Karen Black and True Terror: Remembering An Icon

Celebrity obituaries are a complicated business. At their worst, they reveal just how emotionally tethered many people are to the strangers who entertain them. That’s not so much a typical, elitist “sheeple are stupid” indictment as it is a genuinely sorrowful thought at how many people lack the kind of companionship that renders celebrity a diversionary sidenote to an existence rich with interpersonal connection. Nevertheless, some celebrities leave behind bodies of work that leave indelible marks on our collective consciousness — they are part of why we became what we became, so when they pass it effects us personally, and not without good reason. I think a lot of people can say that about Karen Black, and that’s why this seemed like a worthwhile moment to pause and look back on one of her greatest roles: the English teacher Julie Eldrich from the 1975 made-for-TV movie Trilogy of Terror.

I’m a horror aficionado, but a disbelief in the supernatural is so deeply ingrained into my thought patterns that only rare and masterful depictions of the supernatural that use demons and witches to create an encompassing atmosphere of psychological terror are able to push my fear buttons (think The Shining, The Exorcist, and to a lesser extent The Conjuring etc.) As a rule, the holy grail of terror to me is a depiction of the absolutely plausible rank side of human behavior. I’m not talking about Funny Games or The Strangers, where the monsters are humans doing monstrous things–those films are OK, but they’re too set up, the people a bit too capital-e Evil.

I hate to give too much away for those who haven’t seen it (video is posted below, though it should come with a trigger warning) suffice to say that “Julie” is about Steubenville, it’s about Ariel Castro, it’s about the kinds of patterns of male behavior that make decent men ashamed to have been born a man. All the more impressively, it was made almost 40 years ago. And since it was made-for-TV, there is no Irreversible-styled prolonged, explicit brutality. Just sleazy leers in the shadows, and portrayals of violation that are as disturbing as they are in part because they are both plausible and lowercase-e evil. The things that really happen in our backyard.

I’m not familiar with Black’s entire oeuvre, and I don’t mean to say that the whole of her career was a monument to female empowerment. Even the second vignette of Trilogy deals in certain stereotypes of madness that feminism has been dismantling for decades. But the reversal in “Julie” that concludes the story puts the audience’s sympathies in all the right places. It performs a supernatural turn(about) that changes everything you saw in the preceding scenes. Black’s metamorphosis from delicate to demonic is unforgettable. It’s that moment of identification with Julie as the hero, rather than the victim, that I think of as one of those indelible, meaningful marks on one’s consciousness.

While Karen Black did appear in notable dramatic films such as Five Easy Pieces, and Robert Altman’s Nashville, there is nevertheless a tendency for many to think of her as primarily a horror actress. Truffaut famously lauded Hitchcock’s work and wanted to recuperate it from the lesser-than genre bin on the grounds that fear is as legitimate an emotion to explore in cinema as any. In honor of her memory, I’d like to move that we look back on the great Karen Black not as a scream queen, but as a queen, plain and simple.