We keep losing major, major genre icons. 2015 was brutal and 2016 does not seem to be shaping up to be any more kind. And while he may not have the star power of Christopher Lee or Wes Craven, even among horror fans, Larry Drake was an icon. He also went too early, only sixty-six when he died.
But instead of talking about the circumstances of his death, let’s talk about the man’s career. While he’s not as recognized within horror as Robert Englund or Doug Bradley, Drake had an amazing, impressive career and was known for versatility despite his distinctive look. He was never simply typecast into playing a villain, even though he played it well. From Dark Night of the Scarecrow to Darkman to Doctor Giggles, he showed an impressive range and an ability to have fun and embrace whatever material he was given to work with.
While I’ve seen and recognized Larry Drake in a wealth of film and television appearances, there are three that stick out to me and always have. Three that are simply closer to my heart, and those are the three I’d like to look at to honor the man and show what an underrated actor I truly believe him to be.
The first is a movie I wanted to get my hands on years before I actually did: Dark Night of the Scarecrow. I’ve always loved any and all horror related to scarecrows. I remember seeing the VHS in the video store, wanting to rent it and not being able to, although I have no idea why. When I actually began hearing about it as a cult classic in high school, I wanted to see it even more. But I couldn’t really go rent it anymore because this was the last gasp of the video store and all of my local ones had closed by that point. I didn’t see Dark Night of the Scarecrow until after college, but when I finally saw it, I was not disappointed.
Drake does not dumb down his performance as Bubba. He does not mishandle it in the way even Oscar-nominated actors do when tackling a role like that. All he does is play Bubba as if he were playing a child and it works. In a few minutes of screen time, he creates a wholly sympathetic character, which is exactly what he needs to do for the film’s supernatural revenge plot to work. I had never seen the actor take on a role like this before, but I immediately recognized him while I was watching, and was impressed from my very first viewing.
But while Drake can be likable and sincere, he can also be tongue-in-cheek and sinister, as he proved in Dr. Giggles. One of the last in a long line of movies trying to be the next Elm Street, Dr. Giggles had all the makings of a cult franchise. Even now I’m surprised it didn’t go in that direction. As the evil titular doctor, Drake hams it up in a perfectly campy performance. He knew exactly what kind of feature he was making when he did that one. People forget that as many horror credits as he has, Larry Drake did a lot of comedy as well, including American Pie 2 and Bean. He brings a welcome mix of both genres to Dr. Giggles, appearing genuinely evil, but delivering one-liner after one-liner in perfect deadpan.
Sadly, Dr. Giggles never became a franchise and we have just the one performance to go off of, but it’s such a perfect blend of cheese and genuine wit that it’s probably for the best that Drake’s evil doctor always exist on his own in that one movie.
My biggest memories of Larry Drake, particularly when it comes to horror, don’t come from the world of film. No, the performance that had a lasting impression on me when I saw it as a child was Drake as a deranged, killer Santa Claus in the Tales from the Crypt episode “And All Through the House.”
This episode absolutely terrified me. I literally could not sleep after watching it. And it wasn’t until years after I’d become aware of who Larry Drake was that I actually found out it had been him in the role. This was the episode that set the tone for Tales from the Crypt. It was the first that they shot, but the second to air. It is exaggerated, darkly funny and relentlessly scary all at the same time. Drake isn’t even wearing much makeup, he has fake teeth and dirt on his face and that’s about it, but you can’t recognize him in the role. All you see is this crazed psycho in a Santa suit.
While he’s not the most well-known genre star, known more for L.A. Law than his horror work, Larry Drake terrified me probably more than any other actor in my childhood. For that, I can’t thank him enough. He was a great performer and he had the body of work to prove it. He’s played nice guys, bad guys, outright supervillains and normal, everyday folk, but I’ll always remember the way I felt the first time I saw Santa’s face pop up in the window and break into a mad grin. That’s the Larry Drake that only the horror world got to see, and we’ll always be grateful.