In horror, it’s often what you hear—not what you see—that terrifies you. Who can send chills of terror or thrills of another kind with just a whisper? We talk about the best voices in horror.
5. William Marshall
Effortlessly elegant, William Marshall commands respect even before he speaks. It’s impossible to imagine him playing Bar Patron #2. This is the man who tells you what to do, and you listen. You comply. And you hope he keeps talking.
4. Keith David
A classically trained singer, Keith David uses his voice like a tool of his trade. Voice over work, stage acting, song, drama, horror—his buttery baritone leaves an impression everywhere.
3. Christopher Lee
Like another great British actor with another unforgettable voice, Boris Karloff, Lee gained fame playing characters who barely (if ever) spoke. But soon enough, he was lending his saucy baritone to literally hundreds of projects from film to voice overs, theater to music. His elegant growl brought terror to The Lord of the Rings films, but long before that, it graced Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man screenplay with perhaps the greatest delivery it could have hoped for.
2. Tony Todd
Todd’s physical presence guaranteed that he be noticed in a scene, but that voice made sure no one else would be. Seductive and sinister, tender and terrifying, the voice alone made you believe that Helen (or anybody else, for that matter) could be seduced regardless of the known danger.
1. Mercedes McCambridge
Like Nick Mancuso in Black Christmas and Teresa Wright in The Exorcist III, Mercedes McCambridge offered a show stopping, horror classic performance without even having to show up to the set.
The Oscar winner deepened her already gravelly voice with cigarettes and liquor to conjure a sound so sinister, it gives you chills.
We didn’t want to let Black History Month slip by without recognizing the best black characters in horror. Obviously, this is actually a countdown and podcast we could have done at any time, but any particular excuse to talk about William Marshall must be taken!
Regardless of the (far too often proven) cliche that the token black character in any horror film is simply the first victim, there are many amazing characters and actors worth celebrating in this list. The all time kickass Pam Grier stars as a voodoo practitioner in Scream Blacula Scream (1973), Morgan Freeman brings his characteristic gravitas to the role of mentor cop and general smartypants in Seven (1995). Wesley Snipes combined vampire and badass in the Blade trilogy, as did Grace Jones in Vamp (1986) – and these are just a few of the candidates we will not be mentioning.
Nope, instead we present you with the five best black characters in horror.
5. Selena (Naomi Harris), 28 Days Later (2002)
When it outbreak comes – and you know it will – what you want on your team is a pharmacist (someone with some medical training) who is not afraid to use a machete. Naomi Harris was the brains and the backbone of the ragtag group of survivors in 28 Days Later. Without her, Cillian Murphy wouldn’t have made it.
The great Danny Boyle, working from a script by Alex Garland (who wrote and directed the magnificent Ex Machina last year), upended a lot of expectations, giving us tenderness in the form of the great Brendan Gleeson, and a vulnerability in the newly-acquainted-with-the-apocalypse Murphy, but the brains and the bravery are Selena’s. That isn’t to say the realities of gender inequality disappear during the apocalypse – Nope! But this is a really uncommon character in a horror film: a strong, black female survivor.
4. Peter (Ken Foree), Dawn of the Dead (1978)
When George Romero returned to his zombie apocalypse in 1978 – nearly a decade after he’d rewritten the zombie code with Night of the Living Dead – he upped the ante in terms of onscreen gore, but there were some pieces of the formula he wasn’t ready to let go of.
Two members of SWAT join their newsman buddy and his producer girlfriend, take off in a helicopter, land at a mall, and set up house while that whole zombie thing blows over. Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger as the buddies from SWAT create the most effective moments, whether character-driven tension or zombie-driven action. While the leads were flat and bland, Foree not only delivers the film’s strongest performance, but Peter is the most compelling character and the one you’re least willing to see go.
Oh my God, that voice! Yes, Candyman is a bad dude, but isn’t he kind of dreamy?
Like a vampire, the villain of Cabrini Green needed to be both repellant and seductive for this storyline to work, and Todd more than managed both. With those bees in his mouth and that hook for a hand, he is effortlessly terrifying. But it’s Todd’s presence, his somehow soothing promise of pain and eternity, that makes the seduction of grad school researcher Helen (Virginia Madsen) realistic.
Clive Barker wrote the original story, and the racial tensions that run through the film are both intentional and required. Madsen’s raspy-voiced heroine offers a perfect counterpoint to Todd, both of them a blend of intelligent and sultry that make them more parallel than opposite.
Todd would go on to love again in the Candyman sequel Farewell to the Flesh, as well as star or co-star in countless other horror films, but it was the first time you hear that voice in this film that sealed his fate as an iconic horror villain.
Did someone mention awesome voices and onscreen presence? The great William Marshall is the picture of grace and elegance as Mamuwalde, the prince turned vampire.
The film is a cheaply made Blaxploitation classic, with all that entails. For every grimace-inducing moment (bats on strings, homophobic humor) there’s a moment of true genius, almost exclusively because of Marshall’s command of the screen and the character.
Though he’s often hampered by FX as well as writing, the character remained true throughout the film, even to his death. It’s the kind of moment that could be brushed aside, in a low budget flick with a lot of plot holes and silly make up. But there’s more to Blacula than meets the eye.
Blacula is a tragic antihero and it’s all but impossible to root against him. Marshall brought more dignity to the role of vampire than any actor has, and the strength and respectability he imbues in the character were not just revolutionary at the time, but were so pivotal to that particular character that he has become a legendary character in the genre.
1. Ben (Duane Jones), Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Over the years, much has been made of director George Romero’s assertion that Duane Jones’s casting in Night of the Living Dead had nothing to do with his color; Romero simply gave the role to the best actor.
Maybe so – and certainly Jones’s performance alone has a great deal to do with the success of the film – but casting a black male lead in this particular film at this particular juncture in American history is among the main reasons the film remains relevant and important today.
Jones plays Ben, the level-headed survivor holed up in a Pennsylvania farmhouse trying to wait out the zombipocalypse. Ben is the clear cut leader of this group of survivors, caring for the shell-shocked young white woman (Judith O’Dea), working in tandem with the young couple also hiding out, and engaging in a needless and ugly power struggle with that dick Mr. Cooper.
Jones’s performance is, as Romero points out, easily the strongest in the ensemble, and that work alone would have made the role and the film memorable. But it’s the kick to the gut documentary-style ending that not only marks the film’s sociological period, it is a horrifying reminder of all that has not changed in the world.
There is a new Dracula movie, which begs the question: Do we need a new Dracula movie?
No. There’s nothing new to say, and with so many worthy options already available, why buy new? With that in mind, we have pulled together a list of our favorite cinematic Draculas. (Note, we cheated here and there. Sue us.)
10. Frank Langella
In 1979, Frank Langella recreated the Stoker anti-hero as a virile romantic lead and the ladies swooned. Langella is a consummate actor who brings a wry charm to the screen.
9. Jack Palance
Breathy and weird – as always – Jack Palance makes the vampire into a strange beast in a film that’s campy and ridiculous but worth watching.
8. Udo Kier
Speaking of weird! The effortlessly bizarre and uniquely compelling Udo Kier is the anemic and pathetic monster at the heart of Andy Warhol’s Dracula – a gorgeous piece of vampire trash if every there was such a film.
7. William Marshall
Officially, no, he is not Dracula. He is Blacula – respect him! Fear him! Dig him!! There are few Seventies blaxploitation films that can hold a candle to this one, mostly because of Marshall’s rich baritone and compelling presence.
6. Klaus Kinski
In 1979, Werner Herzog revisited F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece Nosferatu – a film that was originally meant to be a Dracula film, but copyright forbade it. Herzog fixed that, with a mesmerizing Kinski as the bloodthirsty count Hypnotic and creepy, Kinski nails it.
5. Gary Oldman
What I love about most of the vampires on this list is that the actors zero in on the inherent weirdness in the role. Oldman channels the Count’s smolder, but that granny version early on is the one we remember.
4. Willem Dafoe
OK, so this is a bit of a stretch. In Shadow of the Vampire, Dafoe plays Max Schreck, the actor who played Count Orlock in Murnau’s Nosferatu. But Orlock was supposed to be Dracula, and the point is, Dafoe is amazing – hilarious, creepy and terrifying all at once. He is easily one of the best.
3. Bela Lugosi
Sure, #3 may seem low for the actor most linked to the role. He’s the icon, we give him that, and even if there are others we find scarier or more interesting, Bela will always be image of Dracula.
2. Christopher Lee
But Christopher Lee – the six foot five inch baritone – is so much more menacing. This was the Dracula to fear. This was the one we believed could turn into a wolf and tear your throat out, the one that had the strength of ten men, the one who could woo the ladies. Christopher Lee was the one.
1. Max Schreck
Hopefully we’ve made the case by now that Murnau’s Nosferatu counts, and our favorite Count is Orlock because Max Schreck is one sick genius. So sick that an entire brilliant film was created to due him honor. He’s the creepiest, most memorable, all time best Dracula, even if he is a vampire by another name.