David Warner

The Omen (1976, Richard Donner)

The Omen is a terrible bit of cinema. It’s a long bit, almost two hours, filled with Jerry Goldsmith’s–shockingly Oscar-winning–chant filled “scare” score. It doesn’t scare. It annoys, which just makes everything go on longer. Director Donner certainly doesn’t help with it. He drags things out too. Like anyone needs more scenes of Gregory Peck failing to feign emotion.

When the movie starts, Peck is the U.S. ambassador to Italy. It’s important because Peck has to be both rich and powerful. He seems to be an ineffective ambassador, who’s just there because his college roommate is now President of the United States. Probably Yale. Plantation Owner’s Tech and all.

Anyway. Peck’s married to Lee Remick, who’s just given birth. Only the baby dies and they call to tell Peck before they tell Remick. Because, even though Peck’s incapable of emoting, failed man emoting is more important in The Omen than any womanly emotion. The film shafts Remick on her part, which is something of a blessing because it means she gets to do fewer terrible scenes. Only a mysterious priest offers Peck a new baby, which Peck accepts, deciding to never tell Remick because ladies are fragile.

Five years later, The Omen occurs. An incredibly public suicide is the single event in the film qualifying as an omen. It’s a very loud omen. A mysterious nanny joins the Peck-Remick household, played by Billie Whitelaw. Maybe when it becomes obvious David Seltzer’s script is going to be really stupid and when no one is going to care–not Donner, not Peck–is when Whitelaw just appears to care for the child without being hired. When confronted, she has the flimiest story–oh, right, the action has moved to England now. Peck got a promotion because his friend is president.

Until Whitelaw shows up, it seems like there might be some chance the film’s going to work out. Sure, Peck and Remick entirely ignore their son–now played by Harvey Stephens, who maybe has four lines and two of them are just “Daddy”–but they’re still beautiful and still getting it on in the middle of the day. Although Peck does look a little like he should be playing grandpa; he’s twenty years older than Remick.

Then there’s a priest (Patrick Troughton) who shows up to tell Peck his son’s actually the antichrist. And photographer David Warner who knows something weird is going on. The film sort of mocks Troughton and idealizes Warner; neither deserve the treatment. Warner’s better at the start than the finish. Peck’s kind of better at the finish, the material’s just far worse.

After Goldsmith’s silly score, Gilbert Taylor’s photography is the biggest technical problem. The action leaves England for Peck and Warner to travel Europe looking for answers and mixes a lot of soundstages and locations. Taylor can’t match them at all. The first action set piece–the wind attacking Troughton–is all right. It’s too long, it’s got lousy music, but it’s ambitious. The rest are either on soundstage made up to be exteriors or just plain interiors. Taylor and Donner butcher the last set piece, when Peck has to try to beat up Whitelaw. Donner’s real bad at the scene. Not even editor Stuart Baird, who does the only consistently solid work in the film, can save it.

The biggest offender isn’t Peck, isn’t even Goldsmith. It’s writer Seltzer. The Omen has a crappy script. It has crappy dialogue, crappy characters, crappy everything.

The film gets unbearable before the halfway point and then it’s just all downhill until the end. It’s like the movie is punishing you for watching it. How ominous.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; written by David Seltzer; director of photography, Gilbert Taylor; edited by Stuart Baird; music by Jerry Goldsmith; produced by Harvey Bernhard; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gregory Peck (Robert Thorn), Lee Remick (Katherine Thorn), David Warner (Jennings), Billie Whitelaw (Mrs. Baylock), Patrick Troughton (Father Brennan), Martin Benson (Father Spiletto), and Harvey Stephens (Damien).


Waxwork (1988, Anthony Hickox), the unrated version

Waxwork has a distressing lack of charm. It ought to have some charm. The first act has its cast of young college students–whose college set seems to be a high school–speaking in some affected pseudo-fifties teen melodrama dialect. It ought to be sostaggeringmewhat charming. It’s not, but it ought to be.

Most of the problem is writer-director Hickox. He doesn’t direct his cast–answering the question, why wasn’t Zach Galligan a bigger star–because without direction, he’s way too slight. Even with an obnoxious, “quirky” character, Galligan makes no good impression. Though his costuming in the second half of the film doesn’t help much.

The first act is all character setup on the And Then There Were None cast. Galligan is a rich kid who speaks in dubitably accurate synonyms–see, quirky–only it stops once he gets to high school. Sorry, college. Michelle Johnson and Deborah Foreman are–inexplicably–friends with Galligan. Johnson’s the one note tramp, Foreman’s the one note virgin. Johnson has just thrown over Galligan for some other guy, which is fine since Johnson and Galligan have no chemistry. No one in Waxwork has much chemistry.

Dana Ashbrook is the last of the main cast members. He’s not good but still somehow likable. He tries with Hickox’s script; no small attempt. He’s just playing some guy who smokes a lot. He’s got no romantic connections or dialogue quirks.

They end up at David Warner’s creepy suburban wax museum for a private midnight show and discover things aren’t what they seem. The exhibits are portals to horrific worlds, leading to an overcooked werewolf–more a were-rabbit–and Miles O’Keeffe’s mind-numbingly atrocious rendition of Count Dracula. At the same time Hickox is flopping with his characters, it’s clear he does have some ideas. O’Keeffe’s Dracula has this terrifying dinner sequence where his victims-to-be have to prove their worth. Until it gets gory, Hickox and editor Christopher Cibelli ratchet up the tension.

Even at Waxwork’s worst, Hickox always manages to get tension. Maybe because the first couple encounters in the wax displays are just unending failures of the victims to escape. If any of Hickox’s scripting or directing ineptitudes came through campy enough, their contrast with the effective tension might be enough to get Waxwork its needed charm. Shame they don’t.

Of course, there’d still be the other problems to surmount. Like Roger Bellon’s score. The overtly melodramatic music–presumably at Hickox’s request–doesn’t match the actors’ performances or Gerry Lively’s pragmatic but flat photography. As a director, Hickox doesn’t have the ingenuity to pull off Waxwork at its budget. His crew displays occasional competence, but they can’t make up for Hickox’s shortcomings.

There are occasionally excellent shots–particularly with Johnson’s trip of terror–with no clear responsible party. Well, not Hickox. He doesn’t recognize their effectiveness, so maybe it was Lively with the photography or even Cibelli with the editing. Those shots only come in the first half. The second half, when its effective, is always through the tension.

Given the bad writing, it’s hard to gauge the performances. Johnson’s the best of the principals. Foreman’s got a weak story arc–involving J. Kenneth Campbell’s pirate version of the Marquis de Sade–but even without, she doesn’t make much impression. She and Galligan are ostensibly in a romance subplot, only with a negative amount of chemistry. Ashbrook does his best with the script; he’s great on his terror trip.

Aside from Miles O’Keeffe, who should be so bad he’s funny (but it doesn’t work out), the worst performance is from Charles McCaughan. He’s a “Miami Vice” attired suburban detective. He’s terrible. It’s not entirely his fault–he’s a clown–but he’s still terrible.

Patrick Macnee shows up in the second half in an ill-advised cameo.

Waxwork ought to be charming. Turns out Hickox’s idea of charming is having a buffoonish Nazi-loving professor. So no charm. And once it becomes clear Hickox’s actual successes with tension aren’t going to add up to anything, Waxwork’s a slow melt through its runtime. Decent effects work though. Shame Lively doesn’t light it better.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Anthony Hickox; director of photography, Gerry Lively; edited by Christopher Cibelli; music by Roger Bellon; production designer, Gianni Quaranta; produced by Staffan Ahrenberg and Eyal Rimmon; released by Vestron Pictures.

Starring Zach Galligan (Mark), Deborah Foreman (Sarah), Michelle Johnson (China), Dana Ashbrook (Tony), David Warner (Waxwork Man), Charles McCaughan (Inspector Roberts), Miles O’Keeffe (Count Dracula), J. Kenneth Campbell (Marquis de Sade), and Patrick Macnee (Sir Wilfred).


In the Mouth of Madness (1994, John Carpenter)

In the Mouth of Madness is a rarity. It’s a film with some terrible, terrible parts, yet it needs to be longer. There needs to be more terribleness for it to be better. And it can’t even be much better, because those terrible parts break it, but it would be somewhat better. It would definitely be a better viewing experience.

Here are the film’s problems, in no particular order. Gary B. Kibbe’s photography. Madness is Panavision aspect and Kibbe shoots everything spherically distorted. Well, not everything, but the most visually distinctive parts. One of the film’s more conceptual problems is what visually compels. Kibbe screws up the compelling visual narrative pacing. Maybe Carpenter told him to do it, in which case it’s Carpenter’s bad. But Kibbe’s photography is never great. With the sets, it sometimes looks like a shoddy attempt at a Shining rip-off and Madness isn’t that thing at all.

Next problem. Sam Neill. Fourth-rate Harrison Ford who everyone thought was just a second-rate Harrison Ford. He can’t hold his accent, which would be a hilarious bit for the film to acknowledge, but of course it doesn’t. Even though Madness eventually wants to be meta, it’s like Carpenter doesn’t really have any interest in it, which brings me to the next problem. The script. The script is awful.

Even though Carpenter goes for his traditional possessive titling on Madness, it’s not his vanity project. It’s writer and executive producer Michael De Luca’s vanity project. So while Carpenter can do a nod to this Quatermass here, that Corman there, this Lovecraft adaptation here, that whatever there, he’s still got this disastrous script. De Luca’s doing zeitgeist–Neill is hunting down Jürgen Prochnow’s Stephen King-esque author, not Prochnow’s Lovecraft-esque author. The script wants to be pop culture, the narrative needs literary musing, Carpenter’s doing this Lovecraft movie homage thing. Not to mention De Luca also models the structure after a film noir (Double Indemnity in particular) and Carpenter couldn’t, frankly, give less of a shit about that narrative structure. He goes out of his way not to acknowledge it.

And if you’re not going to acknowledge your femme fatale, maybe you shouldn’t have a femme fatale. Madness’s femme fatale is Julie Carmen. She’s Prochnow’s editor and Neill’s sidekick. Carmen and Neill have no chemistry, which isn’t really surprising since she’s awful. He’s awful too, but she’s awful in a different way. She doesn’t have a part. He’s just bad at his part. The film also breaks its narrative device to run off with her adventures; if the movie were a little better, it might be annoying but it’s not. The script’s already been inept at that point.

Prochnow’s bad, but it isn’t his fault. He’s just doing his schtick. It’s why he’s in the movie.

Stylistically, the front is stronger than the back. Once Neill and Carmen find Prochnow, Edward A. Warschilka’s editing starts to falter. It was one of the few excellent things about the beginning. By the end, Carpenter relies heavily on jump scares. They aren’t scary, they’re occasionally desperate, but at least he’s enthusiastic about them. There are some okay visual ideas but there’s no time for Madness to make them stick. It isn’t just the film needing another ten or fifteen minutes of visual presence to make an impression, it’s the order of the shots. Part of the film’s gimmick (Prochnow writing reality) means visual trickery. Carpenter, Kibbe and Warschilka just blaze through instead of making anything distinct.

Charlton Heston’s in a “guest starring” role and he gives one of the film’s better performances. If you’ve got a hackneyed Heston cameo and he gives the best performance, you know the film’s got problems. Bernie Casey’s good, Peter Jason’s got a nice scene. John Glover. He’s fine. Frances Bay should have a great small role and she doesn’t. Because the script’s crap and Carpenter never pushes against it.

Oh, and who thought giving Wilhelm von Homburg the film’s most important part would be a good idea? He’s awful, but of course he’s awful, he’s obviously awful and no one should’ve kept him in. You feel bad for him. But only him. Everyone else who’s awful, you blame them.

Just because it’s an apocalyptic downer doesn’t mean the entire thing should feel like a surrender, yet it does. Madness is a defeat.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; written by Michael De Luca; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Edward A. Warschilka; music by Carpenter and Jim Lang; production designer, Jeff Ginn; produced by Sandy King; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Sam Neill (John Trent), Julie Carmen (Linda Styles), Jürgen Prochnow (Sutter Cane), David Warner (Dr. Wrenn), John Glover (Saperstein), Bernie Casey (Robinson), Peter Jason (Mr. Paul), Wilhelm von Homburg (Simon), Frances Bay (Mrs. Pickman) and Charlton Heston (Jackson Harglow).


Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991, Nicholas Meyer)

From the second scene of the Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it's clear director Meyer is going to be somewhat merciless in how he presents the film. It's not just a story about a sea change in the franchise's mythology or about the familiar cast members retiring, it's also about it being the final Star Trek movie.

Meyer gets phenomenal performances out of his cast; there's the light stuff, usually with DeForest Kelley or Walter Koenig, but he also goes dark with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Somehow, Meyer manages to balance the film between serious–it's about violent bigotry, after all–and a dark gray genial. The film opens with space disaster followed with a jolting dose of that bigotry.

Playing a new crew member, Kim Cattrall gets the most comedic relief moments. Not as the target of them, but as the perpetrator. Meyer relies on her to be the audience's entry into some of the picture; she's the regular person among the titans. It's a nice narrative trick and one of the more successful ones. There are some less successful ones, which mostly get by due to the abilities of the actors. The big example is Shatner's character arc. It doesn't work because Shatner can't play it bigoted enough; Meyer tries to edit around it but still. Also less successful is Christopher Plummer's character. Plummer's great, but the part's too thin.

At the same time, lots of subtle narrative moves work out great.

The film's problematic, but incredibly successful.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Meyer; screenplay by Meyer and Denny Martin Flinn, based on a story by Leonard Nimoy, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal and the television series created by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Hiro Narita; edited by William Hoy and Ronald Roose; music by Cliff Eidelman; production designer, Herman F. Zimmermann; produced by Ralph Winter and Steven-Charles Jaffe; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Shatner (Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), DeForest Kelley (McCoy), James Doohan (Scotty), Walter Koenig (Chekov), Nichelle Nichols (Uhuru), George Takei (Sulu), Mark Lenard (Sarek), David Warner (Chancellor Gorkon), Kim Cattrall (Lt. Valeris), Rosanna DeSoto (Azetbur), Christopher Plummer (Chang), Kurtwood Smith (Federation President), Brock Peters (Admiral Cartwright), Paul Rossilli (Kerla), John Schuck (Klingon Ambassador), Iman (Martia), Leon Russom (Chief in Command) and Michael Dorn (Klingon Defense Attorney).


Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989, William Shatner)

In some ways, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is an ambitious movie pretending to be popcorn entertainment pretending to be an ambitious movie. There's a lot of nonsense about self-help, not to mention the whole God thing, and none of it works. Partially, it doesn't work because David Loughery's script is too thin, but it also doesn't work because Final Frontier is paced as an action movie, not a self-reflective sci-fi outing.

But there's a definite subtext–not quite subplot, the film ignores any subplots it starts–regarding the continued bond between William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley. About the only thing the movie does really well is the character stuff, not just for those three principals (it's often a comedy showcase for Kelley), but also for the rest of the regular cast. Of course, the script forgets about developing these good character moments, but they're nice to have around.

There's also a good performance from Laurence Luckinbill as the film's de facto antagonist. The handling of his character is another positive about the film. He gets more of a character arc than any of the regular cast.

As far as directing, Shatner does a fine enough job. The action's fast-paced, with excellent editing from Peter E. Berger. Andrew Laszlo's photography is decent too. A lot of the special effects are fantastic. Except the end when it really needs them.

The Jerry Goldsmith score's trying.

The Final Frontier's about as good as any "Star Trek finds God" picture could be.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William Shatner; screenplay by David Loughery, based on a story by Shatner, Harve Bennett and Loughery and the television series created by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Andrew Laszlo; edited by Peter S. Berger; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Herman F. Zimmerman; produced by Bennett; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Shatner (Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), DeForest Kelley (McCoy), James Doohan (Scotty), Walter Koenig (Chekov), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), George Takei (Sulu), Laurence Luckinbill (Sybok), Charles Cooper (Korrd), Cynthia Gouw (Caithlin Dar), Spice Williams-Crosby (Vixis), Todd Bryant (Captain Klaa) and David Warner (St. John Talbot).


Tron (1982, Steven Lisberger)

It’s easier to stomach Tron if you think about it as a video track to Wendy Carlos’s score. While there’s some technical innovation (shooting actors on green screen, now a norm, got some of its starts with Tron, not to mention the endless CG–except in Tron, at least it was for effect and not some attempt at reality), it’s an almost utterly useless motion picture.

Jeff Bridges probably deserved an Oscar for this one, for keeping a straight face. He’s actually really engaging and entertaining. It’s kind of like Jeff Bridges if he couldn’t act; he’s just playing a grinning, charming guy. He’s really never done any other roles as bland.

However, he’s the one good main performance in the film. If you like Bruce Boxleitner, you might say his Tron performance is earnest. If you’re realistic, you’ll say it’s bad. Same goes for Cindy Morgan, though she’s nowhere near as bad as David Warner, who’s just silly.

Dan Shor’s actually real good. But he’s not in it enough.

Back to the music. Carlos’s music creates this … world in the imagination a lot more vast than the CG nonsense. It’s a mature score, able to be both profound (it’s incredibly passionate, something Tron lacks in terms of narrative and so what if the effects are passionate?) and playful. Far too good to be in something like Tron.

As far as filmmaking innovation–so what? There’s no storytelling inventiveness here, much less innovation, and without that factor, what’s the point?

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Lisberger; screenplay by Lisberger, based on a story by Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird; director of photography, Bruce Logan; edited by Jeff Gourson; music by Wendy Carlos; production designers, Syd Mead and Dean Edward Mitzner; produced by Donald Kushner; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Kevin Flynn/Clu), Bruce Boxleitner (Alan Bradley/Tron), David Warner (Ed Dillinger/Sark/Master Control Program), Cindy Morgan (Lora/Yori), Barnard Hughes (Dr. Walter Gibbs/Dumont), Dan Shor (Ram/Popcorn Co-Worker), Peter Jurasik (Crom) and Tony Stephano (Peter/Sark’s Lieutenant).


Wing Commander (1999, Chris Roberts)

Watching Freddie Prinze Jr. court Saffron Burrows feels like some kind of archaic punishment. It’s the filmic equivalent of the rack.

Thankfully, not all of Wing Commander concentrates on the courtship, which might very well be the anti-Christ of screen romances–trying to decide if it’s Prinze or Burrows who gives a worse performance (Prinze through his abject incompetence in the acting profession and Burrows through her ludicrous posturing) can occupy a lot of the viewer’s time.

There isn’t really anything else to do during Wing Commander once Ginny Holder dies. She and Matthew Lillard are fantastic together and then she dies and then it gets worse. Sure, it’s always bad, but at least she and Lillard have this wonderful romance going; even with the film’s present action running something like sixteen hours, the two of them make it work.

Director Roberts created the source video game (I think) and directed the live action sequences for some of the video game sequels and that excellent experience shows. Though he does seem to understand how to construct a basic battle scene (the film owes a lot to World War II films, both submarine and air force ones), he can’t direct actors. With Lillard, it’s fine. With almost everyone else, it’s a disaster. Besides Lillard and Holder, the best performances are bit ones from Hugh Quarshie and Simon MacCorkindale. David Suchet looks embarrassed if not humiliated and Jürgen Prochnow has certainly seen better days.

It’s hard to believe it opened theatrically.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Chris Roberts; screenplay by Kevin Droney, based on his story and the video game created by Roberts; director of photography, Thierry Arbogast; edited by Peter Davies; music by Kevin Kiner and David Arnold; production designer, Peter Lamont; produced by Todd Moyer; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Freddie Prinze Jr. (1st Lt. Blair), Saffron Burrows (Lt. Cmdr. Devereaux), Matthew Lillard (Lt. Marshall), Tchéky Karyo (Taggart), David Suchet (Capt. Sansky), Jürgen Prochnow (Cmdr. Gerald), David Warner (Adm. Tolwyn), Ginny Holder (Lt. Forbes), Hugh Quarshie (Obutu) and Simon MacCorkindale as the flight boss.


Straw Dogs (1971, Sam Peckinpah)

Little known fact: the British Tourist Authority actually funded for Straw Dogs. They were sick of Americans moving over.

Obviously not true, but it would explain a lot. Not many films have such singularly evil human beings as those portrayed in Straw Dogs, but then few feature such textured evil human beings either. The film’s perfectly comfortable with assigning features by crap shoot and the complexity of the result is some of the film’s point.

But it’s hard to say if Straw Dogs really ends up having a point. It’s an amazing piece of American cinema, not just for its influential status in film history (the list of films inspired by the conclusion goes on and on), but because it’s so constantly unexpected. Jerry Fielding’s score changes drastically from the beginning to end–it starts out ominous, but ends in a rousing, glorious spirit (Straw Dogs, with the empty English skies and Fielding’s score, often reminds of Jaws). The editing–from Paul Davies, Tony Lawson and Roger Spottiswoode–is always competent, but it slowly becomes astounding. The first hints–sound from one scene playing over another–are discrete, to the point the first full scene of that type seems like a syncing error. But nothing can forecast the end, with its constant fast cuts from angle to angle. John Coquillon’s photography is similarly essential.

Peckinpah’s direction is masterful. Every single shot in the film–and given the rapid cutting at the end, there must be a lot–is perfect. Every move Peckinpah makes here is more than perfect, they’re unequaled.

The majority of the film isn’t calm discomfort–I think the end sequence runs longer than it seems and the initial conflicts kick off early–but the beginning’s scenes introducing Dustin Hoffman and Susan George are nice, concise storytelling. During their first scene at home together, I wondered why the film didn’t open with Hoffman and George boarding a plane for England. It soon becomes apparent the two don’t know each other very well or at least aren’t prepared to spend every waking hour together. As the story progresses, even after all she endures, it becomes hard to empathize with her, if only because Peckinpah treats her so hostilely. Following a scene all her own, which clearly illustrates her suffering, George still manages to perplex. She and Hoffman, though married and in almost all their scenes together (with the one monumental exception), are on completely different paths.

As for Hoffman–who didn’t like the film and only did it for the money, which accounts for my earlier statement about the film successfully having a point, as the lead working disingenuously seems to effect such things–he’s fantastic. Straw Dogs is frequently cited as being a “pushed too hard” story–the poster even advertises it as such–but the film never necessarily pushes Hoffman over any edge. In fact, it seems more like Hoffman would have responded in the first five minutes as he did in the last thirty. It makes the film even more confounding (and rewarding).

I haven’t seen Straw Dogs for a while, but I’m sure I had the same reaction at the end I did this time–it’s better than I remembered.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; screenplay by David Zelag Goodman and Peckinpah, based on a novel by Gordon Williams; director of photography, John Coquillon; edited by Paul Davies, Tony Lawson and Roger Spottiswoode; music by Jerry Fielding; production designer, Ray Simm; produced by Daniel Melnick; released by Cinerama Releasing Corporation.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (David Sumner), Susan George (Amy Sumner), Peter Vaughan (Tom Hedden), T.P. McKenna (Major John Scott), Del Henney (Charlie Venner), Jim Norton (Chris Cawsey), Donald Webster (Riddaway), Ken Hutchison (Norman Scutt), Len Jones (Bobby Hedden), Sally Thomsett (Janice Hedden), Robert Keegan (Harry Ware), Peter Arne (John Niles), Cherina Schaer (Louise Hood), Colin Welland (Reverend Barney Hood) and David Warner (Henry Niles).


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