One of the strangest aspects of today’s Internet film culture is being bombarded by death notices week after week. No one’s life is unworthy of celebration and onetime television TV actors with a single role under the belt often compete with Oscar winning movie stars for attention after they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.
In the flood of online wakes that seem to accumulate around every actor’s death it has become nearly impossible to overlook anyone’s passing so you can imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that one of my favorite British actors, the talented Simon Ward, had passed away in July following a long illness and I had managed to overlook it. Even more depressing were some of the obituaries I read that glossed over much of his career and seemed to suggest that Ward hadn’t lived up to his potential while completely ignoring his outstanding contributions to horror cinema.
Naturally I felt the urge to rectify this since I had grown up admiring the actor in a bundle of praiseworthy thrillers so October seemed like the perfect month to spotlight Simon Ward’s contribution to a genre that continues to divide critics and audiences.
Simon Ward was born on October 16, 1941. At age 13 he joined London’s National Youth Theater and continued to study at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts,). He started acting in British television productions in the mid-1960s and after taking an unaccredited role in Lindsay Anderson’s IF…. (1967), Ward was offered his first major film role in David Greene’s exceptional British thriller, I START COUNTING (1969). Ward’s boyish good looks and edgy screen presence allowed him to effortlessly transform himself into seductive villains as well as romantic heroes but his chameleon-like abilities may have confused producers who couldn’t easily pigeonhole him and didn’t seem to know how to harness his talent.
The actor went on to appear in many popular and critically acclaimed films including YOUNG CHURCHILL (1972), THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973), THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (1974) and ZULU DAWN (1979) but throughout his career Ward returned again and again to the horror genre. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the best horror films and thrillers he appeared in.
I START COUNTING (Dir. David Greene; 1969)
This unusual and chilling film stars young Jenny Agutter as an adolescent girl named Wynn struggling through puberty in some small suburban British town while maintaining a crush on her much older step-brother. When a serial killer begins to murder young women in the area Wynn suspects her stepbrother might be the culprit but there are other suspects including a suspicious bus driver played by Simon Ward. Green’s direction is exceptional at times and the sexual nature of the plot will undoubtedly surprise some viewers. Unfortunately Simon Ward doesn’t get much screen time in I START COUNTING but you won’t easily forget his final moments in this slow-moving and deeply unsettling thriller.
FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (Dir. Terence Fisher; 1969)
This fifth film in Hammer’s Frankenstein series has often been called one of the studio’s best efforts due to its dark nature, Terence Fisher’s atmospheric direction, the clever script and noteworthy performances from the entire cast. In the film Simon Ward plays a young doctor with a beautiful fiancé (Veronica Carlson) who is blackmailed by Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) into helping him create a monster (Freddie Jones). Simon Ward handles himself well in this gothic horror tale and is perfectly suited to star in period pieces. He made an interesting companion for Cushing’s evil doctor and a believable love interest for Carlson. It’s a shame that Ward didn’t appear in more Hammer films.
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (Dir. Dan Curtis; 1974)
The exceptional television adaptation of Stoker’s classic tale was scripted by Richard Matheson and directed by Dan Curtis (of DARK SHADOWS fame). It stars Jack Palance as the bloodthirsty count and Simon Ward is Arthur Harker (otherwise known as Arthur Holmwood), the fiancé of the lovely but doomed Lucy (Fiona Lewis). Arthur has often been portrayed as a somewhat forgettable character in Stoker’s vampire saga and many films eliminate him altogether. But Ward manages to make the role interesting as well as sympathetic and in this thoughtful adaptation he’s as integral as Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) in bringing about Dracula’s demise.
DEADLY STRANGERS (Dir. Sidney Hayers; 1976)
This smart British thriller directed by Sidney Hayers provided Simon Ward with one of his best leading roles as a mysterious traveling salesman on a cross-country road trip who offers to give a pretty young woman (Hayley Mills) a ride. It’s quickly revealed that one of them could be a violent escapee from a local mental hospital and tension mounts as we learn that both of these attractive strangers have lived very troubled lives. DEADLY STRANGERS has plenty of peculiar twists & turns to keep audiences guessing and look for an aging Sterling Hayden in a memorable role as an eccentric driver who also offers to give Mills a lift. Ward’s character is particularly edgy and possibly unhinged so you’ll immediately find yourself questioning his motives and desires. Much like Anthony Perkins or even Peter Lorre, Simon Ward had the ability to deify expectations while quietly terrifying viewers and that’s no small compliment. I only wish he had starred in more films as provocative as DEADLY STRANGERS.
HOLOCAUST 2000 (Dir. Alberto De Martino; 1977)
Following the success of films like ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), THE EXORCIST (1973) and THE OMEN (1976) studios around the world began to try and mimic their winning formula. HOLOCAUST 2000 (aka THE CHOSEN) is an Italian supernatural thriller in the same vein and it’s surprisingly entertaining thanks to Alberto De Martino’s creative direction and strong performances from the film’s stars. In the movie Kirk Douglas plays Robert Caine, an ambitious business tycoon, who along with his son Angel (Simon Ward), wants to exploit the power of nuclear energy for profit. Unfortunately for Douglas’ character he discovers much too late that his son has ulterior motives and is using his influence and position to appease the devil himself. HOLOCAUST 2000 has a lot to recommend it including a surprisingly bleak ending, a potent social message, some incredibly creepy scenes inside an asylum and Kirk Douglas in what might be his only full frontal nude scene. Simon Ward is particularly sinister as the wayward Angel and director Alberto De Martino did a good job of utilizing the actor’s natural charm to disarm viewers.
DOMINIQUE (Dir. Michael Anderson; 1979
Any horror fan worth their salt has seen or at least heard of DOMINIQUE (aka DOMINIQUE IS DEAD). This languid thriller was a late night television standard during the ‘80s and could regularly be found in video stores across the country. Since then it’s fallen into public domain and has been released countless times on DVD often showing up in cheaply compiled horror film collections that can be bought for a dime at your local shopping mall. With that in mind it’s probably one of Simon Ward’s most widely seen movies and needs no introduction from me but for the uninitiated here’s a brief rundown of the plot: DOMINIQUE stars Jean Simmons as the troubled Dominique who’s slowly being driven mad by her greedy husband played by Cliff Robertson. Dominique eventually puts an end to her troubled existence and her husband is haunted by her ghost… or is he? Simon Ward is notable as the couple’s dubious chauffeur and Jenny Agutter (in her second film appearance with Ward) also stars as Cliff Robertson’s somewhat naïve sister. This is a creaky thriller that gets off to a slow start but if you stick with it you might find yourself surprised by the various twists and turns it takes.
THE MONSTER CLUB (Dir. Roy Ward Baker; 1980)
THE MONSTER CLUB was the last horror anthology released by Amicus Productions, one of Britain’s most prolific horror film studios. It was a somewhat desperate attempt to cash in on the pop rock music zeitgeist of the time and contains musical performances from The Pretty Things as well as B. A. Robertson. It maintains a strong cult following thanks to Roy Ward Baker’s direction and tongue-in-check performances from horror film legends Vincent Price, John Carradine and Donald Pleasence. Simon Ward appears in the film’s first story about a mysterious monster known as the Shadmock with a deadly whistle. Ward is originally seen in an asylum wearing a straight jacket and apparently in shock from what he has witnessed. The film flashes back to tell us how he ended up in that state thanks to his dealings with the Shadmock. Ward was given very little to do in the movie but he still managed to inject some personality into his role. THE MONSTER CLUB is nowhere near as satisfying or creative as Amicus’ early anthologies such as DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1964) or ASYLUM (1972) but it’s still a fun ride.
If you’re looking for some fright filled features to watch on Halloween night you should consider spending some time with Simon Ward. Most of the movies mentioned above are available on DVD or can be found streaming online. Happy hunting!
- Simon Ward Obituary
- The Tudors actor Simon Ward dies after long illness
- Young Winston star Simon Ward dies aged 70