10 Horror Stars Who Never Won An Oscar

It’s Oscar night in Hollywood! We all may have our gripes with the Academy over things like the nominating process (see my posts on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND STAN & OLLIE and THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD ), but in the end, we’ll all still be watching – I know I will!

One of my gripes over the years has always been how the horror genre has gotten little to no attention from Oscar over the years. Sure, Fredric March won for DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE , but there were plenty of other horror performances who’ve been snubbed. The following ten actors should have (at least in my opinion) received consideration for their dignified work in that most neglected of genres, the horror film:

(and I’ll do this alphabetically in the interest of fairness)

LIONEL ATWILL

 Atwill’s Ivan Igor in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM goes from cultured sophisticate to raving lunatic in the course of 77 minutes, and was worthy of a nomination. His Inspector Krough in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN has become an iconic portrayal over the years (just ask Mel Brooks !). But the real crime is Atwill being passed over for his villainous Colonel Bishop in CAPTAIN BLOOD (though the film did receive a Best Picture nomination).

LON CHANEY JR. 

Many consider Chaney a one-note actor of limited range, but his performances as the simple-minded Lenny in OF MICE AND MEN and retired lawman Mart Howe in HIGH NOON prove Chaney could act when given the right material. And as Lawrence Talbot in THE WOLF MAN , Chaney gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the glib young man who becomes a tortured soul after getting bit by a werewolf. The low-budget SPIDER BABY found Lon shut out of Oscar consideration again as Bruno, chauffeur/caretaker to the bizarre Merrie Family.

PETER CUSHING 

Cushing could probably read the phone book and make it more dramatic than any ten actors working today. He never gave a bad performance in whatever he did, but Academy bias against horror never gave him the recognition he deserved. Of all his roles, I’d cite his Baron Frankenstein in Hammer’s first in the series, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN , and Sir John Rowan in the (admittedly) out-there cult classic CORRUPTION as Oscar caliber. Then there’s his Gran Moff Tarkin in a little thing called STAR WARS

BORIS KARLOFF

When Boris Karloff first appeared on the screen as The Monster of FRANKENSTEIN , audiences across the country screamed at the sight of this hideous, inhuman thing, but thanks to Karloff’s acting skills, he imbued The Monster with a spark of humanity, and definitely deserved at least a nomination for his breakout performance. Equally deserving was his Ardeth Bey (aka Imhotep) in THE MUMMY , a romantic terror tale of love and death across the centuries. Boris’s work as twin brothers in THE BLACK ROOM is among his best, and his films with Val Lewton feature two distinctly different but fine portrayals: the murderous John Grey in THE BODY SNATCHER and the decadent Master Sims in BEDLAM . King Karloff was also denied a nomination for his turn as faded horror star Byron Orlok in Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant TARGETS.

CHRISTOPHER LEE 

Oscar never recognized Lee for any of his outstanding roles, and the fact that his Lord Summerisle in THE WICKER MAN was ignored is truly an Oscar crime! Lee also should have got some Oscar love for playing against type as Duc de Richleau in THE DEVIL’S BRIDE , and his part as grave robber Resurrection Joe in CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, though a smaller role, should have  warranted some Supporting Actor attention.

PETER LORRE

Although not primarily a horror star, Lorre gave the genre two of it’s best performances, both Oscar worthy: the creepy child killer Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s M and the deranged, obsessed Dr. Gogol in MAD LOVE . And I think his role as the humble immigrant turned crime boss Janos Szabo in the horror-tinged noir THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK was worth a nomination. As for his non-horror roles, there’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, THE MALTESE FALCON, THREE STRANGERS, BEAT THE DEVIL….

BELA LUGOSI

Lugosi’s iconic Count DRACULA , still as death and evil as anyone in movie history, didn’t get past Oscar’s garlic-laced gates, and neither did Bela during his career. Granted, the Hungarian star made some poor choices over his movie days, but I’d say his Poe-obsessed Dr. Richard Vollin in THE RAVEN and broken-necked Ygor in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN deserved at least a look by the Academy. I could cite his Dr. Carruthers in THE DEVIL BAT and Dr. Vornoff in BRIDE OF THE MONSTER as examples of how a bad film can be elevated by a good performance, but I’d be stretching if I said they should have got Oscar consideration. One can dream, though, can’t one?

VINCENT PRICE

Price was known to ham it up on occasion (and parodies that notion in HIS KIND OF WOMAN ), but take a look at his work in film noir and discover Vinnie when he tones it down – he’s a great actor. Of his horror films, Price does fine work in the Roger Corman Poe series: Roderick Usher in HOUSE OF USHER, Prince Prospero in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, and Verden Fell in TOMB OF LIGEIA all find Price giving subtle, nuanced performances; and his witch hunter Matthew Hopkins in Michael Reeves’ THE CONQUEROR WORM is as finely etched a portrait of evil as you’ll ever see. Even when he cranks it up to 11, as in THEATER OF BLOOD , he’s more than watchable, and his Edward Lionheart in that film is an unforgivable Oscar snub! Price also should have been considered for his short but pivotal role as The Inventor in Tim Burton’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS.

CLAUDE RAINS

Like Peter Lorre, Rains wasn’t primarily a horror star, but his dazzling performance as Dr. Jack Griffin in James Whale’s THE INVISIBLE MAN is a tour de force of both physical and vocal acting, and the fact that Oscar didn’t see it is (wait for it) Another Oscar Crime! However, of all the great actors on this list, he’s the only one recognized by the Academy for his work – Rains received Supporting Actor nominations for MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, CASABLANCA , MR. SKEFFINGTON, and NOTORIOUS . He didn’t win for any of them (but should have for CASABLANCA!)

ERNEST THESIGER

“And the winner is… Ernest Thesiger for BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN !” That phrase was never uttered during Oscar’s banquet honoring the films of 1935, as the Supporting Actor category wasn’t initiated until a year later, but if it had been in effect, I’d place my money on Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorious to win it all!

Honorable mentions go to Colin Clive’s mad Henry FRANKENSTEIN and John Carradine’s strangler Gaston Morrell in Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD, and I’m sure you Dear Readers can think of many other Oscar-worthy performances in the horror field, so have some fun while we all wait for tonight’s Academy Awards ceremony… and I’ll have more on that little shindig later tomorrow!

Halloween Havoc!: BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1935)

James Whale’s brilliant BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is one of those rare occasions where the sequel is better than the original… and since the original 1931 FRANKENSTEIN is one of the horror genre’s greatest films, that’s saying a lot! Whale’s trademark blend of horror and black humor reached their zenith in BRIDE, and though Whale would make ten more films before retiring from Hollywood moviemaking in 1941, this was his last in the realm of the macabre. It turned out to be his best.

Mary Shelley’s got a story to tell…

William Hurlbut’s screenplay start with a prologue set during the proverbial dark and stormy night, with Mary Shelly (Elsa Lanchester ), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton), and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon ) discussing Mary’s shocking novel “Frankenstein” as clips from the 1931 film are shown. Then Mary tells them there’s more to the story, and we pick up where the original left off, the burning mill that spelled the end of The Monster. Hans, whose daughter Maria was killed in the “floating flower” scene, is determined to see the creature’s charred bones, despite his wife’s protests, and falls through the wreckage, discovering it’s alive! The wounded Monster kills both of them, frightens Frankenstein’s maid Minnie, and wanders off into the forest.

The peculiar Dr. Pretorius

Henry Frankenstein, recuperating at his castle with bride Elizabeth by his side, is payed a late night call by the gaunt and sinister looking Dr. Pretorius, his former philosophy professor, “on a secret matter of grave importance”. Pretorius has also been experimenting with “the mysteries of life”, and brings Henry to his humble abode, where he unveils his creations… several homunculi, miniature people he keeps in jars, dressed as a king, queen, archbishop, devil, and mermaid. He wants to take Henry’s work to the next level by creating a mate for The Monster, but Henry balks at such a dangerous suggestion.

The Monster and his friend (O.P. Heggie)

Meanwhile The Monster, wounded and scaring every living thing in the woods, is spotted, and the local Burgomaster leads the villagers on a hunt. The brute is captured, trussed up like Christ on the cross (one of many Christian images used during the film), and chained up in a dungeon. But mere chains can’t hold Frankenstein’s unholy creation, and he escapes, leaving a murderous swath in his wake. Returning to the primeval forest, alone, hurt, afraid, he stumbles onto the hut of a blind hermit, who befriends the beast, nursing him to health and teaching him a rudimentary vocabulary. They lead an idyllic existence until a pair of hunters (one of whom is John Carradine ) intrude, ruining the friendship, leaving The Monster once again alone in the world.

Two Universal Monster Icons

Hunted again, The Monster hides in a graveyard crypt, where he meets none other than Dr. Pretorius, who tells him of his plan to make a mate, someone like him… stitched together from the dead. Pretorius uses the creature to coerce Henry into collaborating by having The Monster kidnap Elizabeth. Together they reprise the creation of life, bringing forth a female (“She’s alive! Alive!”), who is totally repulsed by the sight of The Monster (“She hate me, like others”). The pitiful Monster sends Henry and Elizabeth away, ordering Pretorius and his intended Bride to stay (“We belong dead”) as he pulls the lever which blows the mountaintop laboratory to smithereens.

Boris Karloff  didn’t like the idea of having The Monster speak, but he pulls it off with his usual great acting ability, making the patchwork man seem all-too-human. His scenes with the blind hermit (O.P Heggie) are memorable, although Mel Brooks’s YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN parody flashes through my head whenever I watch it! The Monster is both terrorizing and tender here, with Jack Pierce’s makeup still giving audiences the shivers. Colin Clive returns as Henry Frankenstein, a ball of nervous energy, but 18-year-old Valerie Hobson replaces Mae Clark as Elizabeth. Ernest Thesiger as Pretorius is a sight to behold, as mad a scientist as they come, and he gets all the best lines (“Do you like gin? It is my only weakness”). Una O’Connor annoys the crap out of me as Minnie, the “comic relief” maid, but I l do like E.E. Clive as the pompous Burgomaster (“Monster, indeed!”). Dwight Frye, Fritz in the original, is back as Pretorius’s assistant Karl, who’d rather kill than rob graves.

The Bride

But it’s Elsa Lanchester as The Bride who shines brightest. Her herky-jerky, birdlike movements, balletic pas de deux with Clive in the laboratory, and repulsed hiss at seeing The Monster make her brief part one of horror’ most iconic, aided in large part by Pierce’s genius with makeup. The bride of actor Charles Laughton, Miss Lanchester had a fifty-plus year career in film and television; some of her many credits are THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII, LADIES IN RETIREMENT, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, COME TO THE STABLE, THE INSPECTOR GENERAL, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, MARY POPPINS, and WILLARD .

Franz Waxman’s  score is one of the most memorable of horror’s Golden Age, or any age for that matter. Whale and DP John J. Mescall’s use of chiaroscuro lighting, along with the Expressionistic sets by Art Dircetor Charles D. Hall, show the heavy influence German films had on Whale’s style. And of course we can’t forget Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical marvels, working their magic to bring The Bride to life. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN not only tops the original, it is one of the all-time great movies, a horror fantasy for the ages that gets better and better with repeated viewings.

 

Happy Birthday Boris Karloff: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Universal 1932)

William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, but horror movie icon Boris Karloff was “born” when he teamed with director James Whale for 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. The scary saga of a man and his monster became a big hit, and Universal Studios boss Carl Laemmle Jr. struck while the horror trend was hot, quickly teaming the pair in an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel THE OLD DARK HOUSE. This film was considered lost for many years until filmmaker and Whale friend Curtis Harrington discovered a print in the Universal vaults. Recently, a 4K restoration has been released courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection, and a showing aired on TCM this past Halloween. I of course, having never seen the film, hit the DVR button for a later viewing.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE has not only been restored to its former glory, but is a delightful black comedy showcasing Whale’s macabre sense of humor. Karloff gets top billing for the first time in his career as the brutish mute butler Morgan, though he’s not the “star” in the true sense of the word. Instead, he’s part of an ensemble of actors who’re engaged in a mission to send a shiver down the audience’s collective spine. Whale, screenwriters Benn Levy and R.C. Sheriff, cinematographer Arthur Edeson, art director Charles B. Hall, and Universal’s make-up genius Jack Pierce all collaborate to create a memorable mise en scene inside the creepy old Femm house of horrors.

The story: it was a dark and stormy night (as Snoopy would say), and bickering couple Philip and Margaret Waverton, with their wayfaring travelling companion Roger Penderel, get stranded deep in the Wales countryside. They seek shelter at a gloomy mansion, where they’re greeted at the door by the mute, horribly scarred butler Morgan. Entering the foreboding domicile, the three are introduced to brother and sister Horace and Rebecca Femm, he a gaunt looking weirdo with a fondness for gin, she a half-deaf religious fanatic. To say the siblings are lacking in the social graces is an understatement!

During the bizarre supper ritual, two more wanderers knock at the Femm door, boisterous Sir William Porterhouse and his “friend” Gladys DuCane (formerly Perkins). The storm outside rages on, and then a storm front moves indoors as Morgan gets “at the bottle again”, attempting to rape Margaret, and releasing brother Saul Femm from his locked room, a milquetoast looking pipsqueak who turns out to be the biggest maniac of the bunch…

Boris is menacing as Morgan, aided by Jack Pierce’s make-up job, but isn’t given much to do in the acting department. His is a mostly physical role, threatening Margaret Waverton in his drunken stupor, needing three men to subdue him. It’s Morgan who lets loose the psychotic Saul, putting things in motion that lead to the film’s conclusion. Morgan may not be the focal point of THE OLD DARK HOUSE, but it’s an important film in the Karloff canon. It’s his first top-billed role, and the movie’s posters herald him as only KARLOFF, the last name alone now recognized by audiences of the day as the last word in terror! Boris would have many more opportunities to show his acting skills in the horror genre (and others), thanks in large part to his popularity in FRANKENSTEIN and this, his second Universal Horror.

“A Universal Cast is Worth Repeating”, and this one’s a doozy! Let’s start with Melvyn Douglas , just beginning his film career in the part of Penderel. His character’s from ‘The Lost Generation’, a disillusioned WWI vet whose aimless life contains no meaning, until fate steps in. Raymond Massey (Philip) was already an established star, with his iconic role as Abraham Lincoln waiting in the wings. Gloria Stuart (Margaret) was a WAMPAS Baby Star and Universal contract player just getting started; modern audiences fell in love with her as the elderly Rose in TITANIC. Charles Laughton (Porterhouse) makes his American film debut here, bringing both humor and pathos to his role. Lilian Bond (Gladys) never quite made the impact her costars did, but she’s more than good as the ex-chorus girl, and had a long career.

The family Femm are certainly a grotesque lot, with marvelous Ernest Thesiger as the emotionally dead Horace and Eva Moore his completely creepy sister Rebecca. Thesiger, known to horror fans as the sinister Dr. Pretorius in Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, is perfect as the cadaverous Horace, so uncomfortable around people he can’t connect with anyone, except his palpable hatred for sister Rebecca. Moore is a revelation as the  religious nut, obviously sexually repressed, especially when talking about her late sister (“She was a wicked one… with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck”). In a scene that’s pure Pre-Code, Margaret gets out of her rain-soaked clothes, stripping down to her slip. Rebecca feels the smooth fabric, stating, “That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot”. Then, placing her hand on Margaret’s breast, says “That’s finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too, in time”, causing Margaret to withdraw in repulsion, the vanity mirror behind them distorting both women’s faces. It’s a frightening scene, beautifully staged by Whale and acted by the two ladies.

Brember Wills is Saul Femm, who is feared by his siblings, but looks harmless at first. But as the cameras roll, we see his demeanor change before our eyes, and this little man becomes a psychopath of the first order, obsessed with flame and fire, and determined to burn the family homestead to the ground. Wills was primarily a stage actor, with only six film credits, but this movie elevates him to the pantheon of Universal Monsters! As for 102 year old patriarch Sir Roderick Femm, confined to bed and looking like he’s already past his expiration date, actor John Dudgeon is credited. Only there’s no such person… Sir Roderick is played by 61-year-old actress Elspeth Dudgeon, a Whale in-joke. Loaded up with Jack Pierce’s old age makeup, Elspeth does a gender-bending splendid job. If I hadn’t known beforehand that it was a woman behind all that makeup, I never would’ve guessed it!

James Whale seems to have had a good time experimenting with oddly tilted camera angles and moody lighting on this, a warm up perhaps for his THE INVISIBLE MAN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. He certainly leaves his stamp on the film, with its expressionistic look and warped sense of humor. THE OLD DARK HOUSE, unlike some films I’ve long heard about, did not disappoint me upon my first viewing, and I’d highly recommend anyone with a Blu-Ray to purchase a copy pronto. Boris Karloff may not be the star of the show, but his Morgan is suitably gruesome enough to satisfy die-hard horror fans, as is the movie as a whole. Happy birthday King Karloff; long may you reign in the nightmares of monster lovers everywhere!