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In Memoriam: James Karen

Updated: Nov 2, 2018

Contributing writer Luke Worle pays respect to actor James Karen, a horror film favorite.

Today on Retro Injection, we're going to do something unprecedented by giving an "in memoriam," or much-needed spotlight, on an industry stalwart who has traversed these earthly bounds.

James Karen, best known for his comedic off-kilter styling in cult classic '80s films Return of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead Part II and Poltergeist among other massive cinematic achievements, is gone at ninety-four years old, but not forgotten.

James Karen tribute

One of the first "scary films" I watched (or was allowed to watch), was Return of the Living Dead Part II. I remember our entire family huddling around the old couch, watching it on a TV with rabbit ears, picking up good ole WPIX Channel 11 in our upstate New York abode.

The film registered with me in its impish blend of whimsy and faux horror. It may not be a great movie, but it's clear that those involved had a great time making it. The charm of James Karen carried much of the film (and its far-superior predecessor). He became a familiar face to my ten year-old brain, as I watched not only the heavily-edited TV version but commissioned my long-suffering mom to rent the film at a now-defunct local chain called Pharmhouse, or Phar-Mor in some areas. It was like a large walk-in pharmacy, that was basically an emulation of Wal-Mart, but loads better... and they had their own video rental space! While they were later found to be guilty of embezzlement and inventory fraud, the good times lasted long enough to make an indelible impression with me and my brother at the video counter.

My brother and I would frequently rent movies with mom after rushing out our homework (which likely led to my sterling D plus average in math), and thus began our love affair with the films of the 1980s. Sometimes we'd have mom spend a buck on action films that were really good (Die Hard), and sometimes she wasted bucks on action films that were really bad and cheesy (Ninja 3: The Domination). But it serviced my cinematic coming of age, if you will, whereby I had unfettered access to all of the gems and turds put to VHS from the glorious 1980s. I even remember some obscure films: Zoltan, Hound of Dracula, anyone?

Nonetheless, it was through repeated viewings of Return of the Living Dead Part II that I realized my love affair with the scary or macabre was best digested under mom's glaring watch. We still managed to pull a few fast ones though, telling her that Fright Night was a movie dealing with the childhood anxieties of nightmares and how to best remedy them, but I don't think she quite bought it.

Return Of The Living Dead Part II was basically a low-rent answer to The Goonies. The late great Lorimar's film marketing was so muddled, it confused the marbles out of the movie-going public: Was this a movie for kids or for adults or neither? Its fine predecessor pushed so many nightmarish buttons and yet, this film offered little in way of nudity and gratuitous gore. It fizzled quickly at the box office and has a zero percent review consensus at Rotten Tomatoes. Please do not mistake this for On Golden Pond with zombies.

James Karen became a familiar guest in the family living room with his over the top, wild- eyed antics in both Return of the Living Dead films as Frank the medical supply associate turned frightened rabbit, and a few years later as Ed, the grave robber who only wanted choice specimens. My brother and I would laugh endlessly at his cartoonish desperation as the zombies converged. We loved his characters and performances and he essentially helped engender buzz for the first film, as many of the cast were either up-and-coming young guns, or industry familiars playing fresh recruits to the horror genre. James was the actor to watch for in The Return of the Living Dead, though some might argue teenage boys were focusing more on scream queen Linnea Quigley.

Mr. Karen also appeared in Invaders from Mars as the tough-as-nails general, and is perhaps best known to audiences as He Who Moved The Headstones in the scariest movie I have ever seen and refuse to watch again, Poltergeist.

I doubt many will remember his turn as the "custodial engineer" turned monster in the minor league cult, cult classic The Willies (which managed to wrangle in quite a few A-listers from the '80s). I sure do, and I think his character was played with sympathy and an almost graceful menace. OK. Not really. But it was still a very memorable performance, with great puppetry to boot.

James Karen The Willies movie poster

It was a joy to watch James appear in the sentimental favorite The Pursuit Of Happyness as late as 2006, and he made a sterling impression even with a few choice scenes. James could play any role required and give it the right range of emotion and nuances, not to mention avalanches of class. I think he was not only a great character actor, but truly a great classical actor in every sense of the word. His formal acting education at New York's prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre certainly helped hone his chops. It's very likely though that the acting bug bit him as a young man in his home of Wilkes -Barre, Pennsylvania, not really a far distance from where both Dave and I grew up.

James appeared in many commercials, guest spots and recurring characters on varied hit television shows such as The Jeffersons and Little House on the Prairie, high-end feature films such as Wall Street and The China Syndrome, but I'll always remember him as the wildly eccentric and lovable lout from The Return of the Living Dead and its sequel. Thanks, James, for making us laugh and blending the best sensibilities of comedy and horror with an absurdist winking eye.

We'll miss you.

James Karen


James Karen tribute


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