Karen Blanche Black (née Ziegler; July 1, 1939 – August 8, 2013) was an American actress, screenwriter, singer and songwriter. She is best known for her appearances in such films as Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Airport 1975 (1974, ironically), The Day of the Locust and Nashville (both 1975), Alfred Hitchcock’s final film Family Plot (1976), and Capricorn One (1978). Though always reliable, these performances did not lead her to the glitz and reward of many A-list actors, leaving her to appear in fun but lower-budget fare, including many horror films, such as The Pyx (1973); Trilogy of Terror (1975) and Invaders from Mars (1986).
Born in Park Ridge, Illinois, Chicago (the same area Harrison Ford grew up), her mother a celebrated children’s author, her father a business man, Black’s family name derives from her Czech, German and Norwegian ancestry. Her sister is the actor and special effects artist, Gail Ziegler, whose claim to fame is as the creator of Ray Milland and Roosevelt Grier’s shared cranium in The Thing With Two Heads (1972). Enrolling at Northwestern University when aged only 15, studying drama under the tutelage of Alvina Krause, also the teacher of both Charlton Heston and Patricia Neal. Upon graduating, Black soon made a name for herself on Broadway, her debut being in The Playhouse in 1965.
Film work had come even sooner, 1960 seeing her big screen debut in The Prime Time, a very of-the-era juvenile gone wild yarn which although featured Black only fleetingly, is also the landmark debut of Godfather of Gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis, who contributed to some of the dialogue. A more meaningful role came six years later, in the knockabout-comedy, You’re a Big Boy Now, only the second feature directed by the up-and-coming Francis Ford Coppola (the first was Dementia 13). Until the end of the decade, Black was seemingly content with television work, including an episode of the underrated The Invaders in 1967 but it was 1969 which proved to be pivotal in her career.
First came her role as a prostitute in Hard Contract (billed as “an unmoral picture”), starring alongside James Coburn and Lee Remick, before yet more streetwalking in the landmark, Easy Rider. The beginning of the following decade promised much; a lead role, opposite Jack Nicholson, in one of the 70’s most overlooked films, Five Easy Pieces (1970); appearing opposite Robert de Niro in Born to Win (1971) and with Kris Kristofferson and Gene Hackman in Cisco Pike (1972). Five Easy Pieces garnered much critical acclaim (an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for Black, as well as receiving a Golden Globe) and Black’s star was on the rise.
Black began to dip her toe in horror waters with an appearance in an episode of the television anthology series, Circle of Fear (the episode being The Bad Connection, written by Richard Matheson; the series was originally titled Ghost Story and was something of a Night Gallery take-off) before her first full horror-related feature, The Pyx, a Canadian film released in 1973.
Here, Black starred as Elizabeth Lucy, a film shown largely in flashback and, remarkably, seeing the actress, yet again, playing a prostitute! Not for the first time, Black also contributed her musical skills to the film, her plaintive and haunting rendition of “Song of Solomon Chapter 3 verses 1-4”, showcasing her voice as far beyond the usual standard displayed by actors in film.
Accolades continued to pile up; another Golden Globe in 1974 for The Great Gatsby; a major part in Robert Altman’s acclaimed, Nashville (1975, now also giving Black the platform to compose as well as sing and act) as well as two iconic, in very different ways, 70’s masterpieces – Day of the Locust and Airport 1975. She could out-sing and out-act much of the competition and wasn’t confined to typecast roles, equally adept as wide-eyed damsel or conniving villain…and prostitute, of course. However, her experience on John Schlesinger’s Day of the Locust was a far from happy one, with the troubled production causing a great deal of strife between both actors and crew, with many pointing the finger, rather unfairly at Black. The irony of this happening during the making of a film documenting the fictitious collapse of a movie empire was no doubt not lost on any of the participants, though it essentially ended Black’s meteoric rise to stardom.
Regardless, her thirst for acting work did not diminish. Her role in the off-beat, slightly daft, Trilogy of Terror, is now considered one of her most memorable roles amongst fans and in many ways is a showcase for her varied acting talents.
Appearing in all three segments, Black also added her own ideas to the script. It again sees the actress working for amongst the greatest talents in the business, the TV film written by the legendary Richard Matheson and directed by Dan Curtis. As if to labour this point, 1976 saw her perform in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, Final Plot.
From the not-entirely successful – though loved by many – Burnt Offerings (again with Curtis and starring opposite Oliver Reed and Bette Davis), the made-for-television oddity The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver, in which she played two roles, or the ahead-of-its-time Capricorn One (both 1977), Black never gave ‘half a performance’ and for many directors, she remained the go-to actress for challenging roles in niche films which demanded an engaging performance in roles which often had a great deal of screen time.
Typical of the fare she was now appearing in was 1979’s Killer Fish, a juicy role for Lee Majors, a remarkable change of fare for Black. Whilst not the nadir of angry poisson flicks, it is comfortable Sunday afternoon viewing and a stark reminder of the shape of her career; it’s no Jaws and it’s not even a Piranha.
The early 1980’s put flesh on the bones of this ominous carcass; a patchy run of low-budget chaff and video boxes swearing blind that everything that occurs on the tape within is ‘based on true events’ provoked only slightly less alarm than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part of her appearing in Cannes in 1982’s The Last Horror Film.
Roles which would ordinarily have been well-suited to Black, especially some of John Carpenter’s female leads, had now gone to actresses like Adrienne Barbeau and Dee Wallace. Worse still, the new wave of horror films were ushering in younger stars more willing to shed clothing than learn lines.
“Scary movies I’ve done — there have been about 14 out of 175. They are not dominant in any way, shape or form. I can tell you what happened, but it was sort of like a mistake. It’s like I went on a bad path and couldn’t find my way back. Being remembered for it is only interesting when you measure it against the few films I’ve done of the genre.
When I did “Trilogy of Terror,” with that [demon] doll, I filled the role very well. It was very real to people, and they just fell in love with it. And that got to be incredibly popular. With my last name being Black … so it got to be kind of an unconscious thing, [my association with horror movies]. But I’m not interested in blood”.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but adopting this stance is peculiar given her involvement with the notorious director Ruggero Deodato in 1985’s Cut and Run. Though hardly Cannibal Holocaust, there can be little doubt that the script suggested only ‘mild peril’. If it’s one of her lesser performances, she can be forgiven, though taking this moral high ground and then starring in the archly silly (though entertaining) Savage Dawn, the same year, smacks of selective memory.
The 80’s ended with more varied genre films, often of differing standards; the now positively reappraised Invaders from Mars (1986) directed by Tobe Hooper; Larry Cohen’s sequel too far, It’s Alive III (1987); there was even time to appear in the eye-popping clown slasher, Out of the Dark, starring Divine as the detective (!)
The 90’s saw true B-movie activity for Black with roles in films it would have been more humane to have buried at sea. Mirror, Mirror and Evil Spirits were veritable graveyards for actresses who had found themselves cast adrift – others of similar misfortune appearing included Martine Beswick and Yvette Vickers, but to sneer at these films is to assume they themselves felt they were award-worthy material. They weren’t but they did pay the bills and they keep such actors in the public conscious.
A last hurrah threatened with a small role in Robert Altman’s The Player but Black played out her career to more gentle applause; Auntie Lee’s Meat Pies (1992); Children of the Corn: The Gathering, Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and a cameo in Ooga Booga (that references her role in Trilogy of Terror) were not the most dignified end to a career that promised so much. Yet, when she died from ampullary cancer in 2013, she had cemented herself as a genuine icon of film – always reliable, always riveting, never afraid to deliver a warts and all performance. Furthermore, Black was the subject of a musical homage in the shape of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, the transgressive glam punk band. What better tribute could one wish for?
The Prime Time (1960)
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Cisco Pike (1972)
Circle of Fear (TV, 1972)
The Pyx (1973)
Airport 1975 (1974)
Trilogy of Terror (1975)
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The Day of the Locust (1975)
Burnt Offerings (1976)
The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (1977)
Capricorn One (1977)
Killer Fish (1979)
The Last Horror Film (1982)
The Blue Man (1985)
Savage Dawn (1985)
Invaders from Mars (1986)
Buy Invaders from Mars on Blu-ray from Amazon.com
Its Alive III (1987)
Out of the Dark (1988)
Evil Spirits (1990)
Haunting Fear (1990)
Night Angel (1990)
Mirror, Mirror (1990)
Children of the Night (1991)
Auntie Lee’s Meat Pies (1992)
Plan 10 from Outer Space (1994)
Children of the Corn IV (1994)
Dinosaur Valley Girls (1996)
Curse of the Forty-Niner (2002)
House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Dr. Rage (2005)
Mommy’s Little Monster (2012)
Ooga Booga (2013)