When most people think of Sam Neill, if they recognize the name, they probably think of his role in Jurassic Park as Dr. Alan Grant, the curmudgeonly paleontologist forced to escort two adolescent children through an island filled with rampaging prehistoric reptiles eager to kill them. His role in Jurassic Park III is much the same, only instead of two children he’s stuck with two incompetent adults. In recent years he’s appeared in everything from the ever-growing MCU with a brief cameo in Thor: Ragnarök to critically acclaimed films such as Hunt For The Wilderpeople.
However, despite cementing his place in the hearts of every 90s kid as the ultimate cool babysitter, Sam Neill has a rich history of appearing in some legitimately amazing horror films. The New Zealand actor might forever be known for standing down a fucking T. Rex, but his contributions to the horror genre cannot be overstated.
I want to talk about a few horror films that Neill has appeared in in the last forty years or so. Some good, some not so good, and some truly incredible. They run the gamut when it comes to style; he’s equally adept at grandiose cartoonish super villainy as he is restrained and sinister villainy. Neill can do it all. Whether it’s a big budget blockbuster, surreal art house style horror, or an underrated entry in a beloved horror franchise, he’s been there. He’s worked with arguably the greatest horror director of all time and he’s portrayed an iconic villain in the genre. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
I think the first film that Neill flexed his horror muscles in was The Omen III: The Final Conflict. Often written off as a mediocre sequel to one of the most famous horror films of all time, The Final Conflict has Neill portraying an adult Damian Thorne, fully aware of his lineage and embracing it to the nines. He plays Damian as a ruthless corporate raider, eager to finally finish the job of bringing about the apocalypse by murdering the newborn Christ child. Unlike prior depictions of Damian in the earlier two films, Neill brings to the screen a fully recognized vision of the character. He is not a human MacGuffin like Harvey Stephens was in the first film, nor is the reluctant heir to the throne of evil that Jonathan Scott-Taylor is in the second film. To be clear, both of those films are among my favorite. I think Scott-Taylor’s version of the character wanting to reject his birthright and just live a normal life is actually quite fascinating. But Sam Neill brings a bombastic flavor to the character that is unlike anything else in the franchise. His infamous “cursed Nazarene” monologue should be taught in drama classes. His Damian is a complex anti-hero who sees himself as the savior of the human race from the dogmatic gospel preached by the Church, a liberator of humanity from a tyrant God that seeks to “drown their soaring desires”. He seeks to avenge the torment inflicted upon his father by showing the world the true nature of humanity and pleads with them to reject the stuffy gospel of Christianity and instead of rejecting our base nature embrace it.
Neill’s next diversion into the horror genre was Andrzej Zulawksi’s…unorthodox horror drama film Possession. Here, Neill plays Mark, a spy (we think) in Eastern Europe going through a divorce. The horror of this film is multi-layered: it perfectly distills the hell that is the dissolution of marriage. The film’s first act is wrought with scenes of an unshaven Neill staring off into the middle distance, empty eyed and haggard, reeking of whatever alcohol he found himself over the course of his week-long bender. As the film progresses, Mark’s mental state begins to unravel, until the climax of the film when he finds out his wife has been fucking a strange Lovecraftian octopus monster that has now turned into a doppelganger of Mark (seriously). Strange imagery aside, the film is filled with images of anxiety manifesting itself in a myriad of ways. Not only from Neill, but co-star Isabel Adjani as well. In what I truly believe is one of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen, Adjani, who plays Mark’s wife, seemingly has a nervous breakdown in a subway tube, throwing bags of groceries about and shrieking horribly. The further we move down the line in the chronology of the breakup, the more surreal and nightmarish things become. Mark and his wife begin neglecting their son, and Mark confronts of one of his wife’s lovers, leading to one of the most awkward and sexually tense scenes in any horror movie ever. We begin to question what’s real and what’s merely in Mark’s head, and this leads to the strange glorious climax. It’s not a film that has traditional sources of horror in it, but instead relies on evoking in the viewer a universal feeling of despair, jealousy, and anxiety, and on top of that injects a healthy dose of body horror just for good measure.
No road to horror iconism would be complete without a stint working with a modern master of the genre. For Sam Neill that came in 1994 when he teamed up with John Carpenter for the Lovecraftian neo-noir mindfuck extravaganza In The Mouth Of Madness. In this venture, Neill plays John Trent, an investigator for a publishing company looking for Sutter Cane, their most popular author who has gone missing after releasing a series of horror novels. Trent follows a paper trail that leads him to a small New England town called Hobbs End; the only problem is that Hobbs End is a location is Cane’s novels and shouldn’t exist in the real world. Soon, Trent is caught up in a reality bending nightmare in which it’s revealed that Cane’s work released a race of eldritch beings’ intent on reshaping the world in their own monstrous image. The line between Trent’s reality and the reality of Cane’s work quickly blurs into nothing, and the viewer is propelled through a fourth and fifth wall of viewing the film. Often lumped in with Carpenter’s other two “Apocalypse” films (The Thing and Prince Of Darkness) I think it’s the weakest of the three but it’s still an exercise in not only what makes Carpenter great, but also loaded with a ton of great Lovecraftian imagery. Neill brings what he’s best at to the picture; a smirking cynicism and self-assurance that borders on a superiority complex, a condescension towards other people that quickly turns into horror when he realizes he’s over his head. His transformation from skeptical P.I. to shrieking madman at the end is an absolute joy to watch.
I’m going to jump around chronologically and talk about somewhat of a minor misstep of his; 2009’s Mathesonian sci-fi horror film Daybreakers. On paper it sounds amazing: years after a virus turns much of humanity into vampires, uninfected humans are rounded up and harvested for blood, only they’re dying off and the vampires are running low on blood and the race is on to create a viable substitute. In execution it’s a clunky, overly stylish, and at times confusing mess of a film. But once again, our boy Sam shines like a diamond. In this film, Neill plays Charles Bromley, the CEO of the company developing the blood substitute. Early on it is revealed that shortly before becoming a vampire, Bromley was dying of cancer and sees his current state as a blessing, intending to become the richest man on the planet for the rest of his long, long life. He brings a restrained but intense lust for money to the character, and the fact that he sees this life as a second chance adds an insidious layer to it all. His own daughter is repulsed by what he’s become, and the true evil of the character is that he sees her estrangement as worth it in the pursuit of profit. He is, in other words, the platonic evil businessman who values wealth and nothing else. Ultimately when he gets his just due, it’s a satisfying ending, but only so because Neill makes us hate him so much.
Finally, we have my personal favorite of his: Paul W.S. Anderson’s deep space horror film Event Horizon. It’s often mockingly referred to as another Alien clone, but that’s ridiculously unfair to this film. Not only does it boast an amazing cast and a genuinely interesting premise (and my all time ”most reasonable line in a horror film ever”)it also has a handful of truly upsetting and scary moments. When Jack Noseworthy comes to his senses in the airlock immediately after beginning the sequence to open it into deep space, the panic in his voice is heartbreakingly real. The scene in the med lab in which a character is apparently stalked by the apparition of her sick son back on Earth is quietly unnerving. And who can forget the cavalcade of gruesome images on the captains log when the fate of the prior crew is revealed: after opening an artificial black hole to jump between two points in the Universe, they entered “a dimension of pure chaos” and were driven insane, engaging in a horrifying murderous orgy that would make Clive Barker wince. In the middle of it all, we have Sam Neill as Dr. Weir, the man who invented the hyperdrive that allowed the titular ship to fold space and jump from point to point. In the beginning of the film, Weir is a milquetoast academic, an egghead amongst blue collar space cowboys. But as the truth of their situation unfolds and they realize what they’re dealing with, Weir’s academic side becomes something transgressive as he begins to lust for knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Once he realizes that the ship has gone outside the boundaries of the known universe, what begins as an intense scientific curiosity (albeit one that borders on Eve longingly looking at the apple) quickly devolves into a man obsessed, and Neill transforms from meek and mild scientist into…something unspeakable. Looking like a cross between a Cenobite and Mr. Zzasz, Weir becomes an avatar for the darkness that has possessed the ship, a cackling mascot for the forces that yearn to pull the ship and her new crew back into the chaos dimension she spent the last seven years in. It’s alarming to witness, as Neill plays the character in the beginning as genuinely likable, if not a little weird. But once the forces on the ship begin to take over, he slips effortlessly into a Hannibal Lecter style killer, lurking in the shadows and vamping about like Doug Bradley on a mild bender.
Wholesome as his performance in Jurassic Park may have been, I now look at Sam Neill the way I look at someone I share a particularly racy inside joke with. His role in horror films hasn’t ruined his role in JP for me; far from it. If anything, knowing that he’s capable of bringing the literal Antichrist to life on the silver screen makes me appreciate his role as the cantankerous paleontologist even more than I did when I was a kid. It also makes this scene all the more delicious to watch knowing what he’s capable of.