Jack Palance – Screen Legend, yet Often Forgotten Horror Actor

Written by Matteo Sedazzari
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Jack Palance, born Volodymyr Palahniuk on 18th February 1919 to Anna and Ivan Palahniuk, Ukrainian immigrants, in Lattimer Mines, Pennsylvania. Palance was one of six children. Prior to becoming a screen legend Jack Palance was a professional boxer fighting under the name of Jack Brazzo.

Palance won 15 consecutive fights, with 12 of them being straight knockouts, he was certainly ‘a contender’. Palance’s on-screen presence; tall, broad shoulders, chest out, and powerful build, indicated to cinemagoers that he was not a man to mess with. Moreover, according to British horror film director Freddie Francis, during the filming of Craze in 1974, everyone from crew to actors was fearful of Jack Palance.

The fighting career of Palance, or as he called himself then, Jack Brazzo, came to an end just before the USA joined World War 2 when Brazzo (Palance) lost to future heavyweight contender Joe Baksi in a Pier-6 brawl. A combination of boxing and wrestling, with or without gloves, and Queensberry Rules were nowhere to be seen, tough fighting for tough men. Pier-6 brawling apparently originated from the pier of Staten Island, New York in the 1920s.

Palance enlisted with United States Army Air Forces and was honourably discharged in 1944. After which he enrolled at Stanford University, only to leave before graduating to chase his dream of being an actor. Palance believed then that his surname Palahniuk maybe a hindrance in the world of acting, so he changed it to Palanski, then Palance, as he found agents and such like, had trouble pronouncing Palanski, so Jack Palance was born, which does have a nice ring to it.

Before Palance hit the big time, he spent a few years doing theatre work, for example playing understudy to Marlon Brando in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, where he eventually played the lead, Stanley Kowalski, for a brief spell. Then broke into television in 1949, before Palance’s film debut the following year, 1950, Panic in the Streets, the title clearly borrowed by Morrisey in 1986 for the lyrics for The Smiths’ hit single Panic.

Palance didn’t have to wait too long before establishing himself as a talented actor, for that was to come in 1952, where he co-starred with Joan Crawford, in a film noir thriller, Sudden Fear. Palance received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, the former boxer, soldier, and university drop out had truly arrived in the world of cinema. Yet Palance would have to wait 39 years, before he did finally receive an Oscar for his part as Curly Washburn in the hit comedy City Slickers, 1991, for best-supporting actor. During those 39 years, and a few years after, Palance was a box office star, often playing merciless yet engaging villains, complex tough guys, occasionally comedy characters and infrequently leading characters in horror films. Furthermore, the latter is something that Palance is not often remembered for. Yet it would be wrong to say, that not being remembered as a horror actor, did not hinder Palance’s career or status in the slightest, as he is regarded as a screen legend today, as he was when he was alive.

Jack Palance died of natural causes on 10th November 2006 aged 87, with his daughter Holly by his side, in her home in Montecito California.

Palance’s venture into horror films was brief, yet notable. In 1967 Palance appeared in Amicus’ second horror anthology Torture Garden, directed by Freddie Francis, based on the short stories of Psycho author Robert Bloch. Palance played Ronald Wyatt in the fourth segment 4, The Man Who Collected Poe. Wyatt is an Edgar Allen Poe obsessed collector, so fanatical that he murders fellow Poe fan, Lancelot Canning (played by Horror film legend, Peter Cushing). Even though Palance screen time is probably less than twenty minutes, and Burgess Meredith, who was the central character to all the stories, Dr. Diabolo, was a household name due to his appearance as The Penguin in Batman (1966 to 1968), and Peter Cushing, as stated, was then, and still is, a name strongly associated with horror films, Jack Palance received star billing. This was probably due to his demands, and Amicus, knowing his name would bring the punters into the cinema. Palance gives a convincing performance as a humble man driven by a desire to commit a horrendous crime, just to add to his Poe collection, a real journey into madness.

Palance would reunite again with Freddie Francis in 1974, to star in Amicus’ Craze. Palance plays Neal Mottram, a psychotic antique dealer, who lures women to his home, but not for a night of passion, no, these poor women are to be sacrificed in front of a statue of an African god. Craze is not regarded as a horror classic, yet fans of the seventies horror films may find it appealing.

In 1977 Palance starred in Welcome to Blood City, directed by another master from the world of horror, Peter Sasdy (Hands of the Ripper, Countess Dracula). Welcome to Blood City is about a group of people who find themselves as slaves in what looks like a Wild West town, co-starring Samantha Eggar (The Collector, The Astronaut's Wife). A highly enjoyable Science Fiction thriller, with echoes of Westworld.

During these ten years, 1967 to 1977, Jack Palance would play with much conviction, two (well three in fact), title characters that originate from the world of literature, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dracula was filmed in 1973, for television and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was made in 1968 for television again, by ABC, and aired in the UK by the BBC in the winter of 1974.

American Dan Curtis (12th August 12, 1927 – 27th March 2006) directed Dracula and produced The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dan Curtis is another name highly regarded in the world of horror cinema and television, as he created the gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows (1966 to 1971), and directed the seventies horror iconic anthology, Trilogy of Terror 1975, starring Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces, Nashville) in all three stories. In addition, in the third and final segment, Amelia, in which Black plays the title role who fights an evil possessed wooden fetish doll, Zuni for her life, in her high-rise apartment. This is real behind the sofa viewing as it is like your worst nightmare coming true.

Therefore, the combination of a master of suspense and fear, Curtis, and a seasoned and talented actor, Palance, looks good on paper and certainly worked well on the screen.

With Christopher Lee hanging his cape for Hammer Film Productions in The Satanic Rites of Dracula in 1973, there was an opening for a new actor to become the prince of darkness. Furthermore, Dracula and the vampire were, and still are, popular tv and film genres. Therefore, Curtis to cast Palance was an excellent choice, for Palance was tall, dark, handsome, and had proven himself as a versatile actor.

Dracula opens with a pack of wolves running to his castle, as the dashing Palance in the famous black cape, walks through his glorious yet eerie abode with a sense of purpose, a dramatic and powerful intro, and the remainder of the film does not disappoint.

Staying faithful to the novel, with the odd abbreviations, and omissions. Palance as Dracula is cunning, brutal, and at times poignant. As he pursues his first victim upon his arrival in England, Lucy Westenra (Fiona Lewis; Lisztomania, The Fury), it is out of love, as after seeing a photograph of Lucy shown to him by Johnathan Harker (Murray Brown; Vampyres, Fiona), who is visiting the castle to sell Dracula a home in England, Lucy reminds Dracula of his departed wife, Maria. Francis Ford Coppola would use this idea, for his version of Dracula in 1992, only this time Mina Harker (Winona Ryder; Mermaids, The Iceman) who is Johnathan Harker’s fiancée and Lucy’s best friend, reminds Dracula of his soul mate.

To emphasise the point of lost love, Curtis uses flashbacks to show Dracula when he was a ruler of men, and very much in love, in short before he was a vampire. To the best of my knowledge, this version of Dracula was the first to give an insight into the pre-vampire days of the prince of darkness.

Jack Palance dracula 2

Yet with Palance, you can see the Lugosi and Lee influence, the Lugosi dark menacing stare, and the famous Lee fang snarl when under attack. However, he gives his Dracula a complex personality, as well as striking fear in the night. Even though this was made for a TV film, it does come across as if it were made for cinema. This is due to the beautiful location filming, Curtis’s direction, the music score, the acting, and Palance powerhouse performance. Fans of Dracula, horror films, and Jack Palance will treasure this film. Furthermore, Jack Palance was offered lucrative film offers to play Dracula after this, yet he turned them all down. Yet Gene Colan, comic book artist, primarily for Marvel Comics, based his Dracula in Tomb of Dracula, on Jack Palance’s performance. That is some compliment, considering Lugosi and Lee were the icons for Dracula in the early seventies, and some may say, they still are.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, screenplay by Ian McLellan Hunter (Roman Holiday, The Amazing Mr. X) is an atmospheric and spooky TV play, from the splendour of Dr. Jekyll’s parlour to his laboratory where the tortured yet with good intentions Doctor creates a potion to unleash the dark side of man, for Dr Jekyll wishes to separate the hidden evil that all men have, so he can be wholly good, however soon the evil becomes the powerful force, as he turns into Mr. Hyde. Then his evil alter ego causes mayhem and murder.

Unlike Dracula, which had the feel of a feature film, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is like a classic Penny Dreadful coming to life with Mr. Hyde in cape and cane, terrorizing Soho, under dimly lit streetlamps. Set in 1886, when Soho was a notoriously rough part of London, unlike the Soho of today.

With a strong supporting cast, Denholm Elliott (The House That Dripped Blood, Trading Places) as Mr. George Devlin, Dr. Jekyll’s best friend, and lawyer. In the novel, the character is called Gabriel John Utterson. A young Billie Whitelaw (Frenzy, The Krays) as Gwyn Thomas, a dancer at a backstreet music hall who gets romantically involved with Mr. Hyde. A character not featured in the original novel, and a unique take, as some adaptions of this famous tale feature Dr. Jekyll with a long-suffering fiancée, due to the intended obsession with his work. However rarely does Mr. Hyde have a lover, yet Hunter thought it would be a good idea to show that evil men want love too, and by giving Hyde a love interest it shows how a person can become deeply possessive with another person. Hyde has a nasty jealous streak and the poor Gwyn feels the full force of his envy with her life.

For any actor to play both parts they must be at the top of their game, as Jekyll and Hyde are the yin and yan of a personality, good and evil. Furthermore, I believe this role is something any actor would relish. For Palance gives a sensitive performance of a doctor who is socially awkward, yet deeply kind, and as Hyde, he morphs into a brutal and nasty man, who views kindness as a weakness and has no value for human life. Mesmerising by Palance as both, he performs both roles with intelligence and passion, and for me, one of the best interpretations I have seen of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are cosy viewing for Halloween and beyond. Torture Garden, Welcome to Blood City, Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are all available on Amazon Prime.


The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Welcome to Blood City
Torture Garden

Read 4491 times Last modified on Thursday, 29 October 2020 17:19
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Matteo Sedazzari

Matteo Sedazzari

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