James Karen at Film Forum – May 20, 2013

Actor james Karen

Actor James Karen

James Karen is one of those actors who, as soon as you see him, you think something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, I know that guy.  He is in so many things.”  On May 20, at Film Forum, the man himself made an appearance at an event honoring him with a screening of his 1985 horror movie/comedy “The Return of the Living Dead.”

Film Fourm Director of Repertory Programming, Bruce Goldstein, introduced Karen by mentioning that in addition to having been in the original Broadway cast of “A Street Car Named Desire” in 1947, Karen had performed in over 200 films and had done lots of television work.  Karen is probably most recognizable from his numerous TV commercials for Pathmark supermarkets, made between 1969 and 1979.

A quick collection of film clips showed Karen in many diverse roles including his feature film debut in “Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster” (1965).  Karen’s filmography also includes “The China Syndrome” (1979), “Wall Street” (1987), “Mulholland Drive” (2001) and “Poltergeist” (1982) among many others.  Goldstein asked Karen why, with over 200 movies, had he  picked “The Return of the Living Dead” for the evening’s screening?  “Because it was the most fun I had making a movie,” Karen replied.

To be sure, “The Return of the Living Dead” is a low budget, goofy, gory campy send up of  the “Night of the Living Dead” movies.  Karen plays Frank, the manager of a medical warehouse, who accidentally releases a gas that re-animates the dead.  Of course the warehouse is located right across from a cemetery, and hilarity soon ensues. It was a lot of fun seeing this movie with the large and appreciative audience that showed up for the event.

Following the screening Karen explained that, “So many times you’re in a cheap picture and you’re having a great time.”  He said that with a silly picture, where there is nothing to lose, everyone is happy.  He contrasted that with the experience of being on a big budget film where everyone is tense.  Karen added that by doing “tawdry pictures you’ll have a lifetime of joy.”

Karen recalled that “The Return of the Living Dead” was a first time experience for both its director, Dan O’Bannon, and much of the cast.  Tobe Hooper (“Texas Chain Saw Massacre” – 1974, “Poltergeist” – 1982) was the original director but, due to a scheduling conflict, could not direct the film.  Karen went on to explain that since they had a cast that had never acted and a director who had never directed, there was a two week rehearsal period.  Karen said that they rarely did more than one take per shot and, since there was very little coverage (alternate angles), actors were quick to make sure they inserted themselves into any scene being filmed.

Karen said that “The Return of the Living Dead” has an international following.  He said that the cast still makes a living off the film by traveling to conventions and selling photographs.  Karen recalled once getting off a boat on the Island of Capris, and hearing people shout to him, in Italian, “More brains,” one of the most memorable lines in the film.

Film Forum is located at 209 West Houston Street, west of 6th Avenue.  For information on Film Forum screenings and events visit http://www.filmforum.com.

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on May 21, 2013, in Feature Articles, Film Forum and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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