Fangoria Horror Spectacular #6 - April 1992




After portraying Damien, the actor took a break from bad-guy roles, but "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" puts him back on the side of wrong.



It's not easy being mean, but for actor Sam Neill, getting a chance to explore his dark side on screen provides a delicious sort of satisfaction. "Good guys get paid a lot of money to just stand around and be good," muses Neill. "Bad guys get paid less money but have a great time. It's much more fun playing bad guys."

The New Zealand-born actor has a captivating presence. Sitting on a Warner Bros. soundstage, he displays a commanding voice and casual charm most recently put to use for heroic purposes in the Aussie thriller Dead Calm and Paramount's hit submarine adventure The Hunt For Red October. But with his latest role in John Carpenter's action-fantasy Memoirs of an Invisible Man, he gets to wallow in villainy once again, the type of role he hasn't experienced since playing Damien Thorn in 1981's third Omen film, The Final Conflict.

In Memoirs, based on the H.F. Saint novel, Neill plays Colonel Jenkins, a determined CIA operative in pursuit of Nick Halloway (Chevy Chase), who's been rendered invisible by a freak accident. Though Jenkins sympathizes with Halloway, he'll stop at nothing to bring him into CIA custody.

"He's a bright man who believes in his job and that the gathering of intelligence is all that matters," explains Neill. "The danger that is inherent with intelligence agencies is that in trying to preserve freedom, they're often guilty of destroying freedom in the process. He is one of those people who ignores the wider morality of his actions. He's a shit. He certainly has no qualms about destroying Chevy's character if it comes to that, but he'd much rather have him alive if he can. He's a complex man in many ways."

Much of the film's FX are being executed by Industrial Light & Magic, utilizing the same techniques applied to Terminator 2 and The Abyss, in which a computer digitally alters the images on screen. Neill offers that working with this system wasn't as difficult as he expected. "It's not like doing The Empire Strikes Back, where you can't see anything and you're basically sitting in a chair and they draw everything in later," he comments. "We can see what we have to work with."

Neill does admit, however, that acting with someone who is supposed to be invisible did prove to be something of a challenge. "I'm used to looking someone in the eye when I talk to them," he elaborates, "but there isn't an eye to look into or a body to look at most of the time when I'm working with the invisible man."

While Memoirs marks John Carpenter's return to a major studio film, Neill notes that the director's independent past makes him pleasing and efficient to work with. "He knows exactly what he wants, when he wants it," the actor praises. "I imagine that's because he did quite a lot of work earlier with less than megabudgets, which meant he had to work with tremendous economy. He still works very economically, and knows exactly where things will cut together."




Neill's eclectic motion picture career began shortly after he gained his bachelor's degree in English from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He alternated between acting and documentary films before his feature film debut in Roger Donaldson's 1977 political thriller Sleeping Dogs. This was followed by the well-received period drama My Brilliant Career. "And I haven't stopped working since," he reflects.

Neill found himself in acting's darker corners a couple of years later with two back-to-back horror efforts: The Final Conflict and Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. He admits, though, that he's only a casual fan of the genre itself.

"I like these films when they are about true horror, rather than a lot of blood and splatter and things which they seem to be about now just find that to be horrible," he frowns. "I used to like the old Hammer horror films, which were spooky and fun and thrilling."

The Final Conflict marked Neill's American film debut, casting him as the White House-bound Damien Thorn. Behaving in a devilish manner for the part was nothing compared to putting on an American accent. Though he feels his voice has been homogenized from working internationally over the years, he was nervous then as to whether he could pull it off.

"It was a difficult film for me, because it was the first time I played an American," he confirms. "It was the first time I had worked on a big film overseas and, for that matter, the first time I had been out of Australia/New Zealand.

"Now people tend to want to know if you're able to do an American accent or not. I'm not sure I can do an average middle American accent again. I'm very happy to do a Russian or Polish or Chilean accent if necessary, but there are 250 million people who can do American accents better than me."

Besides having to assimilate the American way, portraying the angel of darkness was quite fun for Neill. "I felt sorry for him," he reveals. "I kept thinking of that Mick Jagger song, 'Sympathy for the Devil.' I felt for him, because he must be the loneliest man in the word-being the Antichrist and nobody knows, and you have this mission to do horrible things to people and nobody is going to like you for it."

Despite the satisfaction of playing the epitome of evil, Neill did have problems with the release version of The Final Conflict. For one, he felt the ending was weak and ultimately didn't work because it never resolved the story. Secondly, his affection for the first film made him realize how the third installment paled by comparison.

"Things weren't done with as much panache as they were in the first one," he opines. "The other problem was that there is something more basically frightening about a child who is evil than a grown-up. An adult who is evil is banal and everyday. We're surrounded by these people all the time. But you don't see many evil 6-year-olds."

Oddly enough, some audience members felt differently, resulting in a small deluge of strange fan mail shortly after the film's release. "There were a few very odd, satanic kinds of things that unsettled me for about five minutes," he recalls. "A couple of them thought I did the role just the way the Antichrist should be."




Though his character in 1983's Possession didn't have the same apocalyptic intentions, Neill did get trapped in Polish director Zulawski's feverish allegory of the disintegration of a marriage. "The cinema there is a lot different from the West's," says Neill of the director's home country. "They make a lot of strange stuff, but it doesn't seem that strange to them."

Possession was ultimately a euphoric yet oftentimes muddled psychothriller, starring Isabelle Adjani as a disgruntled wife who manifests a monster from her mind. Neill's frustrated husband character becomes increasingly involved in the weird goings-on, which leads to a violent climax.

"It's a pretty wild film that I'm actually rather fond of," Neill admits. "You can read it a number of different ways, but to me it seems to be about the breakdown of a marriage, and the strange things that happen are really an extension of the wife's imagination. She's going bats. These monsters are not real. People die-that's real, but the stranger things are not.

"It's a genre film placed within a number of different genres," he continues. "It also works on a sort of metaphysical and allegorical level too. It's an intelligent movie, but I was horrified when I saw it prepackaged on video in Australia as a horror film. There's a terrible shot of me emerging from an elevator with a dead body-I'm carrying this stiff that's absolutely covered in blood. It was not really truthful advertising-there was more to the film than that."

Australia may have gotten a misleading ad campaign, but when the movie hit American theaters it was cut down from its original 127minute running time to 81 minutes, which could explain the U.S. version's confusing storyline. Though Neill hasn't seen this edition, he believes that it would probably be completely incomprehensible to viewers with over a third of the film missing, and speculates the lost footage to be dialogue scenes and some trimming of the more graphic horror moments.

"I'm sure it makes no sense at all," he remarks. "It's outrageous when people start cutting other people's films. I mean, you don't go around cutting up paintings. It may be a bad painting or a good painting, but you don't go chopping bits out of it because it's too big or it's kind of offensive to some people."



With the rest of the '80s pretty much filled with roles in espionage adventures like Reilly: Ace of Spies and Australian dramas such as A Cry in the Dark, Neill didn't return to genre duty until 1989's taut suspense thriller Dead Calm. In the film, he and Nicole Kidman played a couple terrorized by an unstable nutcase (Billy Zane) who is also sailing the unpredictable seas.

"It sort of became a hit on video," Neill affirms. "It's interesting that so many people have seen Dead Calm, since the studio didn't really quite know what to do with it. It really took word of mouth, and that came too late to make it a success in the cinema."

Dead Calm actually proved to be the most grueling film he's toiled on, as he spent most of the film fending for his life in the bowels of a sinking ship. "It got pretty claustrophobic a couple of times, breathing through a little pipe since there was no way out of there," he remembers. In addition, lensing on the production ran late and over budget, so to catch up, producer George Miller shot 2nd-unit work for most of Neill's isolated scenes.

"We got seriously behind on the film," he recalls. "It's an axiom in this business that anything you shoot on or near water is going to go over schedule. The weather would change and we'd have to switch to another sequence, and then the sun would come out again and so on. It was very, very hard. George had just finished Witches of Eastwick and arrived on set, and it was clear that we were going to have to do a lot of 2nd unit. The easiest way to do it was for George to do the stuff on the boat with me."

According to Neill, there was much more footage shot of his character's battle for survival on the sinking ship, including a subplot involving a hungry shark, but the final version pared his dilemmas down considerably.

"You can see the vestiges of it in the film," he hints. "The boat becomes a sort of horror vessel for me. In the original cut. you wanted to cheer when I burnt the boat at the end. It was pretty extreme stuff, and they decided it all didn't quite mesh into the tenor of the rest of the film."



Even though Neill is exploring the genre once again with Memoirs of an Invisible Man, he doesn't feel he's picking roles any differently than he has before. He claims that he chooses projects he feels will be different, especially if the roles, as with Memoirs, tend toward the villainous.

"Whatever I'm doing I treat seriously, and try to have fun at the same time." he concludes. "I don't limit myself to any area of the cinema. I'm not a particular fan of any type. I just like good movies."




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