerged as a cult horror thriller. Venetia Stevenson plays a college student researching witchcraft in a New England village and Lee is a sinister professor who just happens to have connections to the town. The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) was the first of a five-part film series in which Lee played the evil Asian criminal mastermind.

Lee takes the title role in Hammer Films' Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), as the voracious mystic who held sway over the Tsars prior to the Russian Revolution. The Devil's Bride (1968) was Lee's favorite among his Hammer films, perhaps because for once he enjoys a heroic - almost saintly - role as a nobleman of 1920s England who suspects the son of a friend is involved in a satanic cult.

Boris Karloff (1887-1969), born William Henry Pratt in the Camberwell district of London, England, became a distinguished actor in many roles that capitalized on his rich and eloquent voice, but his specialty was horror. It was as the speechless Frankenstein's monster in a series of films during the 1930s that Karloff achieved movie immortality.

In a career that lasted a half century, Karloff distinguished himself on Broadway, in television and in the movies. In addition to his triumphs in the Frankenstein films, he is particularly remembered for playing the title role in The Mummy (1932) and for serving as the narrator and voice of the Grinch in the television special How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Four films in the TCM tribute are from Karloff's horror heyday of the 1930s-'40s, while three others are from the 1960s.

The Old Dark House (1932) is a horror comedy about travelers stranded in a creepy mansion in the Welsh countryside where the terrors include a mute, drunken butler played by Karloff. The imposing cast also includes Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas and Raymond Massey. The Walking Dead (1936) casts Karloff as a pianist who is falsely accused of murder, executed and then reanimated by a scientist (Edmund Gwenn), allowing him to confront those who framed him. This film features one of Karloff's most effective and sympathetic performances.

Isle of the Dead (1945) is set in 1912 during the First Balkan War, on a Greek island where visitors are trapped by a quarantine for the plague. Karloff plays a general who visits his late wife's mausoleum, only to find it despoiled amid rumors of vampires and witchcraft. This is one of three low-budget horror films from legendary producer Val Lewton that starred Karloff. Bedlam (1946), another of Karloff's vehicles for Lewton, is set in 1761 at a notorious English mental hospital where a young woman (Anna Lee) risks her freedom and sanity to expose the dreadful practices of the asylum's head general (Karloff).

The Terror (1963) is a low-budget item from producer-director Roger Corman, set in the Napoleonic era and featuring Karloff as an elderly baron whose castle may be haunted by the ghost of his first wife (Sandra Knight). The promising actor appearing as a French soldier involved in the mystery is none other than Jack Nicholson! Die, Monster, Die! (1965) is a British-American production starring Karloff as a mad scientist who uses a radioactive meteorite to mutate plant and animal life.

The Sorcerers (1967) is a British sci-fi/horror film with Karloff as a noted hypnotist who develops a technique that allows not only control of his subjects but sharing of their emotions. The hypnotist's wife (Catherine Lacey) creates problems when she begins to enjoy the process too much.

Bela Lugosi (1882-1956), born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó in Lugos, Austria/Hungary (now Romania), won international fame for his chilling performance as the world's most celebrated vampire, Count Dracula. His thick East European accent and florid acting style seemed perfect for the exotic Dracula but led to typecasting that Lugosi was never able to overcome.

Lugosi played small roles on the Hungarian stage before making his first film in 1917. He then emigrated to the U.S. in 1920 and soon established himself as an actor in America. In 1927, he won the title role in a hit Broadway adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, then was cast in Universal Pictures' film version in 1931. Lugosi then went on to star in Island of Lost Souls (1932), from Paramount, which was the first sound version of the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Charles Laughton stars as the doctor whose experiments with animals turns them into human-like beings, and Lugosi plays a victim who has transformed from a wolf.

White Zombie (1932), an independent film originally released through United Artists, is considered the first full-length zombie movie. Lugosi stars as a voodoo master who commands a crew of the undead on his mysterious island. Mark of the Vampire (1935), directed by Tod Browning, is an unofficial remake of his 1927 silent classic London After Midnight. In this version, Lionel Barrymore stars as a scientist investigating a murder believed to the work of vampires, with Lugosi as a chief suspect called Count Mora. The Human Monster (1939) is a British film based on the 1927 novel by Edgar Wallace, with Lugosi as a scientist who commits a series of murders while disguised as a blind man.

The Devil Bat (1940), a low-budget feature from Producers Releasing Corporation, stars Lugosi as a cosmetics-company chemist who takes revenge on his unappreciative employers by breeding giant bats who will attack them. Night Monster (1942, TCM premiere), a success for Universal, awards Lugosi top billing even though he has a small role as a sinister butler in this tale of murders at a spooky old house.

The Corpse Vanishes (1942) is from Monogram Pictures, where Lugosi made several low-budget thrillers. In this film, he plays a mad scientist who kills young brides and extracts substances from their bodies to keep his elderly wife young. Bowery at Midnight (1942), another Monogram film, casts Lugosi as a psychologist who secretly heads a crime ring and keeps a gang of zombies in his basement!

Vincent Price (1911-1993), born Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. in St. Louis, MO, was a man of many talents. In addition to starring in many horror movies, he was an accomplished actor in several different film genres as well as on stage, radio, television and recordings. He also was an art collector, expert, lecturer and author, as well as a gourmet cook of note and a witty guest on TV game shows.

The child of well-to-do parents, Price earned a degree in art history from Yale University and planned to pursue a master's degree in fine arts at the University of London. However, he became distracted by the theater and began acting professionally onstage in England the mid-1930s. He made his movie debut in Service de Luxe (1938) and quickly established himself as an outstanding young character actor in such films as The Song of Bernadette (1943) and Laura (1944).

House of Wax (1953), originally released in 3D, established Price as a leading horror star. In this Warner Bros. production, he plays Henry Jarrod, a murderous sculptor who coats his victims in wax and uses them as displays in his museum. House on Haunted Hill (1959), produced and directed by William Castle, stars Price as an eccentric millionaire who rents a supposedly haunted house and promises five people a sum of money if they will stay in it through the night.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), produced and directed by Roger Corman, was one of 10 films starring Price that were based (sometimes loosely) on Edgar Allan Poe stories. In this highly successful version of the famous tale, Price plays the son of a noted torturer from the Spanish Inquisition and the husband of a woman who may have been buried alive. The Masque of the Red Death (1964) is another Corman production based on a Poe story and starring Price as a prince who terrorizes a plague-ridden community while living the high life with his consorts at a remote castle.

Last Man on Earth (1964) is an American-Italian sci-fi horror film in which Price gives an excellent performance as the last healthy survivor on Earth after a plague has destroyed everyone else and turned some into zombies. Theater of Blood (1973) tells the outrageous story of a Shakespearean actor (Price) who is inspired by plays of the Bard to wreak gory revenge on the critics who have panned his performances.

by Roger Fristoe
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