I have a very deep emotional connection with the amazing Karen Black, but I only came to realize it just recently. Let me explain: I watched a horror flick way back when I was starting to discover my love of that genre. I never remembered the name of it, but it stuck with me for years. The movie involved a woman who brought home some sort of little tribal doll that came to life and terrorized her in her apartment. That little fucker stood only about a foot tall, but it had intense manic energy, and chased her around the apartment, attacking her with its razor sharp teeth. It was absolutely terrifying, and I’ll go as far as to say it was the singular reason why I was afraid of “the monsters” under the bed. Every night, I’d run into my room and leap onto the bed, to avoid the potential dangers that lurked under the dust ruffle.
Years passed, and as I developed a love for horror, the terror of what lurked under the bed began to fade. I never did forgot the effect that movie had on me, though. I couldn’t for the life of me remember the name of it, and since this was pre-internet times (aka the Dark Ages), I couldn’t find it online. As I got older, it became a distant childhood mystery. Fast-forward to last Halloween, when I was looking through some horror blogs about classic films, and I stumbled upon an image of Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror. Holy mother of Christ! I had found the movie that had terrorized my youth, and it starred the Goddess of Horror, KAREN FUCKING BLACK. This was truly a Halloween miracle. I re-watched Trilogy of Terror, and it was just as delightful and scary as I remembered, filled with shag carpeting and other excellent ’70s decor. It felt like I’d found a missing puzzle piece and I was finally whole.
Along with being a huge influence on me during my development as a horror-film lover, Karen Black has a few other accomplishments under her belt. A suburban Chicago native, Black made her first acting debut on Broadway in 1965. Her first big film role was in Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now, but it wasn’t until she starred in 1969’s Easy Rider alongside Dennis Hopper as an “acid-tripping prostitute” (cool name, bro!) that the public really took notice of her.
She received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress, and won a Golden Globe for her next role in Five Easy Pieces, in which she appeared alongside Jack Nicholson. Black went on to star in a long list of films, including Airport 1975 (on which the legendary spoof Airplane is based), Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Burnt Offerings (1976), and a plethora of other films.
In her later career (my personal favorite era of hers, although Black would definitely disagree with me on that), she mostly starred in horror films and other offbeat movies. I watched a few interviews where she talked about being unhappy that her name was forever attached to the horror genre. Sure, no one gave two shits about most of these films, but there’s a reason they inspired a cult following—Black was sexy and irresistibly strange in every role she played, and that campiness made a big impression on plenty of people besides me. Punk performance artist Kembra Pfahler named her band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black in tribute to the actress, and Rob Zombie gave Black a role (Mother Firefly) in his first film, 2003’s House of a Thousand Corpses. On August 8, 2013, she lost her battle with cancer at the age of 74, but I her legacy and her cult fame will stick around for a long, long while.
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