Karen Black: Dark Lady of American Independent Cinema


^ Dark Lady : Karen Black in “Burnt Offerings” 

In her acting career spanning some fifty years, Karen Black created some memorable characters and won some prestigious awards (an Oscar for FIVE EASY PIECES, for one thing). Born in Illinois, Karen Ziegler changed her name and made a name for herself as a quirkily-beautiful icon. She studied with Lee Strasberg, won acclaim on Broadway for her 1965 stage debut, and worked as a character actress in television (on shows like MANNIX, THE BIG VALLEY and ADAM-12) before a juicy part in Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER established her as a demi-goddess of American independent cinema (which, in 1969, didn’t have such a high-falutin’ name—people simply made movies). Then came Bob Rafelson’s brilliant film FIVE EASY PIECES, also starring Jack Nicholson, which won Oscar nominations for Nicholson, Black and Rafelson (and which won Black the Golden Globe), and the intense beauty with the strange eyes was now a hot commodity.

If you’re of a certain generation, you may recall a made-for-TV movie from 1975 called TRILOGY OF TERROR, comprising three shorts, all with a horror plotline, all starring Ms. Black. The one in which she played a woman who received a Zuni fetish doll that came to life and chased her around the house was the stuff of many a teenage nightmare (at least, according to my schoolmates; I didn’t actually see the film myself for many years but I recall my friends going on about it constantly).  The year before, in 1974, Black played an unlikely heroine in AIRPORT 1975, one of a series of disaster films that took place in the air. There’s a great moment when a passenger screams “The stewardess is flying the plane!” and his fellow passengers scream in horror.

The mid-1970s were a rich time in Black’s career: roles in THE GREAT GATSBY, NASHVILLE, DAY OF THE LOCUST, and a horror film, based on a novel that gained a cult following, called BURNT OFFERINGS all cemented Black’s growing reputation as a sultry and sometimes crazy character actress. A few more forgettable roles followed in the later 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1982 with COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN, in which she played a transsexual with a painful past opposite fellow thespians Sandy Dennis and Cher that she seemed to have regained some of her mid-70s mojo.

Black continued to appear in multiple roles throughout the 1980s and 1990s, often in horror films — some of them deplorable went straight to video. But leave it to Rob Zombie to cast her as the deranged, hyper-sexual Mother Firefly in his arty gore-fest HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES in 2003. Black continued acting up until her death, despite having been diagnosed with cancer in 2010; two films are to be released posthumously. The trajectory of Ms. Black’s career, which some may call tragic or disappointing, after her relative success early on, show a consummate professional who never stopped plying her unsettling charms, in an industry where women of a certain age are often utterly disregarded. The breadth of her film and television roles make an admirable achievement, and her status as an icon of cult films  (even the many B-grade horror flicks she made ) should not be forgotten soon.

— Peg Aloi / Here and Sphere correspondent