The Incandescent Weirdness of Udo Kier

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Udo Kier as Dracula

If you’ve watched any movies, chances are you’ve seen Udo Kier. If you mostly watch Hollywood movies, you’ve probably seen him in a brief role, and thought “Oh, that’s the guy who’s like a real life version of Mike Myers’ Dieter character!” If you’re a horror movie fan, you probably say “Fuck yeah! Udo Kier!” when you see him due to his cult icon status in horror movies.

After Klaus Kinski died, he became Hollywood’s go-to Intense German Guy. But that’s just a tiny glimpse of the strangeness that is Udo Kier. The Cologne hospital in which he was born in 1944 was bombed shortly after his birth and he and his mother had to be dug out of the rubble. Just as his origin straddled life and death, he has made a career of straddling camp and sincerity. In most of his roles, it’s difficult to tell if he’s serious or camping it up with a knowing wink to the audience, or both.

After moving to Britain as a young man and getting a few movie roles he had the fortune to meet director Paul Morrissey, and history was made. Morrissey was set to direct remakes of two classic horror films with Andy Warhol producing, and cast Kier in as the lead in both. Morrissey was the perfect pairing for Kier, because he seemed to be simultaneously embracing and parodying horror movie tropes. Kier and Morrissey seem to be having us on while being deadly earnest. With every line reading one wonders is this a joke or did they mean it to be that way? Are the political undertones serious or farce or did they just stick them in there because hey, it’s the early seventies? Who knows? But it’s damn fun to watch.

First up was Flesh for Frankenstein (in 3D!). The gore effects are pushed past the limits of taste and make full use of the 3D effect. The film was rated X on initial release, and even today the gore is pretty repulsive. But unlike cheap exploitation films that would have names like Flesh for Frankenstein and be shot in 3D, the cinematography is gorgeous. It’s a B horror movie that looks like a Renaissance painting.

Then there’s Udo Kier’s performance.

With his still thick German accent, Thin White Duke frame, and intense glare he’s already the perfect actor to portray a scientist obsessed with creating life from the dead. Udo turns the intensity up to 11 in every scene and milks every last drop of drama out of each line, no matter how badly he pronounces it (“I’m not going to die in wain!”).

Any other performer (Nicolas Cage, say. To pull a name out at random.) would look silly performing like this, but somehow it oddly works. Yes, it’s as campy as the day is long, but you also can’t take your eyes off it. Is it a joke or not? With both Kier and Morrissey it’s hard to tell. They both seem to appreciate the schlock value of the source material, but they also invest way more into it than if they were just being ironic.

Then there’s The Line.

This happens just after Dr. Frankenstein has used an ——- unusual method to add an organ to the female creature he is creating. The actor playing Otto looks like he honestly can’t tell if he’s being punked and just decides to roll with it. And that’s what we have to do.

Shortly after, Kier and Morrissey teamed up to make Blood for Dracula, where Kier plays the infamous Count. In an interesting take, Kier plays the character as a fragile aristocrat having difficulty adjusting to the changing world. This version of Dracula can withstand sunlight, but can only drink the blood of virgins – any other blood makes him sick. As the Count says after the second incident of mistakenly drinking non-virgin blood “The blood of zees hoors is killink me!”

In Blood For Dracula, Morrissey trades most of the gore for eroticism as Dracula tries to find a virgin to drink from among the lusty young women of the Italian countryside. Like Frankenstein, this is an exploitative horror movie with the soul of an art film. Every frame looks like a painting and Kier plays Dracula with genuine pathos and tragedy. But then the end of the film where the square jawed (sort of) hero kills Dracula is so insanely slapstick, it honestly plays less silly when sped up with Yakkety Sax dubbed in.

Now lest you think Kier is some sort of Teutonic vaudevillian, watch this short clip from a German TV show where he demonstrates his ability to act with restraint and subtlety.

I’m unfamiliar with his German oeuvre, so I don’t know if he has one acting style for German and one for English roles. But I do know that in 1985 he went full Sprockets and recorded a New Wave song about a disaffected business man turning into a raptor.

It’s that same mix of campy schlock and highbrow art house that somehow transcends both. He could have just coasted along as Intense German Guy in Hollywood movies and cult horror icon, but he’s just too weird to be boxed in like that. Witness his David Lynchian performance of “Der Adler” in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho.

Kier is a singular talent who has managed to straddle many identities. German and English, that-guy actor and a cult movie hero, B movie schlock and art house cinema. He’s the sort of character actor we see less and less of these days. Hollywood should really craft a good starring role for him. It would be amazing to see him as Doctor Moreau (want to go for the trifecta, Paul Morrissey?)

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