While the loss of beloved actor Michael Parks was a blow to all of filmmaking, the world of genre film is especially devastated at his absence. Though his career began in television with appearances on Gunsmoke and Perry Mason, he was already dipping his feet in the waters of suspense and horror early on with The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Police Story.
Park was a TV mainstay in the 1970s, playing handsome cops and criminals in Get Christie Love! and The Streets of San Francisco. His genre work began in earnest in the late 1970s, with a role as a doctor trying to stop a deadly outbreak of African bees in 1976’s TV thriller The Savage Bees.
He followed that up with another TV movie in 1978, Night Cries.
It was the end of the decade, in 1979, when Parks teamed with cult horror director Charles B. Pierce for The Evictors. The filmmaker, famous for his pseudo-documentary The Legend of Boggy Creek and the early slasher The Town That Dreaded Sundown, followed those films up with this lesser known but equally compelling piece of Southern horror. Parks played the devoted but often absent husband to Suspiria’s Jessica Harper (both pictured above), who spends the film terrorized by stalkers in her isolated home.
While he continued to work through the 1980s, genre material was in short supply; 1981 brought a TV remake of the Hitchcock classic Dial M for Murder, but much of Parks’ time was occupied in recurring roles on TV dramas like The Colbys and The Equalizer.
For a short time, it looked like Parks’ skills were going to be wasted in a series of quickie exploitation films like Caged Fury and the biker horror film Nightmare Beach. But that all changed when Parks landed the recurring role of Jean Renault in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Parks’ unique acting style, combining the realism of method acting with punctuations of wide-eyed creepiness that threatened to spin into a fever pitch, was perfectly matched for the material.
Unfortunately, it was back to the exploitation thriller arena after Twin Peaks ended its run, where filmmakers who didn’t recognize Parks’ nuance and skill cast him in films like Sorceress and Death Wish V: The Face of Death.
Thankfully, Quentin Tarantino then came along. As he had done with Laurence Tierney in Reservoir Dogs and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino gave Michael Parks a role that reminded film fans how great he could be. Small but memorable, Parks’ role as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in From Dusk Till Dawn provided us with an instant classic monologue.
In fact, the character of McGraw would return in the Kill Bill films and both parts of the Grindhouse double feature, and Parks himself would eventually return in the From Dusk Till Dawn franchise as a new character: historical figure Ambrose Bierce in From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter.
The increased interest in Parks, thanks to his Tarantino film roles, led to a series of fun appearances as another sheriff wrapped up in supernatural trouble in 2007’s The Dead One, cameos in Argo and Django Unchained, and roles as a disturbed father in Maidenhead and the truly over-the-top Fritz Tremor in Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassins’ Ball.
However, it was a trilogy of horror films early in the 2010s that truly made Michael Parks a household name for horror fans, with performances so wild, honest, and painful that they cannot be forgotten. In 2011, director Kevin Smith veered away from his standard raunchy comedy roots to write and direct a disturbing horror film based loosely on the hateful rhetoric and violence of Pastor Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church. The film was Red State, and Michael Parks played minister Abin Cooper. He delivered the impossible: portraying a religious zealot and cold-blooded murderer who somehow drew in viewers with his disarming folksy charm. The sermon he delivers is a pitch-perfect matching of performer and dialogue.
Three years after Red State, Kevin Smith had an idea for another horror film about a lonely old man who captures a podcast host and begins the disturbing process of transforming him into a human walrus that he will keep as a companion. The premise of Tusk is absurd, and many of the performances tilt over into broad comedy, but Parks’ central obsessed figure is always just as emotionally real as he is unbelievable in his actions. The scene with Parks explaining what will be done to his captor is disturbing in large part due to Parks’ performance.
One of the most affecting performances of Parks’ entire career soon came in a remake of a Mexican cannibal film called We Are What We Are. Relocated to the Appalachian Mountains in America, the film was written by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, co-writers of Stakeland and Mulberry Street and co-creators of the excellent Sundance Channel series Hap & Leonard. Parks’ open wound of a performance is a wonder to behold; as a coroner whose newest case may finally reveal the truth about his daughter’s disappearance years earlier, Parks’ Doc Barrow is quiet, driven, and deeply desperate for closure. The scene in which Barrow confronts Bill Sage’s Parker to learn the truth about his daughter’s disappearance is a masterclass in subtlety and heartbreak.
Michael Parks had a career that spanned over fifty-five years. He moved back and forth between film and television, he worked with industry luminaries like Alfred Hitchcock, Larry Cohen, Quentin Tarantino, and David Lynch, and he even played Adam in John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning.
There was no role he couldn’t play, and the genre community is heartbroken that we won’t get any more. Rest in peace, Michael Parks. And thanks for all those immortal monologues.