Week 20: “Adrienne Barbeau is the Queen of Horror”
There are some actors that defy the simple notion of being an exceptional talent. The characters they craft for the screen defy explanation or categorization. What they do is breathe life into the words on the page and leave an impression on audience members that can last long after the film is complete. Sometimes even longer than that. Growing up I watched a lot of horror and science fiction films and one of my favorite actors became Adrienne Barbeau. She’s an actor that takes what could have been a simple role and elevate it to something…more. Watching one of her performances is like being a witness to a five star performance.
I’m sure I saw Barbeau is other films but the first film of hers that made an impression on me was Swamp Thing (1982). It was one of the first comic book films I remember “loving”. There had been other comic book films before and after but this film was the first that showed me that Barbeau was a tough as come no nonsense kind of a woman against a whole bunch of bad guys and despite being over-run could still hold her own. She didn’t need a Swamp Thing to save her because she could save herself (but it was nice to know that he always had her back). She wasn’t just a strong woman but a vulnerable one as well which is why her performance in the film is so endearing. It’s what saves the film from becoming a complete farce. The film itself is unfortunately dated and I’m sure director Wes Craven would rather forget he ever had any part in the film but for me it was a film I watched a thousand times over and over again.
This was only the start as the ‘80s belonged to Barbeau and the next film I remember loving her in was actually a comedy in Cannonball Run (1981). This was another film I watched way more times than I should have growing up but not because of Barbeau but more because of the great many other performers in the film. Barbeau showed that she had a comedic side as did the entire cast. She would show this again in one of my all-time favorite films Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (1989) which is one of the most ridiculous good-bad films ever made. The film is so bat-shit crazy that you can’t help but love it and Barbeau gives another stellar performance because she always plays it straight and never down to the audience. In this film she’s the leader of a tribe of cannibal women…in an avocado jungle…and yes there is some death, so, if you’ve never seen this film I suggest you search it out.
You can’t mention Barbeau’s name and not mention the films she made with director John Carpenter starting with The Fog (1980). She spends most of this film trapped in a radio station but it is her voice that carries the film and makes the events happening in the film more personal as she just wants her family safe and there is nothing she can do. This is completely different from the strong woman she would play in Swamp Thing but it is no more less of an accomplishment. A precursor to Swamp Thing is her performance in Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981) in which every character in the film is pretty much a bad ass. You got to love this woman!
She would play her biggest bad ass in direct Mike Mendez’ The Convent (2000) where she is an unstoppable force of nature with a gun and a motorcycle and all the ammunition she would ever need. She would take on a different type of bad ass in director George A. Romero and Stephen King’s Creepshow (1982). Even though her role is small it is pivotal and it shows how much of a diversity of characters that she can play. She would play something very similar for Romero again in his segment of Two Evil Eyes (1990). Barbeau is never one to be pigeonholed especially having made a profound impact on audiences with her performance as Ruthie in Carnivale (2003-2005), which is hands down one of my favorite of her performances. She had two seasons to craft one of her most realized characters.
Barbeau has not stopped acting as she has had a wide variety of roles that unfortunately I’ve not had the pleasure of watching including lots of television series like Criminal Minds, CSI: NY, Revenge, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Cold Case, Grey’s Anatomy and even 65 episodes of General Hospital. For those of you thinking that she may have given horror the wave goodbye look no further than these three films which are currently in post-production (or so says IMDB) – Tales of Halloween, Killer: Malevolence 3, and Bring Me the Head of Lance Henricksen.
For you diehard fans (like me) you can also pick up her 2009 book There Are Worse Things I Could Do which was a fantastic read and an inspiring look at this amazing talent. She also spends time on stage as well (when she’s not on television or in a film).
Now I’ve barely scratched the surface of this amazing talent (mostly because she’s done more work than I can catch up with) but anyone who doesn’t know of this women should immediately go out there and search for these films (and her book).