A Top 10 By Request for reader Robby Karol, in thanks for his contribution to the Carry On Campaign benefiting the American Cancer Society.
The Ten Best B-Movie Performers of All Time
(limited, for reasons related to my sanity, to American movie stars… and no list I’ve ever put together has ever been, by its nature, so subject to “hey, you forgot about…!” comments. So please, have at ’em!)
10. Lance Henriksen (definitive role: “Frank Black” in Millennium [TV])
Despite appearances in the odd mainstream picture – including three James Cameron films and The Right Stuff – the gravel-voiced man with the dourest face in America is almost always a bellwether of something truly, irrepressibly bad coming along. Yet even if only something like 10% of his career was spent in movies with even the remotest aesthetic value, the man himself always brings a seriousness and gravity to his characters, a comforting harbor even in the roughest made-for-television hellstorm.
9. Linnea Quigley (definitive role: “Trash” in The Return of the Living Dead)
Arguably the “shallowest” performer on this list: she is noted primarily for screaming well, and having virtually no modesty about taking off her top on camera. Yet by no means is her strong cult following based on such trivial things as exploitation! There’s a certain undefinable X-quality to her acting, which is never especially technically accomplished, but evinces a force of personality, a sort of camera-grabbing charisma, that she can never appear in anything so bad that her mere presence doesn’t brighten it up considerable.
8. John Agar (definitive role: “Steve March”, The Brain from Planet Arous)
A charitable observer would call this mainstay of 1950s sci-fi horror a “stiff” actor; but even if Shirley Temple’s first husband, who made his debut in John Ford’s Fort Apache, was never going to come within hollering distance of an acting award, he absolutely never needed to. His stock in trade was the stern-jawed American Man upon whose back so many B-movies of that era were carried, and you can tell somewhat from watching him that he knew he wasn’t good enough for anything else: and thus he never fell into the crummy over-acting that afflicts so many of his peers. He is the equivalent of sensible shoes or a plain black dress: neither imaginative nor fun, but the world would fall apart without him.
7. Bela Lugosi (defintive role: “Dracula”, Dracula)
Probably the worst actor to ever turn in such an iconic performance. If Dracula isn’t exactly a B-movie, its heart is in the right place, and without a doubt it set the awe-inspiringly overbaked Hungarian on the road that took him through some of the most humiliating stops in any major star’s career, ending in the dire wrack of Ed Wood’s fever dreams. Through every moment of it, though, Lugosi put forth such a damned magnetic image that even at his lowest, he retains a sort of tortured, mad dignity. Almost nobody could ever steal a scene from him, no matter how much “better” they were.
6. Pam Grier (definitive role: “Foxy Brown”, Foxy Brown)
The Grande Dame of blaxploitation, a woman of such fierce authority onscreen that Quentin Tarantino made an entire movie just to pay her homage. Rarely to never given a role that lived up to her abilities (yeah, her and virtually every African-American actress who has ever worked in cinema), but when called upon to play a tough-ass chick with a sharp tongue and bigger brains than anyone else in the room, virtually no-one has ever done it better. She’s got enough guts and strength that she could even make a women-in-prison movie look empowering.
5. John Carradine (definitive role: “Gaston Morrell”, Bluebeard)
What a hell of a career: from member of the John Ford Stock Company to Universal’s third-string Dracula replacement to a featured role in the face-melting Night Train to Mundo Fine to appearances in films by Scorsese and Coppola. But you’d expect that kind of variety from the man who may hold the record for most film roles in history. The result is a performer that you simply can’t get a handle on – his work ranges from truly excellent to completely lousy, sometimes in the span of just a year or two – except to stand back, impressed by the magnitude of his legend. To see John Carradine is to see ham at its finest, with never a hint of shame to stand between the audience and the full brunt of his cheesy grandeur.
4. Bruce Campbell (definitive role: “Ash”, Evil Dead II)
The encapsulation of so much that defines the B-actor: unafraid to get as hammy as he possibly can, but you can tell that real skill lies beneath it; an endless well of bravado from which to create one stalwart All-American hero after another; movie star good looks that aren’t quite good enough to make him a movie star. And on top of it all, Campbell is perhaps uniquely delighted with his own status as a cult figure, ready and eager to pick roles that will service his fandom, upend their expectations, or do both at the same time. Fun at his most serious, with a hard edge at his funniest, and who else would have the balls to direct and play himself as a monstrous egomaniac to such funhouse mirror effect as we saw in My Name Is Bruce?
3. Christopher Lee (definitive role: “Lord Summerisle”, The Wicker Man)
With a career pinballing from Jess Franco’s rip-off of his legendary turn as Dracula for Hammer Studios to some of the most goofily charming pirate movies ever made, and culminating in full-on Elder Statesmen mode in the ’00s, such that he’s the only human being to have appeared in both the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings series (and he was a James Bond villain to boot!), Lee has never given a single role less than every ounce of his abilities as a classically-trained British actor, even if he kind of hates it – and it sometimes seems like he’s hated just about everything he’s ever appeared in. This is the essence of what makes him absolutely great: his towering presence and menacing voice and profound conviction instantly elevate any project lucky enough to have him, thought it’s as prestigous as The Three Musketeers or as scummy as Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf. A legend and an icon, and at 88, he’s not even slowing down.
2. Peter Cushing (definitive role: “Victor Frankenstein”, The Curse of Frankenstein)
Chris Lee’s Hammer stablemate didn’t make the same inroads into respectable mainstream fair (only Star Wars, and that was really just a B-picture with A-picture box office), but for my money, he was always the superior actor, and not just because he had more range than Lee’s very effective but very overused “imperious threatening asshole” routine. What Cushing brought to so many performances – though unlike some of the names on this list, he wasn’t above giving up when the script was bad enough – was a depth of human feeling almost inconceivable in the kind of shady genre fare in which he usually found himself. Bringing grace and humanity to stories of monsters and vampires and all sorts of bloody affairs, Cushing was inimitable proof that there is no part that cannot be enriched by a great actor.
1. Vincent Price (definitive role: “Prince Prospero”, The Masque of the Red Death)
Imagine the craziest performer out there, and ratchet him up to 11. You now have Vincent Price in his “sedate” mode. No-one but no-one could go so far over the top that they were coming back from underneath as he did; in The Abominable Dr. Phibes he was even able to overact without benefit of being able to move his face. But Price was never campy or hammy – not unintentionally so. His genius was in teasing out the elements of gigantic broadness that could make even the junkiest B-movie a tremendously entertaining playground, and letting forth with all the overripe gusto that one man could gather up inside of him. Never cartoonish, and often even genuinely brilliant (check out Witchfinder General to see how amazing he could be in a deadly serious mood), Price knew exactly what to do to best serve each movie he appeared in, and in common with everyone on this list, but more than all of them combined, he is never, ever boring.