Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Aging Movie Star in the Horror/Sci-Fi Genre

A recurring theme of the horror/sci-fi film genre is the figure of the old and wise character who is often performed by the aging star actor.   This character is typically a doctor or scientist, and holds knowledge of the monster, alien, and/or of character's superpowers.   These characters are often highly educated, speak very intelligently, dress professionally, and have a calming presence for spectators.   They often arrive in the narrative with pivotal information that motivates and drives the plot forward.
Consider the movie Them! (1954) one of the first atomic-age monster films, which casts aging star Edmund Gwenn as Doctor Harold Medford, an entomologist, who discovers that the mutant ants are powerless without their antennae. Even though the scientific discourse in the film seems be a bit obvious, the knowledge of the mutant has to pass through the figure of Medford as the figure of knowledge to legitimatize it's narrative exposition.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there seemed to be a plethora of horror/sci-fi films with the aging star as the figure of knowledge and reason. For example, John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) starred Donald Pleasence as Dr. Samuel Loomis, Michael Myers' psychiatrist.  It is Dr. Loomis who knows Michael's condition and intentions that he will kill his sister and believes he is the only one knows how to stop him.

In Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), it is the Overlook Hotel's chef, Dick Hallorann (played by Scatman Crothers), who discloses to Danny's that they both have the gift of "shining," the power to telepathically read each others thoughts as well as seeing premonitions.  In this case, Hallorann is not a scientist or doctor, but the figure who has a direct pipeline to the Overlook hotel's past.

In David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone (1983), Herbert Lom plays neurologist Dr. Sam Weizak as the figure of the older erudite man who provides knowledge to viewers about Johnny Smith's (Christopher Walken) power of seeing a person's future through physical contact.

As a side note - The Dead Zone has a fantastic and creepy opening credit sequence where the lettering of the title's typography slowly appears on the screen over images of the town of Castle Rock, Maine.  Here, the title sequence emphasize the letters' negative space, which reflects the concept of "the dead zone," a void in the future that Johnny cannot predict-such as the ending of the film. 
We also find the casting of the aging actor as the conveyer of knowledge in fantasy/science fiction films.  Most famous is the casting of Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi in Star Wars (1977).  Ben plays the figure of the aging Jedi Knight who explains to young Luke about Darth Vader and the Clone Wars.

Even the political sci-fi thriller Children of Men (2006) casts Michael Caine as the character of an aging hippie cartoonist, Jasper Palmer.  Palmer as the conveyer of knowledge and comic relief helps propose the plan for Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and Theo Faron's (Clive Barker) escape.

The icon of the aging star plays an important function in the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres as the communicator of knowledge, wisdom and reason.  And it is interesting to note that many of these characters are often white males.  And the one non-white character listed above (as the figure of knowledge) happens to be the chef!

The role of the aging star actor also raises the question of science fiction and horror films as occupying a B-film status. Of course, we all know that most sci-fi, superhero and horror films are produced with high quality, especially given the power of today's special effects.  And many of these fables and story worlds are well written, and inform us about our own experiences of everyday life on planet earth.  

But given that the overall body of work of these older actors is not often associated with fantasy and horror films suggests how the presence of an aging star can help legitimize a film's exploration of topics such as mutant bugs, telepathy, monsters, and other forces beyond the everyday world.

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