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Smoking with Marilyn Burns

August 7th, 2014 by unkle lancifer · 13 Comments

It breaks my heart to write about the death of Marilyn Burns but it doesn’t seem right to post anything else until we’ve acknowledged this loss. My heart goes out to her friends and family who surely must endure the brunt of the devastation. As a mere fan, I’m sure I can’t even begin to understand the depth of grief felt by those close to her. Still, I can’t help feeling like everyone who ever loved a horror movie just took a major dent, whether they realize it or not, and that something incalculable that was once here is now gone.

Maybe I’m being pessimistic due to my morbid state but I think the truth is that horror audiences can expect to never, ever, ever witness the type of unadulterated terror that Marilyn Burns was able to put into her performance in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE again. It’s just a sad fact. The way the genre is moving it just wouldn’t be allowed and even if it were attempted, you’d never be lucky enough to find an actress as unselfconscious as Burns to pull it off. Even if they had the talent, it’s hard to believe they’d also have the moxy to withstand such a grueling endeavor. Nope, we’ll never see the likes of it again because we’re all too soft and spoiled and modern horror has become less about fear and terror and death and mortality and the unflinching unfairness of the universe than it is about looking competent and cool in the face of adversity. So I guess I just want to thank Marilyn from the bottom of my horror fan heart for bravely going where no actor ever had gone before or ever will again. Real horror, it’s there, in that movie, forever thanks to her.

I’m going to make this about me for a second and if you think that’s vulgar, I totally agree with you but I have to get over this bump somehow and I never said I wasn’t ignoble in the face of death. I may have mentioned before that I can be, on occasions, socially awkward. One thing that’s sure to make me a Bambi-legged Jell-O bowl is a large crowd. I don’t go to horror conventions very much any more but when I did, what I was really seeing in my head was the climax of THE DAY OF LOCUST. If I meet a famous person, I’m usually a jittery marble mouthed spaz on invisible roller skates and that’s putting aside for a moment my legendary Lori Singer evoked facial-tick.

Anyway, once I was at this horror convention feeling like a Howdy Doody marionette plopping around in a sea of Monster High Dolls and I went outside to the front of the hotel for a breath of fresh air and mostly a cigarette (this post was not approved by the Surgeon General). And who do I see there all by herself but Marilyn Burns puffing away. So we get to talking (actually, I was with a more boisterous friend who initiated the conversation but I’m going to edit that person out in the spirit of poetic license) and she put me at ease (not an easy thing to do) in all of a minute. She was so gracious and open and generous and all around awesome that I almost forgot that I was talking to a living legend.

For perspective, please realize that a half an hour earlier I was getting shady stink eye from a self-proclaimed scream queen whose boobs were featured in an unwatchable piece of garbage directed by her mouth breathing husband and now suddenly I was being made to feel like I might exist enough to cast a shadow by a woman who plowed like an eighteen wheeler through one of the greatest movies ever made wielding only one of the most outstandingly performances of all time. And folks, at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, that’s something else you can look forward to seeing less of in the future- humility. No, they don’t make movies like TCM anymore but what makes me sad here is that the last time I did a head count, they don’t make too many people like that anymore either. I know I can’t say that I knew Marilyn based on our brief encounter but I can say that it was obvious to me that those who did know her were very lucky. Goodbye for now Marilyn and again, thank you so much for all that you gave. It’s more than you’ll ever know.

One last thing, I gotta give a shout out to EATEN ALIVE. That’s a fantastic movie too.

Tags: Caution: I break for geniuses!

13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Amanda By NightNo Gravatar // Aug 7, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    Awww, that was a beautiful tribute Lance ad so true.

    I guess something I think about Marilyn whenever I see her not running from Leatherface is how indescribably gorgeous she was. I always forget because at some point in TCM she becomes the literal face of terror. Everything about her physical body transforms into something horrific (in all the right ways). She was just THAT good.

  • 2 Ryan ClarkNo Gravatar // Aug 7, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Thank you for that beautiful post honoring this Holy Woman of Horror. She’ll be missed.

  • 3 DeadInHellNo Gravatar // Aug 7, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    I hate to insert division into a great and respectful (and certainly deserved) tribute, but…

    “modern horror has become less about fear and terror and death and mortality and the unflinching unfairness of the universe than it is about looking competent and cool in the face of adversity.”

    I want to know what movies you are watching. The “cool and competent” protagonist is still very much the exception in horror, more so now than perhaps ever before. In the 70s/80s we had Ash, Laurie, Ginny, Ripley, Nancy, MaCready, the guys from Phantasm, every Dead trilogy protagonist, and so on. Modern horror has nothing to compare to these characters. All we get are cheesy boring invincible villains and faceless screaming victims. Competent and cool protagonists are outnumbered at least 50 to 1 by my estimation.

    I love TCM and Marilyn Burns’ performance is tremendous, but the tradition of the hapless terrorized protagonist is far from over. Many of our current subgenres completely rely on it, particularly the torture porn and found footage flicks that poor out by the dozens each week. They just aren’t nearly as good at it.

  • 4 Dylan Donnie-DukeNo Gravatar // Aug 7, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Thanks for this, Unk. I never met her, but had always heard that she was sweetheart personified. Knowing what she went through on the shoot of TCM and seeing the end result, I would not have blamed her for leaving the industry forever to hide inside of a giant bottle of vodka. Instead, she carried on to continue giving us great performances in films both in and out of the horror genre.
    It is good to have one other person give affirmation of her kind and giving nature. Whenever I go to conventions I always wonder at what a nightmare it must be for the celebs who turn up. So many of them are there simply because they could use the scratch, and having to put up with a fawning fan-boy like me… well, just ask Nicholas Brendon what it’s like to be power-hugged by a 42 year old man. It is heartening to hear that Marilyn truly appreciated the response that she got from her fans.
    She will be missed not only for her performances, but for, as you note, the hole that she will leave in a genre that has developed a posture that she would never have taken. Thanks again for this memorial.

  • 5 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 7, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    Amanda, I gotta say, she was still so gorgeous. That friend I was with was crushing on her in a big way.

    Ryan, Thank you. “Holy Woman of horror” is spot on.

    Deadinhell, That’s OK, that was sort of sweeping statement on my part. I’m sure I was thinking about “You’re Next” where the protagonists turns out to be some kind of trained assassin. To me that’s not a horror movie, that’s an action movie. But maybe what I’m really thinking about is how modern audiences judge movies based mainly on how well a victim holds their own against the threat. It’s as if we’ve moved far away from the universal fear of death and now only concern ourselves with making sure everyone on screen is represented in a complimentary fashion. In general, I think looking to horror for the feeling of empowerment makes as much sense as jumping on a roller coaster looking for the feeling of standing still. Anyway. I guess I was just lamenting the fact that we’ll never see the level of raw vulnerability that Burns was able to expose again and at least for me, human frailty is essential to the genre. The good news is we seem to agree on one thing, nobody could do it like her and modern horror leaves a lot to be desired.

    Triple D, Yeah the convention experience is pretty overwhelming and I never even thought about how much more so it would be if you were the person being surrounded. Yikes. Burns really was so sweet and modest and she made my day and I’m grateful for the memory.

  • 6 micksterNo Gravatar // Aug 7, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    This is just beautiful, Lance. I am so happy that you were able to meet her and have such a wonderful experience. Also, thanks for coming to two Monster Manias with me as I know large crowds make you uncomfortable. Having you there was actually the best part of those conventions for me.

  • 7 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 7, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    I’d go all the time if I knew you were going to be there Mickster!

  • 8 FatherOfTearsNo Gravatar // Aug 7, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    Great article on such a great actress. My first exposure to her wasn’t TCM. It was the classic 1976 TV movie “Helter Skelter”. Her role was Manson Family member Linda Kassabian who was granted immunity in exchange for her testimony against Charles Manson and his Family members. Talk about “literal face of terror” one need look no further than the courtroom scenes she appears in. She has to show the fear and repulsion when Linda is on the stand being grilled by the defense attorney. She pulled it off!

  • 9 micksterNo Gravatar // Aug 7, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    FatherofTears, I could not agree with you more! She was outstanding in Helter Skelter! That was the first thing I saw her in as well.

  • 10 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 7, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    Oh geez, I have to do a Helter Skelter traumafession. I’ll never forget the ending of the first part where they made it seem like Manson made that guy’s watch stop. That scared the shit out of me. I haven’t watched that one in a long time and it will give me the opportunity to see Burns again.

    Thanks for mentioning that Father of Tears & Mickster!

  • 11 micksterNo Gravatar // Aug 7, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    I need to watch it again too. I read the book in 10th grade and was absolutely terrified, but I could not stop reading it.
    Marilyn truly made the terror she faced palpable. Don’t even get me started on Railsback as Manson! Holy cow!

  • 12 wmcampbell13No Gravatar // Aug 7, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    Very nice obit. That’s great you got a chance to meet her. I also love Eaten Alive almost more than TCM because it’s so off the rails crazy. I’ll have to go back and watch Helter Skelter, I remember it scared the hell out of me as a kid.

  • 13 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Aug 7, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    wmcampbell, you are singing my song. EATEN ALIVE is grossly underrated. I suppose TCM is an impossible act to follow so I’m not really surprised but If you watch EATEN ALIVE on its own, forgetting all about TCM, it’s really incredible and surreal and eerie and leaves you with the strangest feeling. It’s also so very beautiful looking in its way. I’m so glad you’re a fan too.

    OK- I think it’s going to be Helter Skelter and Eaten Alive this weekend for sure. How could I think I’d be watching anything else?

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