Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on February 18, 2016
Jack Palance & his infamous bowler hat on the set of Torture Garden (1968)
Everyone seems to have their own Jack Palance. The Oscar-winning actor, who would be celebrating his birthday today if he was still with us, is typically remembered as the star of popular westerns including Shane (1953) and City Slickers (1991). Others might remember him as a familiar face in Film Noir and numerous crime films made in America as well as Europe. While some may be fond of his roles in war movies and historical epics but for me, Jack Palance will always be the star of some great horror films.
I first saw the tall, broad featured and chiseled actor in Man in the Attic (1953) where he played Jack the Ripper in this fourth film adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1913 novel, The Lodger. I was only a kid at the time but Palance’s quietly seething performance impressed me due to the sympathy he was able to generate for his unlikable character. Jack the Ripper is typically portrayed as a cold-blooded maniac or sexually motivated monster but Palance, despite his menacing presence, was able to imbue his Ripper with a complex psychology that was thought provoking and surprisingly contemporary. As a seemingly harmless killer with an unmanageable Oedipus complex, Palance’s Ripper prefigures the often-cited character of Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Top: Man in the Attic (1953)
Palance was also impressive and downright terrifying in the lead roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974). These two top-notch Dan Curtis television productions are often overshadowed by more recognizable and bigger-budgeted film adaptations but horror fans who appreciate these classic tales of terror should seek them out. Palance’s duel role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde provided him with one of the best opportunities to demonstrate his acting finesse and versatility. And he was also able to manage a similar trick as Dracula thanks to script updates that provided the fanged fiend with a romantic backstory. Palance’s Count is a a forlorn lover as well as a powerful figure that generates fear. In both telefilms, he delivers nuanced performances that revitalize the all too familiar characters he portrays.
Two of my favorite Jack Palance performances can be found in British horror films directed by Freddie Francis . Francis was a master cinematographer (Room at the Top; 1958, Sons and Lovers; 1960, The Innocents; 1961, The Elephant Man; 1980, etc.) and a prolific horror director (The Evil of Frankenstein; 1963, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors; 1965, The Skull; 1965, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave; 1968, etc.) who regularly worked with studios producing frightening fare such as Hammer, Amicus and Tigon. Palance’s first film with Francis was the Amicus horror anthology Torture Garden (1968), where he appeared in one of the best segments titled “The Man Who Collected Poe.” In it, Palance plays a passionate collector whose fixation with Edgar Allen Poe leads him to commit murder.
Top: Palance with director Freddie Francis
In “The Man Who Collected Poe,” Palance manages to hold his own with horror icon Peter Cushing as the two actors discuss Poe’s work with great enthusiasm. Palance, much like Cushing, does not treat the genre with disdain and seems to relish his roll while chewing-up and spitting-out the scenery. His character is delightfully devilish and uncommonly urbane while he smokes his pipe and devotes his attention to Gothic literature. In the real world, Palance was a Stanford University graduate with a degree in Journalism and Theatre as well as a passionate art collector who enjoyed painting and writing poetry. You get a genuine sense of the real man that Palance was underneath his tough-guy Hollywood image in Torture Garden, which allowed the actor to flaunt his genuine appreciation for the written word as well as his sincere enthusiasm for collecting. Palance was also a reported Anglophile and must have relished being able to make movies in the United Kingdom with a British cast and crew.
Palance’s final film with Freddie Francis was the often-maligned thriller, Craze (1974). This low-budget quickie shot in a few short weeks was rushed in and out of production by shlock master Herman Cohen (Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla ; 1952, I Was a Teenage Werewolf; 1957, Horrors of the Black Museum; 1959, Konga; 1961, Black Zoo; 1963, Berserk!; 1968, Trog; 1970, etc.) before Francis had time to set up a proper shot or give his unfortunate cast any direction. The bonkers plot involves a bisexual psychotic antiques dealer, played by Palance, obsessed with a statue of an evil African god who begins sacrificing unsuspecting women to the idol in order to get rich.
The film has a uniformly great cast that includes androgynous Martin Potter (Satyricon; 1969, Goodbye Gemini; 1970, Satan’s Slave; 1976, etc.) as Palance’s live-in associate and undisclosed boyfriend while stalwart Trevor Howard (The Third Man; 1949, The Key; 1958, Sons and Lovers; 1960, etc.) plays one of the detectives (along with Michael Jayston, Percy Herbert & David Warbeck) eager to put the killer behind bars. Diana Dors, Dame Edith Evens and Hugh Griffith all make brief appearances and Palance’s victims include Kathleen Byron, Julie Ege and Suzy Kendall. Unfortunately the supporting cast is somewhat wasted but Palance adeptly rises to the occasion and makes the most of the crude production and flimsy script. His maniacal turn as a sexually ambiguous murderer who ruthlessly disposes of his victims is effective and memorable.
According to producer Herman Cohen, Palance was eager to star in the film because his role was so different from the parts he was typically offered in Hollywood and he got so deeply involved with his character that he frightened his costars. He was particularly rough with actress Julie Ege during her murder scene and managed to physically hurt the actress. She claimed Palance didn’t like her but Francis and Cohen were sure it was an accident due to his commitment to the role. Despite the film’s flaws and failings, Palance keeps things interesting and makes the movie well worth a watch if you can appreciate his scene stealing bravado.
I hope this brief look at some of my favorite Jack Palance performances will encourage you to seek out the horror films he appeared in. He may have been a badass cowboy, an authentic solider and convincing gangster, but Palance was also a unique presence in horror films who left an indelible mark on the genre.
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