Thursday, October 25, 2018

RIP James Karen (1923-2018)

James Karen in POLTERGEIST.
Donna and I were very sorry to learn of the death yesterday of that fine actor James Karen, at the age of 94. We met him a little over 10 years ago on the set of Larry Blamire’s Old Dark House comedy DARK AND STORMY NIGHT and got to share a very merry, talkative lunch with him and other cast members. Then we met him twice more at WonderFest. One of those times, he made a sudden appearance with his wife Alba in our hospitality suite. He remembered Donna and I, or kindly said he did, and it was amazing how their presence just lifted the spirits of the entire room. Donna asked what they would like to drink, but they couldn’t stay - it was Friday, the convention hadn't started yet, and they were going to skip out and do some local antiquing. He said it like they were going on safari to quarry the three-eyed, knob-nosed quintocerous. Whenever I've remembered this, I wish I had tagged along. He was the sort of guy who you feel you've known a lifetime on your first meeting, and it would have been nice to talk with him about life outside the movies. For most of today, my Facebook news feed has been filled with variations on that story by people who knew him for decades, and people who knew him only two minutes.

He was a terrific actor in so many things (even a small role in Samuel Beckett's short FILM, starring Buster Keaton), but the one time he really leaped off the screen was in Dan O'Bannon's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, where he plays the second-in-command at the medical supply place who breaks in the new employee by telling him all the most grotesque secrets of the place, like the fact that George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was based on a true story (!) and the actual zombies are stored in a holding tank downstairs (!!). "You wanna see 'em?" Everything that movie accomplishes does so in the path he so amusingly and winningly paves for it in the first reel. When we saw the movie back in 1985, we saw it at a theater in Kentucky, so the home stretch revelation that its story was set in Louisville was met with uproarious approval by the audience. 

So we revisited RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD earlier tonight to honor Mr. Karen's memory, as it were. It's a very 1980s movie, but I was surprised to be reminded of what an anarchic movie it is - viscerally, musically, sexually. It holds up pretty well, and Karen’s final scene in the picture - the cherry on a remarkably physical performance for a man of 61 (an age he hardly seemed) - is a humdinger. Already dead but not yet quite a zombie, he staggers over to the cremation oven, emotionally and hesitantly removes his wedding ring and hangs it on the On/Off switch, makes the sign of the cross to ask divine forgiveness, then crawls inside, drops the gate and, whoosh, ashes to ashes. I'm told that he just had to get in the oven, that he invented everything else. In its own way (and in context), it’s a “Top o’ the world, Ma!” moment, but in the midst of the movie's zany kamikaze fury, he found a moment in which to make his character a bit more than a cartoon. He gave us a glimpse of his marriage, allowing a glimpse of what was meaningful to him, and human in him... once.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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