Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dee Wallace (Stone): An Appreciation

For the entirety of my life, Dee Wallace had been one thing and one thing only: the mother in E.T. I'd never seen her in anything else. As far as I knew, she was an actress whose career began and ended with that one movie. Then, when I was 16, I saw The Frighteners.

I knew almost nothing about The Frighteners before I saw it. All I knew was that it was about ghosts, it starred Michael J. Fox (who I always liked), and it was produced by Robert Zemeckis (who I always liked). That's all I needed to get me to the theater... well, that and my mom's parental guidance, since I was one year too young to see an R-rated movie on my own. (The theaters were strengthening their admittance policies following the recent institution of the NC-17 rating.)

The Frighteners absolutely blew me away. I'd never seen anything like it; the squishiness of the CG effects, the vertiginous rolling landscapes, the antic logic of the narrative, it was all new to me. And the way the movie started out as an almost slapstick comedy but grew into one of the tensest showdowns I'd ever seen... I was carried away by the whole thing. And there in the middle of it all was the sweet but burdened mom from E.T. delivering a remarkable performance as a batty, disturbed, henpecked daughter. How did they decide on Dee Wallace-Stone, of all people, for this part? I didn't know, but after seeing her giddily dark performance in the movie, I couldn't imagine anyone else playing that part.

I was soon to learn more about the movie's co-writer and director, Peter Jackson. (Weren't we all?) I was given a crash course by my good friend Paul, a horror movie enthusiast. Jackson was already well known in horror circles thanks to delightfully disgusting splatter films like Bad Taste and Dead Alive. He was from, and usually shot in, New Zealand, which explained why I'd never seen towns and landscapes quite like that before. And he had gotten worldwide mainstream attention (and simultaneously introduced the world to Kate Winslet) with the brilliant coming of age drama Heavenly Creatures. After the latter film, Hollywood wanted a piece of him. The fact that he was able to slip The Frighteners through the mainstream studio system when they were no doubt looking for the next Heavenly Creatures made him a hero to me.

Ultimately, I credit The Frighteners with singlehandedly raising my interest in horror films. Up to that point, it had been a cinematic blind spot for me. Through some combination of parental forbiddance, my acceptance of the cultural propaganda that horror movies are worthless garbage, and my own immature fear of being corrupted in some way, I'd just never partaken of the horror genre the way most of my friends had. The Frighteners, followed soon after by film school, kicked that barricade down. I learned what was great about horror films. I came to understand them, appreciate them, and finally love them. (The good ones, of course.)

But by then, I was already so far behind. I had a lot of ground to cover just to get caught up on the horror films that most of my friends had grown up with - your Elm Streets, your Halloweens, your Texas Chainsaws, your Living Deads. Fortunately, Paul was a veritable one-man video store of horror. And not long after college, Netflix arrived on the scene, which made it simple to get my hands on all the horror I needed. Every October is now dedicated to watching as many horror films as I possibly can.

Which brings us back to Dee Wallace-Stone. While getting caught up on horror film history, I began to notice a familiar face popping up over and over again. Dee Wallace had apparently been making a career as a scream queen. That's why I'd never seen her in anything other than E.T. She had been populating the exact movies that I had been neglecting. There she was in the original The Hills Have Eyes. There she was in The Howling. There she was in Cujo and Critters.

I now realized that by the time Peter Jackson had gotten around to casting her in The Frighteners he wasn't merely casting the right person for the role, he was casting someone with horror cachet.

Later, Rob Zombie would pull the same stunt by casting her in his remake of Halloween. And in an amusing twist on the same concept, she was cast in a 2009 horror film that's set in the '80s (where the bulk of her horror work resides), The House of the Devil.

So, to Dee Wallace-Stone: I apologize for only recently becoming versed in your work. Thanks for all the screams.

To everyone else, I hope you're enjoying some great horror movies this season. Happy Halloween!

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