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Farewell to the Lovely Karen Black (1939-2013)

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Onscreen she was tough, she was sexy, she was sad, tweaked and twitchy. Often relegated to cult status despite her monolithic talent, Karen Black continued to woo audiences through nearly five busy decades of performing. Karen Black didn’t belong to the horror genre—by the time she made her first genre appearance she was already well known as a rising star from EASY RIDER, FIVE EASY PIECES and CISCO PIKE—but as soon as she showed up in TV’s supernatural anthology series GHOST STORY/CIRCLE OF FEAR (her first of a handful of Matheson scripts to come) we wanted to keep her.

The Dan Curtis and/or Richard Matheson collaborations are how many horror fans remember her best—TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975), BURNT OFFERINGS (1976), THE STRANGE POSSESSION OF MRS. OLIVER (1977)—but she had equally memorable turns in Hitchcock’s 1976 swan song FAMILY PLOT and Robert Altman’s psychodrama COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN (1982), did her part for the Italian exploitation boom with Antonio Margheriti’s KILLER FISH (1979) and Ruggero Deodato’s CUT AND RUN (1985), starred with real-life son Hunter Carson in Tobe Hooper’s INVADERS FROM MARS (1986) and alongside River Phoenix in George Sluizer’s long-unfinished DARK BLOOD, shot in 1993 but released on the festival circuit only this year.

Her ethereal singing voice, featuring the kind of eerie tone and timbre we associate with 70s freak-folk now, became known to film fans through both Harvey Hart’s underrated, Montreal-shot thriller THE PYX, Henry Jaglom’s CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? and most famously, Robert Altman’s ensemble epic NASHVILLE (for which all cast members were required to compose their own songs). Luckily Nate Ashley, creator of the ‘Written in Blood’ horror soundtrack series has compiled an unofficial EP of Karen Black’s music for THE PYX that you can listen to here.

This is not all to say Black’s place was in the 1970s. Among my favourite roles of hers were Trent Harris’ oddball road movie RUBIN & ED (1991) alongside Crispin Glover and “Dr. Johnny Fever” himself, Howard Hesseman, and Jack Perez’ black comedy SOME GUY WHO KILLS PEOPLE (2011), where she steals every scene from character fave Kevin Corrigan. She was a longtime supporter of independent and even student filmmakers, and they embraced her in return. Black’s star shone well into the present day: she was the namesake of Kembra Pfahler’s ‘cinema of transgression’-related punk band ‘The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black’, founded in 1990; Charles Band’s recent OOGA BOOGA (2013) contains a series of references to Black’s past films, most notably its ‘Zuni’-like killer doll and the fact that Black’s character is named ‘Mrs. Allardyce’, a reference to her character in BURNT OFFERINGS; and she has a handful of films still in post-production as we speak.

Her prolific career was cut short when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, and after a long fight with the illness, she passed away August 8th, 2013, at 74 years of age.

In tribute to Karen Black we wanted to post our most recent print interview with her, conducted by Trevor Parker for Fangoria #320. You can see the full article below.

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About the author
Kier-La Janisse http://www.big-smash.com
Kier-La Janisse is a writer and film programmer based in Montreal, Canada. She is the Founding Director of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and a film programmer for Fantastic Fest, POP Montreal and SF Indie. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival in Vancouver and co-founded Montreal's Blue Sunshine Psychotronic Film Centre. She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012).
  • jimmyt1967

    RIP Karen…..you will be missed.

  • Stephan Segantini

    This was another sad news from 2013 that broke my already broken heart!:(

    I grew up with many of her screen personnas, and what great ones they were!!!

    Some day, someone will write a much deserved book about her, but for now we stay with eternal and sweet memories of a beloved actress who faded to black too soon…

  • Evil B.

    She was one of those rare actresses that can disappear in a role. You see only the character, not the star. I sometimes only again realise it was her when I see the credits. RIP.

  • John Ingrassia

    A detailed and wonderful tribute to a woman who helped define the genre, and even help people like Sigourney Weaver be accepted in the man’s world of horror and shape it for a generation. Her role in “Burnt Offerings” cemented my love of horror, and the kind of suspense that keeps me looking for and watching films that offer that same intensity without resorting to shocks and frenetic pacing. I will miss her in all her freaky glory, she was one-of-a-kind.

  • Steven Fouchard

    I’m sure you meant “monolithic” as a compliment, but how?

    • Kier-La Janisse

      ha ha, I meant it as in “singularly towering”, but you’re right, maybe it was not the best word!

      • Steven Fouchard

        Heh. Great piece though. I think you were really onto something with the ‘freak folk’ notion. Ahead of her time. RIP.

  • daniel clavette

    karen black is truly great actress in the some 70/80 horror movies and many other horror movies she will be missed r.i.p .

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