Minnesotans in horror films: three heavyweights

With fall upon us and winter fast approaching, it’s hard not to feel a sort of existential angst. The whole world seems to be going dead around us. And while I know that this is just an annual slumber, and everything will blossom again in the spring, that moment is so far away at this moment that it might as well just be a fairy tale we tell ourselves. Although Halloween is a Celtic holiday, and the Irish don’t have seasons so much as weather, nonetheless I can’t help but wonder if the reason Halloween became so popular in the Twin Cities isn’t exactly this. October signals the end of self-evident life and the start of a time of dreadful cold and colorlessness, and isn’t that what death is supposed to be like?  

(You may be asking yourself if we have really adopted Halloween to the extent I suggest. I answer you with just two points: Anoka is the Halloween capital of the world, and Minnesota native Charles Schulz invented the Great Pumpkin.)  

Knowing this, it’s puzzling that more Hollywood horror films aren’t set in Minnesota. (There have been some local features, some of which I think I have mentioned in this column.) After all, Minnesota offers considerable opportunity for dread. The state features stark winter scenery, isolated cabins and gnarled forests, and where better for horror to take place?

There have been a few relatively large-budget creature features filmed here, to be sure. Dario Argento lensed his 1993 film “Trauma” here, although there is nothing especially Minnesotan about his film, which features a mechanized and portable guillotine. Parts of “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter” were filmed at Lake Minnewashta in Chanhassen, but, honestly, does it matter what woods Jason Voorhees rampages in? Diablo Cody’s last film, Jennifer’s Body, was set in a Minnesota farm town, but despite Cody’s short tenure in Minnesota, the location of her film, for the most part, could have been “Ruraltown, NottheCoastsVania.”  

Never mind. If feature horror films won’t come to Minnesota, Minnesotans will go to feature horror film. Here is a brief list of local actors who have made their mark — or, more often, had marks made on them — in the world of the fright flick. There are plenty more, and I might return to this list as Halloween approaches, but here are three of the heavyweights. 

Minnesotan Edward Van Sloan, on the far right, with the cast of "Dracula"
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
Minnesotan Edward Van Sloan, on the far right, with the cast of “Dracula”

Edward Van Sloan: The Internet Movie Database lists stately character actor Edward Van Sloan as having been born in San Francisco. They’re wrong. Van Sloan hailed from Chaska, but it’s understandable that the Web page might be confused about the actor’s hometown, as Van Sloan specialized in foreigners. He started his career on stage playing a succession of feebleminded Englishmen in light comedies, but in 1926 he scored a role as a German doctor in a Broadway play called Schweiger. He was soon playing a succession of German doctors, culminating in his casting as Dr. Abraham Van Helsing in the 1927 stage version of “Dracula” opposite Bela Lugosi. Van Sloan continued the role in the 1931 film version, giving his aged vampire hunter a wry sense of humor and a certain inscrutableness.

The success of this film adaptation led to Van Sloan receiving a role in “Frankenstein” (1931), as Dr. Frankenstein’s mentor, and in “The Mummy” (1932) as an older Egyptologist. The fact that he was in three of Universal Pictures’ iconic monster films in short succession is nothing less than extraordinary, and he would work steadily for the next decade, eventually retiring to San Francisco.  

James Arness: The ’50s brought a wave of atomic-age horrors, often in the form of oversized animals, and audiences could generally trust two brothers from Minneapolis to show up to deal with these monsters of the atom. I speak, of course, of “Gunsmoke” star James Arness and his brother, Peter Graves. Graves probably deserves an entry all to himself, as he put in his time in a succession of shlocky horror films, but his 6’6″ brother will be the focus of our attention here, because he both fought monsters and became them.   

Arness was always embarrassed about his role as the unfrozen alien in 1951’s “The Thing From Another World” (he complained that in his costume he looked like a carrot), but the Howard Hawks-produced chiller is a doozy. It features fast, smart dialogue and some genuinely chilling sequences, including one in which Arness, as the blood-drinking monster, catches fire and runs, burning, out into the arctic snow. Arness was only in one other horror film, 1954’s “Them!,” and this time he battled monsters. In this case, the antagonists were giants ants. Although it sounds like a somewhat silly film, it was expertly directed by Gordon Douglas, who, for much of the film, kept the mutant ants hidden, and revealed them only in the wanton destruction they left behind, and in a strange, high-pitched whine they made when they were nearby. Arness played an FBI agent assigned to the case, and his performance, which treated an invasion by automobile-sized insects with unsmirking gravity, went a long way toward selling the horror of the film. After all, if these beasts could scare Marshall Matt Dillon, shouldn’t they scare us all?    

Kevin McCarthy: Lantern-jawed character actor Kevin McCarthy was born in Washington and spent much of his childhood moving around the Midwest, but he spent a lot of that time in Minnesota, and his roots are here. His father hailed from the Gopher State, and he is a distant cousin of former U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy. McCarthy attended college here before embarking on a career in Hollywood. He had an honest, honorable face when he was younger, and it served him well in 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” in which he played a small-town doctor confronted with a strange epidemic: Neighbors will suddenly, and subtly, change. It’s hard to put a finger on just how, but they don’t quite seem to be themselves anymore.

Of course, what McCarthy has found himself in the middle of is an alien invasion, with the invading aliens simply taking the form of people in his neighborhood. He would return to horror twice in 1978, once in a cameo, reprising his role from the original “Body Snatchers” in Philip Kaufman’s remake. His other role, as a mad military doctor breeding a strain of deadly fish in “Piranha,” started McCarthy in a series of films directed by Joe Dante, who would go on to cast McCarthy in almost everything he did. Dante used him in “The Howling “(1981) as a television news producer who sends his star reporter into a commune filled with werewolves. They would work together again in an episode of the “Twilight Zone” movie (1983), “Innerspace” (1987), and “Matinee” (1993). The last film, which starred John Goodman, told of a film producer’s attempt to publicize a horror film during the Cuban missile crisis. The film within a film, “Mant,” featured McCarthy as a military general. The film tells of a hideous creature spawned by atomic energy: a man-sized ant. One imagines James Arness’ ears pricking up.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/21/2011 - 09:27 am.

    You forgot to note the latest homegrown horror film with Minnesota connections; or a least its trailer is out; and trailing…

    A political suspense film still rolling out in Repub Studios and even its presumptive trailer playing to smaller and still smaller audiences daily….our own “Michelle From H…”

    Soon to be released; rather recalled for lack of an audience.

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