There are certain characters in movies of all genres that are just as memorable, if not more so, than the main protagonist(s). In comedy, for example, it’s often the sidekick who gets the best lines, and these are the ones we’re often still quoting five years later.
In horror, the most memorable characters can be part of an ensemble to a brief cameo, but they’re always integral (even if it’s in a fleeting way) and without a doubt they’re the character that you immediately recall every time the movie is mentioned.
In honour of these supporting players, of sorts, I’ve put together the following list of some of my personal favourites and some thoughts on the role or actor. Some of these you’ll instantly recognise, or may even be a fan of yourself, others less so. Let us begin…
Tom Bailey (Michael Ripper) The Reptile (1966)
If you’re only a causal fan of Hammer you may not be aware of Michael Ripper, but to aficionados the actor is something of a hero, having appeared in more Hammer Productions output than any other actor; Michael Ripper’s face and voice are unmistakeable. His first film for the company was the 1948 crime movie The Dark Road, and culminated 24 years later with That’s Your Funeral. As a fan of Hammer’s horror output, however, his work on The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, shot back-to-back in 1965 are my favourite of Ripper’s roles, particularly the latter in which he plays pub landlord Tom Bailey, he of exquisite chin beard. Ripper played a variety of roles in Hammer’s productions over the course of his career, featuring in 35 films for the company. You may not recognise him, but if you’ve seen even a handful of Hammer films, chances are Michael Ripper was in at least one of them
Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
Angel Blake does not get mentioned enough when discussion turns to horror movie villains. At once a raw beauty and truly malevolent presence, Blake’s transformation from unruly adolescent to de facto satanic cult leader, piecing together the body of the fiend by means of murder and growing a pair of staggeringly odd eyebrows in the process, is probably Linda Hayden‘s best performance. Blake is wicked and depraved, taking great delight in the chaos she helps to instigate, even presiding over one of the film’s darkest scenes, the rape and murder of Cathy Vespers in front of the baying teen cult. Decades later, The Blood on Satan’s Claw director Piers Haggard conceded that the scene is perhaps too disturbing and in hindsight wishes he’d filmed it differently. There’s no denying that it is a truly shocking sequence, but there’s an argument that editing the more explicit elements would perhaps remove the grim power of the scene; we’re supposed to be shocked by these horrific acts and this scene highlights the depravity of the cult unflinchingly. Nonetheless, Angel Blake remains a twisted, monstrous character who should be held in high regard among horror fans.
Joanne Clayton (Joan Collins) ‘…And All Through the House’ – Tales From The Crypt (1972)
Long before the shoulder pads, wigs and other accoutrements that made her so recognisable as Alexis Colby in Eighties soap staple, Dynasty, Joan Collins had already starred for director Howard Hawks and performed alongside the likes of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. It was a return to the UK, however, that saw her appear in a number of horror movies, including a festive-set segment for Amicus Productions’ 1972 portmanteau Tales from the Crypt. Based on EC comics famous anthology series, Tales from the Crypt concerns five strangers who happen upon a mysterious Crypt Keeper while visiting some catacombs. One-by-one, he details how each of them will die, starting with Joanne Clayton, who in her story murders her husband on Christmas Eve only to discover an escaped lunatic dressed as Santa Claus is trying to get in. The story isn’t quite as simple as it sounds, however, with twists and turns aplenty, and Collins playing the part of monster and potential victim with relish. It’s also one of the best segments in the Amicus canon and a perennial Christmas favourite in my house on a cold winter’s evening…
Barbara “Barb” Coard (Margot Kidder) Black Christmas (1974)
Speaking of Christmas favourites, how could I not include Black Christmas? It’s very much an ensemble piece as a sorority are harassed by an increasingly erratic and disturbing voice on the other end of the phone. But are the calls coming from inside the house? Of course, you’ll probably know the answer to this and you’ll also know that Margot Kidder is absolutely stellar as Barb Coard. Foul-mouthed and hard-drinking (a little too hard as it becomes apparent), Barb, in a field often littered with fodder, is one character that we genuinely want to see make it to the end of the film. While the rest of the household are fearful of the caller, Barb isn’t worried by the persistent and increasingly disturbing calls, even challenging the voice on the end of the line to: “...find a wall socket and stick your tongue in it, that will give you a charge.” I don’t mind admitting I always had a huge crush on Kidder in Black Christmas when I was younger, and, no, there has never been a better Lois Lane.
Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble) Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
There’s no denying that Alphonso, the landlord to the Spages family in Alice, Sweet Alice is a thoroughly grotesque and reprehensible character. With sweat patches around the armpits of his vest and and an ugly-looking stain on the front of his trousers, Alphonso is almost the caricature of a pervert. What makes him interesting, though, is his behaviour when not in the company of humans. His penchant for keeping cats, referring to himself as “Momma” and treating them with care and reverence is interesting when contrasted with his pederastic interest in Alice. It seems clear that Alphonso only feels comfortable with creatures he can dominate; becoming predatory himself when Alice calls with the rent money, like a cat with a cornered mouse.
There is a tragic coda to the Alphonso DeNoble story. Following his work on Blood Sucking Freaks, DeNoble committed suicide, shooting himself when a story about him getting stuck in a turnstile was published in the local papers.
Uncle Red (Gary Busey) Silver Bullet (1985)
Who wouldn’t want an uncle like Gary Busey‘s Uncle Red? Sure, he’s a bit of a mess, an alcoholic and something of a deadbeat in terms of career, but he’s a damn fine uncle and quite the handyman, customising the wheelchair – Silver Bullet – that saves Marty (Corey Haim) on at least one occasion. While it’s true that there’s a hint of concern about young Marty looking up to someone who hasn’t exactly made a success of their own life, and this is briefly covered in the film, it’s hard not to like Uncle Red. He’s something of a good old boy but in the warmest of ways. He knows he’s not up to much so he does his best to give Marty, a boy struggling with his own demons via his disability, his undivided attention, even though it takes a while for him to believe the werewolf stories coming from Marty and his sister, Jane (Megan Follows). Lycanthropy aside, it’s the relationship between Red and Marty that is the true heart of the story. We care about these characters so we care about their story. It’s pretty simple really – shame that this can often be lost amid the spectacular battles and CGI of many Hollywood films nowadays.
You know what, though, wouldn’t it have been interesting to see original director Don Coscarelli’s take on Silver Bullet?
Dave and Chainsaw (Gary Riley and Dean Cameron) Summer School (1987)
This, like My Best Friend is a Vampire, is one of those Eighties movies that have seemingly been part of my movie-watching history for longer than I care to imagine. I think I originally picked up Summer School on VHS at a car-boot sale when I was about 15. I was always a fan of teen screwball comedies of that decade, and this looked like something of a lesser entry that I might enjoy (and it cost me about 50p). I soon discovered it was anything but a poor cousin, almost entirely due to Dave Frazier and Francis “Chainsaw” Gremp. Like the rest of the motley crew that are forced to spend the summer trying to improve their grades, Dave and Chainsaw decide that it doesn’t necessarily mean hardship, not when you’re a couple of avid horror movie fans. From rabid rabbits that tear shreds off their faces to a classroom screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, their entire DNA is hardwired to horror, and who am I to argue that? Their spirited review of Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece is a case in point:
Dave: “It had passion and a plucky spirit, and the characters had integrity. Like when Leatherface went on that strict diet of human flesh. He had to cut out chicken and fish completely.”
Chainsaw: “Dave, while I agree with you, I’ll go a step further. Leatherface, sure he wore a mask made out of human skin and hung people on meathooks, but hey, we’ve all got quirks. I’ve got ’em, you’ve got ’em, Dave. That’s what makes this character so, so compelling. Thumbs up from me.”
Dave: “Same here.”
Michael McDonnell (Brad Dourif) Urban Legend (1998)
When Michelle Mancini‘s car signals that she needs to stop at a gas station on a dark and stormy night, we’re immediately on high alert, so the introduction of Brad Dourif as an ostensibly creepy, stuttering attendant Michael McDonnell (apparently named after an Urban Legend producer) does nothing to assuage our fears. It becomes apparent that Michael is in real peril from McDonnell and he physically tries to stop her from escaping the gas station when he asks her to follow him inside under the false pretences, but he knows something we don’t. Unfortunately for Michelle, she escapes his clutches and drives away just as McDonnell finally manages to force out the warning he’s been attempting to draw her attention to all along: “Someone’s in the back….seat!” We all know what happens next. It’s one of the more effective slasher openings, with it’s sleight-of-hand and subversion of what we, the jaded viewer, thinks we know. Brad Dourif plays what is essentially a cameo to perfection.
Sergeant Harry G. Wells (Sean Pertwee) Dog Soldiers (2002)
Dog Soldiers ranks alongside my favourite werewolf moves ever, and probably makes my top five. It’s another ensemble piece, too, that pits a group of squaddies on practice manoeuvres in the Scottish highlands against a family of hairy lycanthropes. Neil Marshall’s directorial debut straddles that line between atmospheric chills and black comedy superbly. Of course it’s a horror movie and it hits those beats perfectly, but adding comedy to the mix is a tricky thing to pull off. Fortunately, the script and the performances nail it, and Sean Pertwee (who should be a national treasure!) holds the whole thing together as Sergeant Harry Wells – even going so far as to attempt to stuff his own intestines back in when the soldiers come under attack from the werewolves, while screaming: “They won’t fucking fit!” Marvellous.