Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Louise Lasser’s performance in the Thanksgiving slasher movie Blood Rage.
When it comes to holiday-set horror films, Thanksgiving has always been woefully underrepresented. Halloween obviously reigns supreme, and Christmas has some all-time classics, but Turkey Day? You’ve essentially got a couple of movies about killer mutant birds (Blood Freak, ThanksKilling), and a handful of others that use the holiday as set decoration (Home Sweet Home, Kristy).
However, if there is one Thanksgiving horror film that takes the proverbial cake — or should I say pumpkin pie — it’s the 1980s slasher Blood Rage.
The movie follows Maddy Simmons (Louise Lasser), a single mother to identical twins, Terry and Todd, who were involved in a brutal murder at a drive-in theater. As Todd watched in horror, Terry buried a hatchet into the face of a man getting frisky in the backseat of his car. Not wanting to get caught, Terry smeared Todd in blood and blamed him for the murder.
Devastated, Maddy was forced to institutionalize Todd and try to pick up the pieces of her life with Terry. Ten years later, on Thanksgiving Day, Todd breaks out of the institution, and Terry uses his escape as cover to go on a killing spree.
Why is Blood Rage the Best Thanksgiving Horror Movie?
Shot in 1983 but not given a proper release until 1987, Blood Rage has become the pinnacle of Thanksgiving horror cinema. This is due in large part to an oft-quoted line — “It’s not cranberry sauce!” — that the movie’s antagonist utters whenever he sees blood. However, the inherent holiday cheesiness and overt gore aren’t why Blood Rage is a remarkable slasher film.
It’s in Lasser’s startlingly effective performance as the world-weary Maddy, a woman who just wanted to find love for herself and support for her children but wound up trapped in a slow-motion car crash of a Thanksgiving dinner. The actress took her own experiences with trauma to sketch out a multilayered character that could express true emotion within the given circumstances of a B-movie.
Louise Lasser’s Method
Louise Lasser has a distinct method to surfacing her character’s emotions on screen in Blood Rage, but it’s not the “method acting” famously used by the likes of Marlon Brando and Shelley Winters. Lasser was a student of Sanford Meisner, an acting teacher who developed his own technique inspired by Konstantin Stanislavski’s method.
A major difference between the two practices is in their attitudes toward a concept called “affective memory,” where an actor gets into the headspace of their character by directly engaging with an emotionally charged moment in their own life.
The problem with Stanislavski’s affective memory technique is that actors can put themselves into psychological jeopardy by building their character’s mental state out of their own personal experiences. If you’re playing a character whose dog died, but you’re actively reliving the grief you felt losing your own pet, it can become difficult to distinguish where your emotions end and your character’s begin.
Meisner shunned this overall approach. Rather than mining your own past, the Meisner technique helps actors discover their innate impulses through a series of exercises that inform the decisions they make in-character. This allows the actor to feel more realistic in a scene because they’re using their own natural reactions within an imaginary circumstance.
Two of the key components of the Meisner technique that help actors do this are emotional preparation and repetition.
Louise Lasser’s Emotional Preparation
Emotional preparation allows an actor to deeply understand the psychology of their character by reflecting on their own life, or by researching the lives of others. Louise Lasser didn’t need to interview someone else to create Maddy for Blood Rage. Instead, she could pull from her own experience dealing with trauma. Throughout her early career, she grappled with depression. When she was 24, her parents divorced, leading her mother to commit suicide.
Over a decade later, Lasser had a nervous breakdown while starring in the sitcom Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which coincidentally is about a woman suffering through a mental collapse of her own. From this well, Lasser was able to draw forth Maddy’s emotional state as a woman constantly on the verge of losing control after experiencing tragedy, but who attempts to hold it together so she can give her children a better life.
Where traditional method acting would have required Lasser to engage with her past trauma to embody Maddy from the start of production through the final shot, the Meisner technique merely uses emotional preparation as a launching pad.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Once you intellectually understood your character, Meisner would use repetition exercises — where two people repeat rote dialogue back and forth — to get actors out of their heads so they could explore the present moment of a scene through their natural impulses. In essence, the Meisner technique is the ultimate actualization of the adage “acting is reacting.”
And that’s exactly what Louise Lasser does as Maddy. She has an ease in her character’s despondency that never feels forced. Maddy’s anxiety just naturally emerges as Lasser plays off of the other characters in her scenes.
This is evident early in the movie after Maddy learns that Todd blames Terry for the drive-in murder. At Thanksgiving dinner, Maddy and her boyfriend, Brad, announce they’re getting married, and a streak of jealousy lights up Terry’s eyes. As he grips a knife — ostensibly to carve the turkey — Terry points the blade at Brad. As Maddy stares at her son holding her beau at knifepoint, we see her have a silent epiphany: is Todd actually right about Terry?
The Effectiveness of the Meisner Technique in Blood Rage
After that epiphany, Louise Lasser’s Maddy begins to mentally dissociate from what’s happening around her, which is accelerated once she learns Todd is on the loose. She wanders aimlessly through the rest of the movie in a quasi-fugue state, acting out stereotypical homemaker duties like cleaning the oven and vacuuming.
Even though nothing outwardly dynamic is happening on screen, we’re still riveted by these moments because we’re watching someone completely unravel in front of our eyes. Lasser’s Maddy cannot fully handle the nightmare happening around her, so she retreats into her own psyche and focuses on what she can control: everything inside her apartment.
It’s only when she ventures outside and discovers Brad’s dead body that she finally snaps out of it. A wave of clarity washes over her eyes because she finally knows what must be done: she has to kill her own child.
As she points a revolver at Terry, the dissociative Maddy we’ve followed through the movie is gone. Lasser allows her character to become fully aware, and it’s a powerful moment because her natural presence completely disappears into Maddy’s despondency. So when we finally see her eyes come alive, it’s an emotional gut punch.
The Meisner Method in Action
The ending to Blood Rage is a doozy. But it’s also a perfect example of how the Meisner technique snaked into every aspect of Lasser’s performance. After Maddy realizes she has killed Terry, not Todd, she vacillates between despair for murdering one son and abject torment for what she has inadvertently done to her other.
As Todd yells at her through clenched teeth, “I’m Todd!” Maddy begins to repeat the line, echoing at the top of her lungs, “I’m Todd! I’m Todd!” before she commits suicide.
It’s a gonzo moment in slasher movie history, but it’s the Meisner technique in action. Through repetition, the words “I’m Todd” become meaningless to Lasser, allowing her line delivery to come out of her natural impulses, rather than any actorly intellectualization.
From Mary Hartman to Maddy Simmons
One of the most intriguing elements of Louise Lasser’s performance in Blood Rage is how closely it feels to her work in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Maddy is practically an extension of Mary, tracking what happened to that character after she suffered a nervous breakdown and left her small community of Fernwood.
As Lasser told Interview magazine, “I once said that I thought she was like a survivor that lived in a world that might not be worth surviving in.”
Lasser may have been describing Mary Hartman, but that quote is also the perfect summation of Maddy in Blood Rage. She’s a mother who has survived nightmare after nightmare to the point that she loses all sense of self, ultimately deciding to take her own life to finally escape a world of misery. That Lasser was able to convey this complicated web of emotions without fully engaging in her own past trauma is proof of the power of her chosen technique.
It didn’t matter if she was in an award-winning sitcom or a Thanksgiving-set slasher. Lasser found emotional resonance in every character she played, without having to suffer through the emotional wringer of method acting.
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