Anna Massey: Horror, History, Mystery

True fact! British actress Anna Massey (1937-2011) was daughter to Canadian-American Raymond Massey (and clearly inherited his gifts). I had a Eureka moment a few months ago (similar to the Sylvia Sidney one), when I caught some performances from her later years, put them together with memories of films she made when she was younger, and finally mentally bundled together the career of a person whose work had come to me in fragments.

The later work I saw (some of her last work in fact) was on television shows like Midsomer Mysteries and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Then I realized I’d seen her early work, the best known of which was in exceedingly dark films: Peeping Tom (1960), Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), Frenzy (1972), and The Vault of Horror (1973). Collectively this is almost enough to make her a proper “horror actress”.

But the bulk of her work was in British television, including a huge number of adaptations of classic novels: David Copperfield (1970), The Pallisers (1974), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1978), Rebecca (1979), Mansfield Park (1983), Anna Karenina (1985), Around the World in 80 Days (1989), A Tale of Two Cities (1989). And the usual mix of historical epics, biopics, adaptations of plays, and mysteries and suspense tales. And a couple of sitcoms!

Massey’s mother was the English actress Adrianne Allen. The combined genes of her parents gave her a strange beauty, characterized by those huge, almost insectoid, Massey eyes. When she was younger, depending on the role, she could make herself attractive, or more of a prim, librarian style character who vaguely resembled a Praying Mantis. The mixture made for a vulnerability that was powerful indeed in a movie like Peeping Tom. (And what is Peeping Tom about, if not eyes?)

In addition to her parents, her older brother Daniel was also an actor, making Anna essentially a legacy actor. She went on the stage at 17 and learned on the job. Hard to hate nepotism like that though, when the result is so engaging. She was only 73 when she died in 2011 of cancer.