Tony Todd is a horror great. Although he’s starred in many films and TV series, his claim to fame, in my view, rests mostly on Night of the Living Dead (Tom Savini, 1990), Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992), and Final Destination 1 & 2 (2000, 2003). What Todd has done so well—his signature—is to create characters who inhabit borders. The characters he plays are often stuck between the living and the dead, between monstrous and tragically human. He has thus consistently epitomized one of the things horror films crucially do as horror films—that is, disrupt boundaries we think are fixed, sending our familiar and fixed categories into disarray.
–1. Night of the Living Dead: Todd’s version of Ben in Savini’s 1990 re-make of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is certainly a case in point. In Romero’s film, Ben (Duane Jones) is unambiguously human throughout the entire film—in charge, a man of action, always with a plan, always certain; in short, he is the most rational character in the film. His life is abruptly ended after he survives the night, the lone survivor, only to be shot in the head by a member of the posse that is “cleaning up” the ghouls. There is no state of ambiguity for Romero’s Ben: he goes from being alive to dead, rational and in-charge to helpless in a split second.
In Savini’s film, though, Todd’s Ben doesn’t emerge alive from the cellar but as a zombie himself—and he does so after realizing the absurdity of what his group has gone through, after realizing that the keys to the gas pump that they were searching for have been in the cellar all along. His mindless laughter at the irony of it all is a waystation to his encroaching life-in-death state. Savini’s Ben is not either human or zombie, dead or alive, but spends some time at least in an ambiguous borderline state—and I think this adds a more complex message about what it means to be human.
–2. Candyman: Candyman is perhaps Todd’s best film—and the figure of Candyman perfectly exemplifies the way in which Todd’s characters embody liminal, threshold states. The film is driven by the question: who is Candyman? He is the son of a former slave who was brutally killed by whites angry that he was involved with a white woman. He is a gang leader in the notorious Cabrini Green housing project. He is an urban legend—given life in the re-telling of his mythic story. He is in every way a boundary-figure—of the past and the present, real and mythic, alive and dead, dangerous and seductive. He lives in the threshold spaces of buildings and appears to the heroine of the film (Virginia Madsen) always on the edges of both her reality and of physical space.
–3. Final Destination: Tony Todd also stole the show as mortician William Bludworth in Final Destination and Final Destination 2 & 5. In these films, Todd’s role as a boundary figure is deepened as he is not an impure border-transgressing monster but a kind of Hermes figure. Hermes is the god of boundaries and transitions, able to move freely between the mortal and the divine, this world and other worlds—and in the Final Destination franchise, Bludworth is the source of knowledge, for the other characters, about death and destiny. As always in his films, Todd seems both part of this world and the next, having an uncanny knowledge that positions him just beyond the realm of the real.
Next on my list to watch is a film in which Todd has a starring role: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by John Carl Buechler in 2006. This seems like the perfect film for Todd with its shape-shifting and split protagonist.