Sam Neill: John Carpenter's "Bright Star"


Sam Neill seemed an odd choice for a John Carpenter film...

His first association with Carpenter came in 1992, with Memoirs of an Invisible Man. The qualities that Carpenter typically traded in - a slick yet pulpy comic book dynamism, plus bold, broad, macho strokes of characterisation - seemed diametrically opposed to the reserved, uptight, softly spoken and smart demeanour that Neill typically evoked - and had reinforced with other films of that era such as Dead Calm (1989) and The Hunt for Red October (1990). A year before Memoirs he'd given us a quirkier performance in the Australian black comedy, Death in Brunswick, but, on the whole, it was local audiences only who came out to see it.

Then came Memoirs, a film that seemed caught in an identity struggle: perfectly diverting and slick, but not entirely satisfactory as a noir-ish comedy-drama, or as a special effects chase movie. For followers of Carpenter, it also felt like Carpenter, the artist, had been subsumed by the dreaded studio; the compositions that employ the entire Panavision frame to such creative effect are largely absent here. As is the heartbeat of a pulsating Carpenter-composed music score. Typically you can spot a Carpenter film by the sound, style and attitude, but you'd be hard pressed to pick his input with this one.

Given that it's possibly the most reserved of Carpenter's oeuvre, it would seem the most appropriate of the director's landscapes for Sam Neill to navigate. The interesting thing, then, is that Neill actually emerges as the strongest element in the film to evoke a Carpenter-esque cheek, spunk and spirit. Kurt Russell, take note: Sam Neill has entered the building. 

But the next level of interest here is that Neill doesn't move his characterisation into an extroverted gear – a seeming temptation with Carpenter in comic mode – but instead retains his characteristically reserved, understated and soft-spoken charm. In a way, he brings the Carpenter universe toward his style, rather than the other way around; but having done so, he then imbues his character with a great deal of mischief. (It's all in the eyes and in the sly grin.) He's also essaying a character with an evident thirst for life .... or is it domination? Not insignificantly, in the semi-subtleties of hairstyling, the Neill sweep has been given an oily rendition.

Neill provides ruthless pursuit of Chevy Chase's invisible man, and he's ruthlessly enjoyable as he does so. Midway through an insincere assurance - "If you're hurt, I'd like to help you" - he breaks out into a self-amused smile. (Anyone who enjoyed Neill's son of the devil in 1981's The Final Conflict, should thoroughly embrace Neill's finely distilled slyness here.) At another point, while he's taking a public grilling (something he seems to experience often, given his weary disinterest), he politely ask his interrogator if he'd mind repeating his accusation. Most memorably, when the invisible man fools him into a death plunge, he spits out "You son of a bitch" as he begins his descent. And so with enjoyably sardonic touches such as these, Neill's amoral introvert takes a memorable place amongst Carpenter's famous pantheon of characters - typically more overt and gung-ho in nature - from Kurt Rusell's Snake Plissken to Donald Pleasance's Dr Sam Loomis.

Neill's villain was also a participant in what has proven the most lasting and oft-quoted image from the movie, that great interaction of physical comedy and ILM effects where Neill is lead away by the invisible man, his back comically arched and with "floating" gun to his head. And on the matter of comic skill, it should also Neill has a nice line in "understated theatricality", which might seem a contradiction in terms, but is perfectly welcome in the intimacy of the cinematic close up. For instance, there a range of occasions where he positions his face vaguely askew to the camera, and it works to an unconventional but curious effect, a lightly comedic, undemonstrative suggestion of an off-kilter character; an effect he'd take further in his next Carpenter collaboration.

While Memoirs constituted another stifling and oppressive studio experience for Carpenter, Neill appreciated that Carpenter allowed him "plenty of room to move" as an actor.1 Further room was granted when Neill was offered the lead in In The Mouth of Madness, a comparatively low-budget piece that afforded Carpenter greater creative freedom. What a difference some freedom can make: this Lovecraftian horror oddity is most impressive, and from music to cinematography, it clearly possesses the Carpenter vibe. And Neill's standout performance - a journey from atheist to believer - is driven with a playful, tongue-in-cheek and wild-eyed energy. Room to move, indeed. Memoirs, it became clear, was merely the appetiser. 

Carpenter was interested to discover that Neill viewed the film - where a horror novelist's mad, monstrous fictional world is gradually revealed to Neill’s disbelieving private investigator as the "new world order" - as being a comedy. Indeed, Neill's quizzical looks, presumptuous raised eyebrows, "mad dog" double takes, and weary moans (that ask "how demented can this universe get?") are all engagingly campy; but that's not to suggest his character's journey is anything less than vivid, vital and authentic - or that Neill is dismissive of the genre. (Unlike his character, that is, who is amusingly mortified to be spotted purchasing some of the horror author's novels.) It's a farce performance; tragedy at high speed, as such farcical things have been described. Finding that your sanity renders you the craziest outcast in the neighbourhood is both an amusing and frightening conceit - and Neill is clearly receptive to both impulses, and enjoys how they play off and inform one another. I'm not sure I've seen another performance where losing one's sense of self looks such liberating fun.

Neill's character, as written, could easily be interpreted and evoked as a cynical "smart ass". Neill, however, positions him - I think more winningly, but certainly less conventionally in terms of cinematic archetypes - as a man whose cynicism has rendered him endlessly amused and bemused by the world around him. And ever-ready to demystify it. And I think the level of humour Neill and Carpenter encourage in the character make his eventual breakdown all the more acutely revealing of how the "slick cynic" is actually anxiously self-protective, more innocent than he'd loathe to admit, and but a moment from terrified.

There are many more Neill performances to recommend (Dean Spanley, Perfect Strangers, Framed, to name but a few) but I think partially why his Carpenter collaborations stood out is that, as alluded to, they were such an enjoyable contrast to the typified Neill of the time. By the time In The Mouth of Madness arrived, the uptight Sam Neill persona had solidified - via his 1993 hits Jurassic Park and The Piano - in the public conscious. I suspect Neill's filmography in the early-to-mid Nineties would greatly appeal to any actor who, in desiring to add something a little different to their repertoire, has been met with "Oh, we know what you can do." 

Carpenter's films were sterling reminders - wake-up calls, really - of all that Neill can do.

1 'Fear is a Frigid Film Set', Toronto Star, February 1995 (Article link: http://www.samneillonline.com/thetorontostar1995.html)

Published 4 November 2016