Thrill Me: Happy Birthday, Tom Atkins

A lot of Gen Xers grew up consuming a steady diet of the following: Kool Aid, Pixie Stix, humor magazines and comic books, and as many horror, fantasy, action, and other gritty and/or goofy genre movies as we could get our hands on. From Kurt Russell being the ultimate cool antihero in Escape from New York (1981) to Arnold Schwarzenegger pumping us up as Conan the Barbarian (1982), the movies were chock full of tough guys we could root for.

Among these icons walked another legend of genre cinema, a man so synonymous with cult classics that he himself qualifies as a living, breathing cult classic all by his own self. That man is the no -nonsense, whiskey-swilling, scenery chewing, Pittsburgh-born Tom Atkins, and today is his 87th birthday.

Why did many in my generation grow up loving and idolizing Tom Atkins? Well, from 1980 through 1988 alone the man started in The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), Creepshow (1982), Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), Night of the Creeps (1986), and Maniac Cop (1988), among others. That is a serious murderer’s row of cult horror and sci-fi cinema. Plus, he costarred in a big budget hit like Lethal Weapon (1987).

Atkins brought bravado, but also a thinking man’s vulnerability to his roles as tough-talking men of action. His characters were usually grounded, normal men thrust into exceedingly abnormal circumstances, and part of the fun in his best movies is watching Atkins’ characters navigate the outrageous circumstances thrown at them. In The Fog—where, disconcertingly, he appears without his signature mustache—he’s a laconic trucker just getting a little nookie from a beautiful, young hitchhiker (hello Jamie Lee Curtis!) when all hell breaks loose in the small coastal town of Antonio Bay, California. Halloween III sees Atkins playing Dr. Dan Challis, an alcoholic ER doctor who hits the sauce and the road for adventure (and more nookie) with the beautiful, young Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin) after a mysterious death leads them to check out the sinister Silver Shamrock factory.

When I said Atkins often played men of action, I didn’t just mean fisticuffs. A big reason horror and cult movie fan revere him stems from some of his characters’ legendary canoodling with nubile beauties like Curtis and Nelkin. To a lot of adolescents in the ‘80s, this made Atkins a God. Several years ago I became Facebook friends with Stacey Nelkin. She and Atkins meet up annually at horror conventions and marvel at the cult following that has grown around Halloween III. Meanwhile, fans still marvel at Atkins getting it on with Nelkin in a seedy motel room.

As much as I love him in those roles, my favorite will always be as Detective Ray Cameron in one of my favorite movies of all time, Fred Dekker’s loving homage to sci-fi and horror B-movies, Night of the Creeps (1986). Whether firing off sarcastic one-liners—whenever he saunters onto a crime scene he sighs “Thrill me”—or fighting off a zombie-aliens (or, alien-zombies?) attack on a college campus, Atkins is absolutely mesmerizing. It’s his best role, and he played the living hell out of it.

Arguably though, Atkins’s most memorable moment onscreen might just be the final shot of Halloween III.

**Spoilers for a forty year old movie ahead!**

Towards the end of the movie, the cartoonishly heinous villain reveals his dastardly plan to Dr. Dan. Basically Silver Shamrock produced supernatural Halloween masks that, when triggered by the incessant Silver Shamrock jungle in their TV commercials, will become weapons of death, killing any child wearing one on Halloween night. Dr. Dan rushes to save the nation’s children from a gruesome end, desperately pleading with someone over the phone from the broadcast network to stop running the damn commercial. The film cuts to black just after Atkins screams himself into a frenzy, shouting “Stop it! Stop it!! STOP IT!!!” Nothing about Halloween III’s creepy atmospherics or over the top narrative prepares you for that ending. Atkins really sells it.

In these roles and so many more, Tom Atkins always provided a thrill for genre fans in the eighties. Happy birthday to the mack daddy of eighties cult cinema.

One thought on “Thrill Me: Happy Birthday, Tom Atkins

  1. What a great post Michael!! Thank you for the spoiler alert as I have not watched that forty year old movie yet lol!! One thing we’re sorely missing in this modern movie age…iconic characters like the ones embodied by Tom Atkins!!

    Liked by 1 person

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