In Praise of Sam Neill, Horror’s Underrated Scream King

Movies Features Sam Neill
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In Praise of Sam Neill, Horror’s Underrated Scream King

Over the course of his nearly 50-year career, Sam Neill has been known for many things. After starting out as a darling of the burgeoning Australian New Wave thanks to films like My Brilliant Career, he slowly found his way to Hollywood while keeping one foot firmly in his home continent. For generations of film lovers, he’ll always be Dr. Alan Grant in the Jurassic Park series, the cynical hero who survived many a dinosaur plague. Nowadays, as he approaches his 75th birthday, he’s happy to lounge around his vineyard with his many animals, all named after co-stars, while drinking a glass of Riesling. It’s a good life. Still, it’s strange how such a ubiquitous actor, the star of one of the biggest films of all time, has become curiously underrated. His most intriguing legacy, that as a horror star, is all but ignored. That needs to be rectified: Sam Neill is one of our most fascinating scream kings.

We all know what being a scream queen entails. It’s as crucial a part of the horror genre as blood, knives and jump scares. For as long as horror has been on the big screen, it’s been led by women shrieking in fear, revenge or fury. The specific trope of the scream queen is focused on a woman—usually younger, but that has changed in recent years—forced to confront the ultimate evil and outlast everyone else. We think of horror heroines as feisty, quietly clever, in possession of a dark streak. The scream king isn’t a direct parallel to its female companion, partly because the notion of a guy needing to break through the cinematic glass ceiling is mostly laughable. Still, the ways that certain actors who frequent horror embody certain kinds of gender and genre ideas is intriguing in its own right.

Consider Bruce Campbell as Ash in the Evil Dead saga, a wisecracking and occasionally panic-stricken hero who is simultaneously the ideal tough guy and a subversion of it. Patrick Wilson was named a scream king by the New York Times for his work in the Conjuring series, where he utilizes his classical training to bring emotional weight and real stakes to his role as a paranormal investigator of true evil. Both actors are handsome and can be the kind of masculine ideal that Hollywood so heavily fetishizes, but in horror, they’re able to be weirder, more tender, less concerned with measuring their dicks as they take on the terrors of the day. Ultimately, they are heroes. Sam Neill is seldom so.

If Campbell and Wilson are battling the powers of darkness, Neill is staring head-first into oblivion, becoming slowly consumed by it. In horror films, he’s not likely to be found stalking a killer or saving the world from ruin. He’s far more commonly seen causing chaos or being its victim. His debut in the genre, a mere two years after breaking out in My Brilliant Career, was as the Antichrist himself, the adult Damien Thorn in The Omen III: The Final Conflict. Fittingly for the beginning of the Reagan era, Neill’s Damien is a debonair CEO-turned-ambassador—a figure of monied power who would, in retrospect, clearly be the Antichrist but at the time just seemed like the alpha yuppie. Basically, Patrick Bateman if he had some initiative.

Neill embodies a kind of inner steel, a smarmy self-confidence that at first seems unshakable. Our first introduction to Alan Grant in Jurassic Park has him essentially terrorizing a child with a claw for doubting his academic theory. With Neill, you’d follow him to safety but be kind of aggravated that he’s in the right the entire time. It’s partly what makes his descents into madness so fascinating to watch.

John Carpenter’s ever-underrated In the Mouth of Madness (the closest he ever came to making a Lovecraft story) opens with Neill being dragged into an insane asylum and it’s a shock to see him unhinged off the bat. Flashbacks reveal how his character, an unctuous investigator for dodgy insurance claims, ended up in his situation. Hired to look into the disappearance of popular horror writer Sutter Kane, whose works inspire madness in their readers, he ends up in a town that eerily resembles the world of those novels. Even as it becomes clear that Kane’s stories are real, Neill refuses to give up his hard-earned cynicism. He is a man who has made his living refusing to believe what’s right in front of him, and he’s not going to start just because the apocalypse seems to be kicking off. When it becomes too much to overlook, too obviously real to refute, he practically cartwheels into insanity. The final shot sees him eating popcorn as he watches the film we’ve just seen, proof that his entire life is someone else’s story. His laughs turn to sobs.

This stumble into darkness is at its most intense in Possession, the infamously demented horror-drama by Andrzej ?u?awski. Audiences primarily remember the earth-shaking performance of Isabelle Adjani, whose unfettered ferocity is so astonishing to watch that it’s hard to believe she’s not actually possessed. Yet Neill, who plays a spy and the cuckolded husband of Adjani’s monster-loving anti-heroine, matches her beat for beat. Neill would later refer to Possession as “the most extreme movie” he ever made and it’s not hard to see why. He spends its entire running time tense like a coiled spring waiting to leap, a man used to living a double life unable to tackle his new grim reality. He reacts to the news of his wife’s decision to leave him for another man as though it’s an act of ritualistic humiliation. He rocks back and forth on a chair with such force that it’s almost comical—but you dare not laugh lest Neill explode. Like a good spy, he seems utterly unassuming, but then that façade cracks.

His horror characters slip so seamlessly from self-confidence to crumbling breakdowns that we barely notice the transition. It feels painfully natural—more relatable, perhaps, than the hero with the gun or the ones brave enough to fight back against evil. He often makes it seem more appealing to fall into the spirals of hell, as with Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon. As Dr. Weir, the designer of the Lovecraftian ship that disappeared during its maiden voyage, Neill is Colonel Kurtz with a drop of acid in his oxygen tank. Sitting in the captain’s chair of a doomed spaceship, having ripped out his own eyes, there’s a serenity to him like a cult leader urging you to do his bidding. When he’s at his maddest, like the architectural version of Dr. Frankenstein floating through space, he’s so believably of our world. The men of Neill’s horror films are familiarly cruel, toxic and left untethered by familiar forces. Even the most cosmic of threats in his films retain something foundationally human: Loss of autonomy in In the Mouth of Madness; the perils of divorce in Possession; the unavoidable nature of our inconsequentiality in Event Horizon.

Perhaps Neill’s most effective horror performance is not in an actual horror film. In Jane Campion’s The Piano, he plays the distant frontiersman to whom the mute Holly Hunter is forcibly wed. He does not seem especially threatening or foreboding upon first meeting, and his moments of ignorance towards his new wife seem more like moments of clumsy naivety than malice. Yet, as Hunter’s Ada begins an intense emotional affair with another man, Neill’s horror instincts kick in. His status as a selfish colonizer takes over, and his brooding feels on the edge of violence—culminating in an act of unforgivable mutilation. Rather than being the bad guy of a slasher story, this Neill is straight out of a gothic novel, the archetype of the cold husband whose understanding of masculinity leads to absolute terror against the women in his life. He is cruel, arrogant, violent…and a man, like so many others we know.

That’s what binds together Neill’s work as a scream king. There are no heroes, no figures saving the day and often no big baddies to jeer at. They are palpably, crushingly real. What’s scarier than that?

Kayleigh Donaldson is a pop culture writer and critic. Her work can be found on Pajiba, What to Watch, Slashfilm, IGN, Uproxx, The Daily Beast, MUBI, and elsewhere. She lives in Dundee, Scotland.