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It’s hard to imagine Danny DeVito’s utterly revolting Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot in Tim Burton’s BATMAN RETURNS without thinking that maybe his bizarre persona had at least something to do with how he was raised. In fact, his story was not one merely of botched upbringing, but total abandonment. And if one has to point fingers, you could look no further than Oswald’s icy-cold mother, played by character actress and acclaimed theater veteran Diane Salinger. Now, Salinger is traumatizing—and worse—a whole group of unlucky kids as the vile Miss Darrode in director Darin Scott’s festival-award-winning DARK HOUSE, now available everywhere as part of the FANGORIA FrightFest’s eight-title collection on DVD from Phase 4 Films and via video-on-demand (check local listings) and iTunes.
Salinger’s DARK HOUSE attachment came through traditional means, with an instant directorial stamp of approval for her interpretation of the film’s demonic villainess, who menaces a group of young actors hired to work in the titular haunted attraction. “I went in and auditioned, and that was basically it,” she recalls. “There were a couple of scenes, the one where I’m whipping the boys and girls, but [especially] the main scenes, after I had murdered all these children and realized what I had done. That’s when I stuck my hand in the sink…oh God! [Laughs] Darin said that after he saw that a couple of times, he just knew he had his Miss Darrode.”
The portrayal of twisted maternal figures—beginning with BATMAN RETURNS and continuing through the recent REST STOP films as “The Mother”—is a common theme throughout the actress’ filmography, and DARK HOUSE is no exception. “I’ve never thought about it before, but these stories are absolutely exploring different aspects of motherhood,” Salinger says. “When I was in college, I had done a paper about the great mother archetype, which we see in all cultures. For instance, in India there’s Kali the Destroyer, the mother goddess, where not only is she nurturing, but she’s also destructive. Teaching acting, I’ve observed that male actors often have problems with their fathers and women with their mothers. It’s also true with many writers I’ve been close to.”
Miss Darrode’s violent exploits as an abusive foster guardian wouldn’t appear to be akin to the likes of say, Deepak Chopra, but Salinger is quick to explain how she perceives her character: as a healer, even given the evils she enacts on screen. “It may look in some of these films like I’m the villain, that I’m this insane, bloodthirsty killer, but all she’s doing is healing herself,” Salinger says. “Miss Darrode had to kill this child, because to her it wasn’t a child. She was killing the demon inside. I don’t think there is evil as we see it, or even such a thing as evil at all. It’s mostly cases of people just trying to right the wrong of what was done to them.”
Full-on immersion in her characters is an approach Salinger embraces, though on DARK HOUSE, virtually all preparatory constraints were checked at the door. Researching for her role on TV’s CÀRNIVALE, she recalls, “I had a pass to go into this entire mental facility and stayed with patients. For REST STOP, I went to a Pentecostal church, and I had observed how they would speak in tongues and go into kind of trancelike states. But for DARK HOUSE, I didn’t do any exterior research. It was just about the reality of this woman who needed to kill all these children and has come back because she had missed one [played by Meghan Ory]. I almost always do research, but there was really none I could do for this part. What brought this on was that Miss Darrode felt these kids had violated her. She was a religious fanatic in a way, but she had this intense need to give these children horrible lives. Then when they burned the Bibles, that just set her off. I went so deeply into myself and thought about who and what has really injured me, and how this woman would kill that and get back at that to reclaim her power. It was all extremely internal.”
A leader of her own self-established acting group, Salinger reflects on some of the comedic elements of DARK HOUSE’s own troupe of budding thespian characters and the horrors they come to face. “Their lives are easy, it’s fun, they’re breezing through life,” she says. “Darin set up that they either don’t care or don’t take it seriously. It was a brilliant way to create arcs for them, so that there’s much more development by the time they get themselves into this terrible situation.”
Salinger’s high praise for her DARK HOUSE helmer even comes with comparisons to the legendary Clint Eastwood, from whom she took direction on BIRD. In that Eastwood biopic, Salinger played the Baroness Nica, an alluring jazz-world figure dubbed “The Angel of Death.” “Darin’s one of the finest filmmakers I’ve ever worked with,” she says. “One of the great things about Clint, which Darin shares, is that he allows his actors space to do what they want to do. He only reins you in when he thinks you’re going in a direction that he doesn’t want it to go. But he really honors actors. That’s a sign of a great director, and that’s what Darin did. He really had faith in his actors and would steer you only when he absolutely needed to. He really let you be, which is incredible. It shows a great deal of strength.”
In citing a specific example of Scott’s guidance, Salinger sheds some light on her relatively newfound affinity for horror. “The one time he took me in another direction is probably my favorite scene in the movie,” she recalls. “I’m in the attic, where I have come back. My hair is all wild, the chair turns around and then I attack Meghan and jump on top of her. I really love that scene. I had prepared it much more low-key; I wanted to save the high intensity for the last scene when I’m speaking in Latin, where I get her to come out from the pantry door from the kitchen, and we charge at each other and I disappear. That was the climax, so I thought that for this other scene I’d hold back, so that there would be more of an arc. And Darin came over at about 2 a.m. and said, ‘You know, you’ve gotta pull out all the stops.’ I said, ‘Well, are you sure?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely, you’ve got to pull out all the stops.’ And it turned the moment; I just let it rip.”
Salinger retains fond memories of her DARK HOUSE stint. “I loved playing Ms. Darrode,” she says. “I’m really proud of the work and the movie, because I was able to really let go and let anything happen. Horror movies are very much like doing theater; there’s a freedom on stage where you can actually fly, whereas in film you don’t always get that chance. In both the REST STOP movies and in DARK HOUSE, I could really fly. I went home feeling so great after every day shooting on DARK HOUSE; I was able to release all this rage and hostility. I felt fabulous! [Laughs] It was wonderful and extremely cathartic, which is what it should be. I love taking something to that extreme.”
TO BE CONTINUED
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