Even if it's from natural causes at an old age, it's still a gutpunch when a beloved entertainer leaves this world. Dick Miller was 90 when he passed away last week, leaving a full body of work that we can continue to enjoy and new fans can spend a good chunk of their own life discovering. The man acted in nearly 200 movies and shows, so unless you're specifically trying to watch them all, there will probably always be another time where you're watching something and are surprised to see him pop up. Everyone remembers/loves him from the two Gremlins films, or Uncle Willy in Demon Knight, but he also racked up a number of single-scene appearances that stole the movie out from his higher billed co-stars - the gun shop owner in The Terminator and the waiter in After Hours certainly come to mind even though neither character even has a specific name (though it's probably Walter Paisley). Directors loved to use him because of his professionalism, actors loved him because they knew they'd have a committed scene partner, and audiences loved him because he was just so damn charming every time he appeared on screen. He will be greatly missed.
But like I said, there's still plenty of his work for you to discover or at least revisit, since you likely don't know all of his films as well as you know Gremlins or whatever. And as is customary when someone I admire passed on, I wanted to watch something from his filmography to pay my respects. Well, Miller certainly left plenty of options, but with so many of his appearances being confined to a single scene, I wanted something weightier, and the one I zeroed in on was The Terror, which to me is like the quintessential role for this one-of-a-kind actor. I came across it in high school thanks to the same VHS dump bin that supplied me with Night of the Living Dead and Fulci's Zombie, and had trouble getting through it due to its woozy narrative and not-particularly-exciting pace, but always found it charming and would often throw it on when I had trouble sleeping, figuring it would either do the trick and knock me out or I'd see it all and it'd help me finally understand its notoriously baffling plot.
For those uninitiated in the history of this wacky production, let me give you the Cliff's Notes version: as the story goes, Roger Corman finished production on The Raven a few days early, and still had stars Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson under contract for the remainder of that time. So he did what any inventive and frugal filmmaker would do: he quickly set about filming the two actors walking around the same sets, giving them a bunch of pages of dialogue to utter, and pledged to figure out how to put it together later. Luckily, he had Nicholson for a few more days, plus Sandra Knight (Nicholson's then-wife) and of course Miller, so they shot the rest over the next couple days and Corman cobbled together the movie. But it didn't make much sense (shocking, I know), so a revolving group of directors - including Francis Ford Coppola and Nicholson himself - shot over a period of eleven days to fill in all of the missing pieces. All in, Corman said it was the longest post-production for any film in his career, as it took nine months to finally finish the damn thing.
The plot concerns Nicholson's character, Andre, a French soldier who gets lost and nearly drowns as he makes his way up the coastline. He is saved by a mysterious woman named Helene, but she disappears without a trace and no one else seems to believe she even exists. Then she appears/disappears again, and now - determined to figure out what's really going on - Andre ends up at the home of the Baron (Karloff), who has his own secrets and doesn't wish to be bothered by this younger man. It is there that Andre discovers the girl he's been seeing (the Baron's wife, as it turns out) has apparently been dead for twenty years. Then there's a witch ... and a killer bird ... plus a guy who is mute until one of its writers decided he wasn't...
Look, I've seen the movie half a dozen times and I honestly couldn't tell you the plot. Even reading the synopsis on IMDb (which is shockingly thorough) I find myself saying "Huh?" more often than I'd care to admit. All I know for sure is, after a bunch of conflicting revelations - the unfortunate result of making up a movie as they went along, and having to use as much of Karloff's random footage as they could - Miller (playing the Baron's servant) was tasked with giving a lengthy monologue that "explains" the plot, covering all of the film's various discrepancies as best as he could. And it's testament to how good Miller was at selling the audience on whatever he was saying, because when he's running through it all, I'm always thinking "Ohhhh, yeah, OK, now I get it" only to be lost again the next time I try to watch the movie.
Miller (billed as "Richard" here instead of Dick) pops up throughout the film, making it one of his bigger roles that I've seen (in fact he probably has as much screen time as Karloff). He even gets to get in on the action, fighting Nicholson, diving into the water to save the girl, etc. But it's largely a talky movie, and while he gets a few choice moments with Karloff, most of his lengthier dialogue scenes are with Nicholson, presumably in the "second unit" material shot after Karloff had left (which, by my math, made up nearly 75% of the production). There's even a brief scene where it appears he too is baffled by what is going on, confronting the witch in her house and getting all big eyed when she tells him who used to live there, though later revelations suggest he should have known that all along anyway.
But if you can track it down, you can get a version of the film that features even more of him. If you look on Amazon Prime, for example, you'll find four or five different copies of the movie streaming for free, as well as on Youtube and the like. The reason that it's so widely available is because it lacked a copyright and thus went into the public domain, allowing it to end up on any number of budget pack DVDs (look in your collection, you might even own it already - I myself have three copies). In order to reclaim some ownership of the film, Corman had Miller shoot a pair of bookending scenes sometime in the 1990s, with his character Stefan (who apparently survived his apparent drowning at the end of the proper film) recounting the film's baffling story in flashback, and presumably explaining any further plot holes away for good measure. Alas, I've been unable to track that version down myself; the wide availability of the film makes it difficult to suss out which ones might have those extra scenes (none of the ones on Prime do, I checked them all), but I'd love to see it if anyone has a copy.
And don't get me wrong - despite the incoherent story, it's still worth a look outside of Miller's contributions. It's always fun to see young Jack Nicholson, especially in an action/horror role that has him running through creepy hallways, fighting raging rapids, etc. In fact it was inadvertently the first thing I "saw" of the actor; a clip from the film's conclusion appeared early on in the tape for the 80's VCR game Doorways to Horror, which I used to just watch on its own because I couldn't figure out how to actually play. The films weren't identified in the game, so I didn't know what any of them were, but vividly remembered the "scary melting lady part" that gave me a nightmare or two when I was 7 or 8. So when I finally made it to the end of The Terror and saw Knight's character perish, I was kind of blown away to see that image again, and, as a near-adult, kind of charmed I never realized that the guy reacting to the woman in that clip was the same actor I'd be watching over and over as The Joker a year or two later.
I've long wished for a full blown documentary or oral history of this low-key insane movie; I don't think I'll ever get one, but at least it was covered in both That Guy Dick Miller and Corman's World (the latter including Nicholson's hilarious thoughts on the affair), which is kind of impressive when you consider how many movies Miller and Corman made and thus naturally not all of them could be covered or even mentioned in their respective docs. It had been a while since I watched it, and it's safe to say that if Miller hadn't just passed I probably wouldn't have been revisiting it today, but as I did I was saddened to realize that there will never be another movie that can rely on Dick Miller to save it. RIP, sir. You were one of a kind, and we were lucky to have you for as long - and as often - as we did.