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Dennis Hopper: Movie Maniac

Dennis Hopper

For a man who appeared in so few horror pictures, there was always something frightening about Dennis Hopper. As an artist and a man, he seemed to pursue madness. For half his life he lived on a diet of booze and amphetamines, pushing his body to the brink of destruction and inviting stories of a man out of control. There are tales of him pulling knives on co-stars, threats of violence and of him drinking his way into character. Charles Manson saw him as a kindred spirit and begged Hopper to play him onscreen. Look into his eyes on any film following Easy Rider (1968) and they show a man who has stared into the abyss.

In front of camera, Hopper was equally out of control, playing men who were either on the brink of mental collapse - the abused outlaw in Mad Dog Morgan (1976) - or totally engulfed in psychosis - Blue Velvet's Frank Booth (1986). In these parts he pushed movie realism to its limits, frothing at the mouth, sobbing uncontrollably, pounding on anyone within reach, screaming, wailing, f**king, begging, tormenting. These baroque performances in lesser hands (Nic Cage) can look phony but with Hopper it seemed like nothing he hadn't already done for himself. When petitioning for the part of the psychotic killer in Blue Velvet, he worried the hell out of director David Lynch by claiming, "I am Frank Booth."

Ironically Hopper didn't fully get into deranged bad guy mode until he'd sobered up. Perhaps the absence of mind-altering substances gave him clarity to really drag out his demons for the camera. In Blue Velvet, his Frank Booth is one of the most terrifying characters ever brought to the screen. Sucking back violently on amyl nitrate, he is a monster who wants to revert to the innocence of childhood but cannot control his nihilistic tendencies. He makes us watch as he beats Isabella Rosellini and drags Kyle MacLachlan into the maggot-infested hell south of suburbia. It a performance so intensely perverse it feels like his gaze may fall on us at any second -- catching us watching.

The same year he appeared in one of his few authentic horror pictures - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Hopper was cast as the good guy, a sheriff looking for the killers of his family (Sally and Francis from part one). However his obsession goes beyond upholding justice and, picking up a small arsenal of chainsaws, goes hunting the cannibalistic family. In one of his few heroic performances Hopper is mad as a bag of snakes - ruddy faced, wild-eyed and talking constantly with God. "Lord you show me the end," he screams. "Show me what I fear, so I don't fear it no more." Hopper's journey into his own heart of darkness seemed never to let up and singlehandedly he made an uninspired sequel a curiosity worthy of our attention.

In the mid 90s he turned this energy toward a series of raving bad guy parts. He was the mad bomber in Speed (1994), a greasy pirate in Waterworld (1995) and a dinosaur in Super Mario Bros (1993). In 2005 he reined himself in for George A. Romero's Land of the Dead and played a villain in the George W. Bush/Donald Rumsfeld vein. More subdued than usual, Hopper still got to have fun and, with mischievous, deadpan relish, delivered one of the films most iconic lines - "Zombies, man. They freak me out." Around the same time Hopper appeared in several horror pictures, but rather than offering him expression, films like Firestarter 2 (2002), The Keeper (2003) and House of 9 (2004) were straight to DVD fodder that did little but pay the man's bills.

With his passing it's tempting to say Dennis Hopper will leave a hole in cinema. But this is not so. During his lifetime there was little he did not do and the movies will always remain full of his charm, his fearlessness and his mania. He touched horror on screen and in real life, but he came out of it a better, wiser human being. Sure, he was frightening, but I think we liked to be scared by him, and he knew it too.