Collins’ Crypt: Sam Neill Is An Unsung Genre Icon

The character actor has quietly racked up a pretty impressive horror resume over the years.

For a movie that is kind of forgotten and admittedly isn't exactly my favorite of anyone involved, it's amusing how "important" Memoirs of an Invisible Man has been to me. Twelve-year-old BC was just excited about a new Chevy Chase movie (I was the sort of kid who had seen Seems Like Old Times a dozen times before I ever saw Star Wars), but thanks to a Starlog article that informed me that the film's director also made a movie that I was quite fond of called Halloween, it's pretty much how I first became aware of who John Carpenter was, and why I started tracking down his other films that would end up among my favorites of all time. But it's also the first time I saw Sam Neill in a movie, an actor who I instantly took a liking to and got even more excited to see Jurassic Park the following year when I learned that he was its star. And now that it and his other film with Carpenter, In The Mouth of Madness, have both hit the Scream Factory label* I figured I would take the opportunity to sing his praises and highlight his many memorable contributions to the horror and sci-fi genre.

As villain introductions go, Neill's in Memoirs is pretty great. He's playing a man named David Jenkins, who is a "fixer" for the CIA, and when we meet him he's at a hearing being accused of throwing various government people out of windows. And his accuser is played by the great Sam Anderson, who before becoming best known as the hapless Bernard on Lost was a go-to actor for white collar assholes and the like, sort of in the same category as JT Walsh and guys like that. So even though it's clear Neill's character is shady as hell you almost want to root for him a bit, because we were accustomed to seeing Anderson as the guy who was not on our side. Plus, Neill is smirking his way through the scene, another reason to kinda love the guy even though you know he'll be making our hero's life hell pretty soon (then again, if you hate Chevy you'll be fine with that, too). Outside of the FX (which mostly hold up quite well under Blu-ray scrutiny) and the rare sight of seeing Chevy as a romantic action hero (he only does two or three traditional kinda Chevy comedy bits in the film), the best reason to watch the film is to enjoy Neill's performance, as he makes almost no effort to conceal his malicious villain side and seems to be having quite a blast in most of his scenes. 

Carpenter has more or less disowned the film; he didn't even put his name above the title and he's hinted over the years that he didn't get along with his leading actor (though Chevy is quite complimentary toward him on the disc's vintage interviews, even referring to him as the best director he's ever worked with). But the filmmaker was clearly impressed with Neill, as he gave him the lead role in his next theatrical release, In the Mouth of Madness - pretty much the only actor from Memoirs he'd work with again, which is notable as the director has always shown a lot of loyalty with his actors. Hot off Jurassic Park and the Oscar-winning The Piano, Neill got what I think was his only solo "above the title on the poster" billing for the film, though his newfound starpower didn't help its box office much. To date (so, probably/sadly forever) it is Carpenter's second lowest grossing film that went into wide release, topping only Ghosts of Mars in that department.

So yes, even the same year's Village of the Damned managed to outgross Madness, but like most of Carpenter's films, the box office receipts are in no way indicative of its quality. In fact, it got its reappraisal rather quickly; even by the time Vampires came out a few years later folks were already noting that ITMOM was one of his better films, and now it's frequently cited as his last truly great film. Neill plays John Trent, and when we meet him he's being dragged into an institution, completely manic and feeling even more miserable when the hospital pipes in The Carpenters (heh) over their PA. Then he starts telling his story: he is an insurance fraud investigator who was hired to find Sutter Cane, a horror author (one who even outsells Stephen King) that has disappeared along with his new manuscript, which is due in stores. Trent believes it to be a publicity stunt but goes along for the ride due to the comfy compensation and an attraction to Cane's editor (Julie Carmen) who accompanies his search, and eventually realizes that it's not a scam, and Cane's words are really powerful enough to change reality. 

As with Memoirs, Neill seems to be having a lot of fun in the role ("Sorry about the balls!"), and it's a blast to go on the journey with him, even if his Trent is slower to accept the reality of what's going on than any reasonable audience member. Even at the hour or so mark, he's still convinced everything is a publicity stunt, the crazed people just actors, the terrifying sounds just speakers wired throughout the town, etc. It's a bit frustrating to see him being so stubborn when he should have seen the truth around the same time we did, but he more than makes up for it with the final reel, now fully aware that the world is ending and that there isn't much he can do to stop it. He also (rightfully) suffers a psychotic break, having learned that he's merely a character in one of Cane's novels and has to help bring about the end of mankind himself by delivering the manuscript. This brings us up to speed on the film's opening (it's the rare occasion where this kind of framing device genuinely enhances a horror film), where he is able to walk out of the now deserted institution and go see the movie adaptation of Cane's book, a John Carpenter film in which he stars. The movie closes with Neill, large popcorn in his lap, making like Max Cady in the theater, laughing uproariously as he watches himself on screen. It's Carpenter's most cerebral work by a mile, and I suspect it wouldn't work without a grounded sort of performer like Neill in the role.

It also helps that the actor had some experience with melting audience's brains, having starred in 1981's Possession, one of two horror films he toplined that year (the other being Omen III, more on that soon). Andrzej Żuławski's film is not an easy one to pin down on a narrative level, but as with ITMOM it's a bit easier to digest if you look at it entirely from Neill's perspective, as the closest thing to a normal person in a world gone insane. His character, Mark, is a spy who returns from a mission to find out that his wife wants a divorce, and as his wife is played by Isabelle Adjani, he's understandably upset about losing her. The film is more or less an account of their vitriolic relationship that they struggle to maintain for the sake of their son - it's just that it also has doppelgangers, a monster that grows out of the wall, and cinema's most horrifying use of milk to go along with what otherwise might have counted as a relationship drama. Neill is not particularly sympathetic at times (he even hits Adjani at one point) and the film's obscure plotting keeps it from being a personal favorite, but it was clear even at this early stage in his career that the actor brought a lot to the table and was someone to watch.

It's that presence that helps elevate lesser material, such as Omen III (aka The Final Conflict). The first film showcased Damien's time as a child and the first sequel, 1978's Omen II, depicted his teenage years, so the third chapter continued that progression by jumping forward to when he was in his early 30's (though I feel we should have gotten one of Damien in his twenties, backpacking through Europe or something before settling into adulthood). Now running the Thorn business, he's also made into an Ambassador to Great Britain, is also fully aware of what he is (though remarkably doesn't seem to want to exploit his powers as much as you might think), letting the actor play full on evil while also using his handsome features and trademark accent (a blend of his Irish and New Zealand upbringing) to great effect - Damien doesn't have to use any powers to draw people to him, and it's kind of terrifying how you still kinda root for him even though the plot has him murdering two dozen infants because one of them is Christ reborn and is sapping his power. It's the weakest of the original trilogy (but better than any Omen-related offering since), but there's a certain charm to seeing a fully aware Damien as opposed to the more innocent version of the others, and Neill embraces that element and depicts it perfectly; it's a shame we couldn't have gotten more adventures with him in the role.

In fact, outside of television he's only returned to a role once: that of Alan Grant in the Jurassic Park films. His character is a big part of why the film works so well (and for me and I know several others, the reason it's the only one that's really worth a damn), because he shares most sane audience member's perspective on what John Hammond is doing: he knows it's a bad idea, but goddamn it's amazing to sit there and watch honest to god dinosaurs graze in a field or stroll through a lagoon. Even after they've been attacked by the T rex, he's still impressed by the herbivores when they encounter them, taking time to help feed a Brachiosaurus or admire the Gallimimus changing course like a flock of birds, and it's that sense of awe that really gives the film its power, and something that's largely lacking from the sequels: no one's really impressed anymore. Alan sat The Lost World out (giving Jeff Goldblum a promotion to lead), but in 2001's Jurassic Park III he is re-introduced in the most hilarious way, correcting a toddler on how he's playing with his dinosaur toys ("Charlie, those are herbivores - they wouldn't fight each other!"), and despite his horrific time in Jurassic Park he's still very much committed to research and preservation of dinosaur history. But the script isn't worthy of his talents for the most part; before long he's just endlessly running from dinos again (the movie is easily the most action packed of the franchise), something any actor could do, and it's not surprising he's been dismissive of any chance that he'll return to the role (at one point the actor said that in his mind, Grant was possibly dead). That said, I'd be far more excited for a sixth entry in this frequently disappointing franchise if he was gonna put on the straw hat again.

In the summer of 1997, not long after Lost World made lots of money without him, Neill co-starred with Laurence Fishburne in Event Horizon, possibly the most underrated of the movies I've discussed here. Paul WS Anderson's film is a combination of Alien (and Aliens), The Shining, and Hellraiser, and while studio interference and a rushed post production schedule (caused in part by Titanic, which is hilarious when you consider how much Anderson idolizes James Cameron) kept it from being as great as it might have been, it's still a solid movie and easily the best one Anderson ever made (I know that's not a high bar to clear). Neill plays Dr. William Weir, designer of the titular ship that went missing some time ago and has seemingly resurfaced. Weir hitches a ride on the Lewis and Clark, a very Nostromo-like vessel with Fishburne as its Captain Dallas, and they clearly do not care for having him around, which is a smart move - our fondness for Neill has us initially seeing Fishburne as more of an antagonist, but once they locate and get on board the Event Horizon, Weir's true colors shine through. Before long, he's making like Jack Torrance and going completely off the deep end while the others do their best to fight the ship's influence on their minds, either succeeding or ending up dead anyway. This makes Weir into the film's villain, and Neill spends his final scenes with his eyes gouged out and looking a bit like Pinhead just before they put the pins in, which I'm sure the studio just loved, but he seems to be having a ball, and kudos to him for taking on such an unflattering role (and for making the sci-fi gobbledygook dialogue work). 

He's appeared in a few other genre films over the years: Dead Calm, Daybreakers, and Snow White: A Tale of Terror come to mind, plus a number of fantasy and sci-fi films and television projects (Merlin represent!), though he constantly works and, as a character actor that can be at ease in any genre, they make up a relatively small percentage of his filmography. But really, his two films with Carpenter alone would be enough to secure him a table at horror cons for the rest of his life if he so chose, and if his Twitter account is indicative of how he'd engage with fans in the real world, I suspect those autograph lines would never dwindle. He's been in a few stinkers, but he always gives the role his all and does the job he's paid to do, which is probably why he's such a boon for genre films, as the spectacle tends to drown out the actors (and thus leave the movie feeling like empty calories) and the scripts aren't always the best in the world. When you get an actor like Neill in one of those thankless roles, the film is so much better for it, and as he hasn't done anything "Collins Crypt" worthy in quite some time, I hope someone out there is preparing to take advantage of that soon. And hey, John Carpenter seems to be more active lately...

*If you want a laugh, check out this old article where I pegged the likelihood of other Carpenter releases from the company. My guesses have proven to be wildly inaccurate, with the #1 most likely still nowhere in site but almost all of the ones near the bottom are accounted for. At least I was right in assuming that they'd more or less piggyback Memoirs to the much more enticing Madness release!