A good horror movie can be a grueling experience. All of that hacking, cracking, and killing can really wear you down if there isn’t some relief. Fortunately smart filmmakers know this to be true and tuck moments of levity, and even sheer delight, into their films to give us viewers a well-earned break. Often this pleasure may come directly from a single character played by a most singular actor or actress. I think of these as “treat” performances. These performances deliver waves of delight amidst the horror, whether the character is a beacon of sweetness in a sea of bitterness or is simply a lot of fun to watch despite being really, really evil.
Still not sure what I mean? Well, then kick off your hobnail boots and peruse the following Ten Treat Performances in Classic Horror Movies!
1. Dwight Frye as Renfield in Dracula (1931)
Although there are few more iconic monster movies than Dracula, it often gets slammed for being slow-moving and talky, more drawing-room mystery than blood-curdling horror. The first twenty minutes of Tod Browning’s film are generally absolved from these charges because watching Bela Lugosi menace Dwight Frye in the sumptuously Gothic Transylvanian setting is unadulterated joy and what a lot of critics want the whole film to be. After the wacky duo jump on a ship to London, Dracula becomes less sinister and more formulaic. Nevertheless, it continues to be terrific—no matter what those blowhard critics say—because every second spent in the presence of Dwight Frye is a treat. Don’t get me wrong. I adore my time with Drac too. Seeing Bela portray Dracula is a lot like getting to Santa Claus in the flesh, being that Bela is such an icon of Halloween and Santa is such an icon of that other major national holiday. But it is Dwight who truly delights. The craziest character in the film is the one to whom we can most relate as he exudes all the desire, hatred, regret, pity, humor, and terror his mostly wooden cast-mates lack.
2. Bela Lugosi as Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Dracula is without question Bela Lugosi’s defining role. It is not necessarily his greatest performance. To see that, please refer to the second sequel of Frankenstein. While the first one, Bride of Frankenstein, seemed to house nothing but treat performances—Ernest Thesiger! Una O’Connor! Colin Clive! Valerie Hobson! Karloff!—there’s really only one in Son of Frankenstein. At this point, Karloff was running low on enthusiasm for playing his beloved monster, which is detectable in a mostly non-descript performance. New additions Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill definitely give memorable performances, but I’d hardly label either as a treat. No, that distinction belongs to Bela, who truly relishes his turn as the film’s real villain. While Dracula is icy and imposing, the broken-necked Ygor exudes white-hot nastiness. The grin never leaves Bela’s face as he goads Frank’s son into revving Karloff’s beast and continues causing mischief for the rest of the picture. All of the personality of Son of Frankenstein radiates from Lugosi’s uncommonly committed performance.
3. Boris Karloff as Cabman John Gray in The Body Snatcher (1945)Karloff too may not have done his very finest work in his most famous role. That’s saying a lot considering how mesmerizing he is as the child-like, love-hungry Frankenstein Monster. However, it is as corpse-procuring madman John Gray in the Burke & Hare-inspired Body Snatcher that Karloff shines like never before. Rarely has the great one infused a character with so much joy. The way he rolls his eyes, grins satanically, and sings his lines brings life to a film steeped in death.
4. Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
No character on this list is responsible for greater horror than sweet, little Minnie Castevet of Rosemary’s Baby. She manipulates a dim-witted, amoral actor into getting his wife raped and impregnated by the devil, himself. Not to mention that she may be the nosiest neighbor on film. Ruth Gordon alleviates her character’s mountain of sins with a performance that is never anything less than 100% charming. She’s so cute and funny (“chocolate mouse”!) as miniature Minnie it’s hard to ever hate her. Even at the end of the movie when Rosemary learns what was done to her, she’s still a little sweetheart, allowing Rosemary to be the mother to her demonic child she kind of wants to be.
5. Peter Cushing as Arthur Grimsdyke in Tales from the Crypt (1972)
From victimizer to victim. Tales from the Crypt animates the gruesome, two-dimensional comics of E.C.’s legendary horror line. While all of these stories are great fun, they are generally as two-dimensional as their paper inspirations. The one grand exception is Peter Cushing’s turn as Arthur Grimsdyke in the tale titled “Poetic Justice”. Arthur is just a lonely old widower who wants to hang out with his pets and the neighborhood kids who regard him as a grandfather figure. Seeing him play with the kids is a lot more like watching charming Mr. Cushing being himself than watching an actor acting. We can imagine the fun continued even after director Freddie Francis yelled, “Cut!” Sadly, Grimsdyke is not all fun, as his nasty neighbor convinces the community his activities with the kids are less than pure, pushing the old man toward depression and suicide (and, since this is E.C. we’re talking about, revenge from beyond the grave). I can’t say this trajectory is a treat, but Cushing continues to marvel as he plays Grimsdyke’s sadness with total authenticity. Still stinging from the recent death of his adored wife, Helen, Cushing really is grieving on screen, which further inflates the heart of the piece.
6. Paula Prentiss as Bobbie Markowe in The Stepford Wives (1975)
Stepford is the most misogynistic little community in America. As soon as one of its young wives start thinking independently, she is immediately replaced with a robotic lookalike that’s wants nothing more than to please its man. This is always a terrible outcome in The Stepford Wives, but you never feel the terribleness as acutely as when Bobbie Markowe gets Stepford-ized. That’s because Paula Prentiss is so lovable as the main character’s best friend. Anyone would want her for a best friend, with her bawdy humor, subversive behavior at boring suburban parties, and awesome lunches of Scotch and Ring Dings. Largely known as a comedic actress, Prentiss brings her usual levity to the vivacious character she plays. When one so full of life is stripped of her individuality and turned into Betty Crocker, it is one nasty trick. The rest of her performance is a total treat.
7. Piper Laurie as Margaret White in Carrie (1976)
The first adaptation of Stephen King’s first book actually has a few treat performances. Nancy Allen and John Travolta as the jerkiest couple in school are a lot of fun to watch. But the most fun is the one who’s really responsible for all the carnage little Carrie White causes. As her mom, Margaret White, Piper Laurie is both terrifying and super-camp hilarious. Laurie actually thought the film was a comedy when she first read the script, and Brian DePalma seemed to have allowed her to continue down that path when he started filming. So as awful as Jesus-freak Margaret White is—and she is really, really awful—she’s always a ton of fun to watch… even when she’s locking her scared daughter in a closet with the scariest religious statue in cinema history.
8. Griffin Dunne as Jack Goodman in An American Werewolf in London (1981)
An American Werewolf in London is another picture with its share of treat performances, but one stands out among the pack. Like Paula Prentiss, Griffin Dunne is an actor usually cast in comic roles, and like Piper Laurie, he plays Jack Goodman as if he’s starring in a comedy. Indeed, many categorize An American Werewolf in London as a horror-comedy even though director John Landis insists that wasn’t his intention. Obviously, the director of Animal House and Trading Places knew his film contained a lot of humor, but it does work as a full-blooded horror movie with some of the scariest scenes on film. Some of the grossest are seeing recently deceased Jack Goodman decomposing while acting as friendly and funny as ever. His chummy sex talk and antics with a Mickey Mouse doll really alleviate the horror of his hamburger-faced appearance. So does the natural charisma of Griffin Dunne.
9. Kyle MacLachlan as Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
Although it featured what may be the most heinous crime ever given center stage on a network drama, “Twin Peaks” was simply busting with delights: the comic relief of Lucy and Andy, the sexy characters, the fragrant Douglas Fir trees, the delicious cherry pie, and the way outsider Agent Dale Cooper reveled in it all. When David Lynch made that heinous crime the focus of the feature-film extension of the series he co-created, there wasn’t much room for the TV show’s many treats. Thus Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is an excellent but unrelentingly grim movie. Even the opening passage in Deer Meadow, which contains most of the film’s overt humor, is downbeat compared to the series. Then we finally get some relief with the appearance of our old friend Dale Cooper. MacLachlan didn’t really want to be in the movie, so he only allowed Lynch a few days of his time, which means we only see Coop for a few minutes. But those few minutes are comfortingly spent, whether he’s back chatting with Diane on his little cassette recorder or guiding Laura Palmer’s soul to an afterlife warmer and more welcoming than nightmarish Twin Peaks. Kyle is a cuddly blanket in a box of nails of a movie.
10. William Castle as William Castle in Every William Castle Movie Featuring William Castle
Here’s another bit of a cheat, because really, few filmmakers made horror movies more resplendent in treats than William Castle. Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill? Margaret Hamilton in 13 Ghosts? Illusion-O? Emergo? Percepto? All among cinema’s neatest treats. Still, the biggest treat in Castle’s treat-loaded movies is the big lug, himself. The filmmaker often appeared in the first reel, a smile effortlessly stretched across his grandfatherly face, to explain his latest film’s latest gimmick. Even at 40, I still want to crawl through the screen and sit on his lap. The man is a treat.