God is in His Holy Temple: The Grave of Julian Beck

September 1, 2020 —
I’ve been to the grave of the Beast and…it was rather nice.

Julian Beck had a life. And an interesting one if you believe his epitaph: “Actor, Painter, Poet, Anarchist, Pacifist, Playwright, Visionary.” And definitely an interesting one if you read his Wikipedia page. But the human heart is only so big, and I only care about the few months of his life he spent in 1985 in Altadena, California, doing one thing: Creating the evil Reverend Henry Kane for Poltergeist II: The Other Side.

Now, some say that Poltergeist II isn’t as good as Poltergeist. And that’s fine. Personally, I have issues with the original. But what’s undeniable is that Poltergeist never gave us a villain that we could sink our terrors into. Like, at all. In the horror movie world, you can make a bad movie with a great villain and it will outlast just great horror movies. And Poltergeist II gave us a nightmare of a villain. 

The first time we see Reverend Kane (aka, the Beast) is in a crayon portraiture, as Carol Anne colors the dark circles under his eyes. His bogeymanitude is obvious even in Crayola and even if Gramma-Jess only sees the little girl’s talent in the drawing. The second time, he just walks through a shopping center. Later we see him time talking through a screen door in the rain. And that’s pretty much all he does the entire movie. Super-mundane stuff. But he’s absolutely terrifying doing it. Even without the suicide-cult-walled-into-a-cave backstory.

It’s in the way he shows every tooth in his mouth when he smiles. The way he plays the character so unthreateningly that you must assume an evil like his doesn’t need to threaten. The way you almost see his sincerity. 

Most people will tell you that the reason the Reverend Kane worked so well physically as a villain was because Julian Beck was dying. In 1983, he contracted stomach cancer and was withering away to the skeletal form we see in the movie. In fact, he would die before Poltergeist II hit theaters. And that’s somewhat true. He was only 60 when he filmed that role. He looks 90. But, honestly, the guy always looked a bit weird, judging by his photos. Actors, Painters, Poets, Anarchists, Pacifists, Playwrights, Visionaries often do. But it’s the way he wielded that weirdness that really worked. 

Let me put it this way. This is how good he is as the Beast. When Craig T. Nelson drinks a tequila worm with an eyeball and then vomits a goopy fetus-zombie-skeleton out of his mouth, Kane is still scarier staring through a screen door than that goopy fetus-zombie-skeleton doing anything. 

When I found myself in New Jersey a couple years back, I stopped by his grave. His last earthly traces can be found at Cedar Park Cemetery in Paramus. His grave marker is a tall, plain flat stone right on one of the paths, with his signature engraved on it beside two matching ones, one for his wife Judith Malina (Actor, Director, Pacifist, Anarchist, Diarist, Poet, Muse) and Malina’s husband after Beck, Hanon Reznikov (Actor, Director, Poet, Pacifist, Anarchist, Beloved Brother, Playwright, Utopian).

But what’s really missing on his stone in that list of epitaph epithets is, “Beast.” I’d stick it right between Anarchist and Pacifist.