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Sam Neill: Evolution of a Horror Icon

6 min read
Filmhounds Magazine

With the recent theatrical release of the 4K restoration of Andrzej Zulawski's 1981 film just in time for spooky season, it's as good a time as any to take a look at the career of one of its leads, the one and only . Along with his extensive film career, Neill has become a beloved social media presence, mainly thanks to the fun videos and photos he posts that were a major highlight during the heights of the pandemic. At the age of 74, Neill exudes sweet and wholesome energy with every social media post and picture he shares, and it's an undeniable treat that his career is still going strong. While we're all so used to the friendly older man that he's become, Neill has spent a good amount of his career playing complex, flawed, and at times straight up villainous characters in several films. The depth and commitment he brings to each role never fails to be captivating, and is further proof that he has earned the title of .

Neill's career started early on in the 70s with supporting roles in small features. His big break came in the early 80s with lead roles in Possession and Omen III: The Final Conflict, which both came out in 1981. Neill's work in Possession is nothing short of masterful, going toe-to-toe with Isabelle Adjani who is astounding in her own right. Their scenes together are incredibly visceral and at times extremely stressful due to their 110% commitment to their performances and to the story. Neill's character Mark is relatable at times, but his obsession with his wife Anna (Adjani) and his inability to live without her becomes so extreme that it becomes unclear who's side we should be on. When things start to go off the rails in a big way in the last half of the film, however, it's difficult for the audience to root for anyone, and you're just trapped watching the madness the characters have found themselves in unfold. A strong start to Neill's career for sure, and it was only the beginning of great lead performances from him.

Omen III: The Final Conflict is a different kind of lead performance, but in the best way possible. The Final Conflict sees Damien, the antichrist, all grown up and played by Neill who is clearly having a ball. While the film itself is a bit all over the place tonally, Neill is its saving grace. Any actor would be tempted to absolutely ham up this performance and chew the scenery to bits. Neill, while definitely adding flair to the character, never goes more over the top than he needs to. Damien is grounded enough that it makes sense that he's been able to climb the political ladder so successfully without too much suspicion. But then there are scenes where he gets to show off his true evil nature, the most memorable one being the monologue he gives in his attic to a statue of Jesus. It's probably the best scene of the movie thanks to Neill who really takes his time with it, expertly weaving through every line delivery. It may not be the best movie, but sequences like that make it extremely worthwhile.

The 1990s only saw more success for Neill. While Jurassic Park (1993) might be his most well-known movie of that decade, the 90s also saw him work with John Carpenter (twice), star alongside Sean Connery (The Hunt for Red October), and delve further into the horror genre with and Snow White: A Tale of Terror, both released in 1997. Neill's movies with Carpenter are huge highlights in Neill's filmography. While not technically a horror film, Neill played the villain in Memoirs of an Invisible Man, a somewhat unexpected project for Carpenter and one who's production was a tad fraught. Despite Chevy Chase being difficult as the lead and Carpenter not getting along with him or Daryl Hannah, who played Chase's love interest, Carpenter and Neill managed to get along swimmingly. So much so in fact that two years later, Carpenter cast Neill in the lead role of his fantasy horror film . Neill plays insurance investigator John Trent who's tasked with finding client Sutter Cane, a horror writer who's gone missing. Once Trent tracks him down, he discovers just how much of an impact Cane's work has on his readers.

Neill gets to show off his range as Trent, an average man who's skeptical of Cane's hold over his fans. As the film progresses, Trent is witness to many horrifying sights let lead him to go slightly crazy, enough for him to be committed to a mental hospital. There are many memorable sequences that display Trent's dissent into madness, one being on the bus when he wakes up from a supposed dream and starts yelling at the top of his lungs out of sheer panic and fear, and another being the final scene with him sitting alone in a movie theater cackling at the screen. Although the movie starts with Trent being committed to the insane asylum and the rest of the story (except for the last 5 minutes) is technically a flashback, Trent's character arc is quite believable thanks to Neill's performance. It keeps Trent relatively relatable while still depicting accurately what would likely happen to a person exposed to that much terror and madness.

Oddly enough, Neill goes through a similar arc as Dr. Weir in Paul W.S. Anderson's Event Horizon, although this time around it's much more extreme. While not as masterfully made as In the Mouth of Madness, Event Horizon does have its high points, mostly thanks to the cast led by Neill and Laurence Fishburne. Dr. Weir leads a space expedition to recover the remains of his ship the ‘Event Horizon' which only just reappeared after vanishing into a blackhole years before. What makes the ‘Event Horizon' so special is how it travels through space and time, which Weir came up with himself in the form of a gateway he built on the ship. With the ‘Event Horizon's' reappearance, Weir along with Captain Miller (Fishburne) and his crew discover where the ship has been all this time and what happened to its previous crew. Despite some questionable digital effects, the film gets pretty dark once they learn that the ‘Event Horizon' has spent its time in a hell dimension and is beginning to take hold of Dr. Weir.

Once again, Neill as Weir starts off as a pretty average character. While some mysterious flashbacks of his wife begin to stir up some questions, he is the character that we spend the most time with, which is what makes his shift from likely protagonist to extreme antagonist so intriguing. The shift isn't totally jarring, and Neill does well in having his character succumbing to the evil that the ‘Event Horizon' has brought back with it believable. Weir becoming a villain is oddly heartbreaking and that's all due to Neill's performance. It doesn't take a lot to switch allegiances to Fishburne's character since he's the most reasonable and level-headed of the whole crew, it's just a shame seeing Weir not be able to fight back at all against the evil power that the ship now contains. Admittedly, their could have been more to Weir's evil transformation that would have made it more emotional, but Neill still does exceptionally well with the material that he's given and becomes quite sinister when Weir reaches his final form.

While Neill's career in horror is mostly centered in the 80s and 90s, his most recent notable horror role is in the 2009 vampire flick Daybreakers. Starring Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe as the heroes, Neill plays the ultimate vampire villain Charles Bromley, the owner of the largest blood supply for vampires in the US. Bromley is a pretty standard villain but Neill adds a lot to him, making him as villainous as possible, which makes his death scene at the end extremely satisfying and memorable. Although Neill hasn't returned to the horror genre since Daybreakers, he has certainly left his mark on the genre in a big way. All of the aforementioned horror works are staples of Neill's career, contributing to a heyday that most actors would die for. Thankfully we have many more Sam Neill movies and TV shows to look forward to, including his return to the Jurassic Park franchise in Jurassic World: Dominion next year. But it goes without saying that fans of his horror films are patiently waiting for his comeback to the genre thanks to the level of commitment and that special spark he brings every time.

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