Sam Neill doesn’t have a new movie out—Jurassic World: Dominion isn’t due until 2021—and it’s not his birthday or anything. We just really appreciate him (and his upbeat, animal-filled social media presence). We think you probably do, too, and now is as good a time as any to watch (or rewatch) some of his best films and television shows.
Though Neill’s career includes lots of non-genre projects (The Piano, Peaky Blinders), he’s also had many great sci-fi, fantasy, and horror roles. These are our favorites so far.
This spin on the classic fairy tale injects more horror than the average interpretation, mostly thanks to Sigourney Weaver’s commanding performance as the stepmother, whose “evil” qualities are shown to have some agonizingly human motivations (though that damn haunted mirror also does its part).
Neill plays the Snow White character’s father, a wealthy landowner whose beloved first wife dies in childbirth. When his daughter (Monica Keena) is a small child, he decides to remarry, unfortunately putting in motion a scenario that will eventually see him dangling from an upside-down cross while his second wife drains his blood, believing that’s the only way to resurrect her stillborn son. Though he’s the character everyone is fighting over, Neill doesn’t get a ton of screen time—but his quiet presence helps ground some of the film’s more operatic moments.
After the tragic death of their son, Rae (Nicole Kidman) and John (Neill) set out on a sailing trip—but there’s no healing to be found at sea, only a stranded boater (Billy Zane) who turns out to be a dangerous killer. Most of the movie is about Rae having to resort to all manner of survival tactics to stay alive while she’s alone on the ship with a maniac, after John rows out to investigate the stranger’s story and finds it to be 100 percent lacking in certain homicidal details. Dead Calm is more of a thriller than true horror movie—Zane’s drifter is a very bad human, nothing more—but it’s tense as hell, so we’re saying it counts as genre anyway. Plus, Neill’s character gets to bid farewell to Zane’s irritatingly resilient character in the most “get off my yacht” way possible—it involves a safety flare and Zane’s face, and it is glorious.
Most of this season-four episode concerns Rick Sanchez’s revenge plot after he discovers someone’s been pooping in his private toilet. But Neill pops up with a fun cameo in the other plotline, after Morty and Jerry chase after a four-eyed alien (voiced by Taika Waititi, who directed Neill, a fellow New Zealander, in 2006's Hunt for the Wilderpeople, as well as another movie we’ll get to in a moment) who’s allowed a destructive dating app to run wild on Earth. His boss, the Monogatron leader (Neill), sneers over humankind’s inability to form functional relationships while revealing the app is actually just a distraction while the Monogatrons steal the planet’s water supply. He also dotes on his wife (Kathleen Turner, speaking of rad voice cameos) as only someone who’s mastered “the true power of superior intimacy” can—at least until they have a big fight at the end of the episode.
Bonus fun fact: Animation fans will also recall that Neill guest-starred as Molloy, the cat burglar who steals Lisa’s saxophone, among other things, in the fifth-season Simpsons episode “Homer the Vigilante.”
Speaking of Taika Waititi, do you remember Neill’s appearance in Thor: Ragnarok? He plays “Odin” alongside Luke Hemsworth’s “Thor” and Matt Damon’s “Loki” in the play being watched by Odin (actually the real Loki in disguise, of course) when Thor returns to Asgard early in the movie. It’s just a brief appearance—complete with dramatic speech and dramatic eye-patch removal—but it’s in service of a scene that lets us know a very funny superhero movie lies ahead.
Robin Williams—playing a gentle android who gradually evolves into being human over several decades—is the main attraction in this very loose Asimov adaptation, but Neill has a key role as the affluent clockmaker who brings “Andrew” home to live with his family. “Sir” is also the first to notice that Andrew has an extra-special quality; he displays sensitivity, compassion, and creativity in a world filled with humans who’d just as soon have their helper machines be as devoid of individuality as possible. Bicentennial Man is not exactly the profound experience it yearns to be, but it does offer a prime example of nice-guy Neill, displayed across three different time periods within the movie.
Andrzej Żuławski’s surreal, disturbing cult classic stars Neill and a tremendously terrifying Isabelle Adjani as a West Berlin couple—a spy and a dancer—whose decision to divorce is just about the only mundane thing about the entire movie. There’s murder, suicide, grotesque body horror, creature horror, and more, with tentacle-tastic special effects by Carlo Rambaldi—who did Possession in between winning Oscars for Alien and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Adjani has the flashier part, but Neill is solid as a guy grappling his way though what must be one of the most traumatic cinematic break-ups ever.
In the near future (the movie is actually set in 2019, but whatever), the human race is almost extinct thanks to a vampire plague that’s transformed most everyone on Earth into an immortal bloodsucker. Consequently, the human blood supply has nearly dried up—and deprived vampires are rapidly mutating into snarling, bat-like feral creatures. Neill plays Bromley, the CEO of a company that farms humans while urgently trying to engineer an acceptable blood substitute—but he also really loves being a vampire and is not willing to give up the genuine article, which he prefers to sip from a wine glass like a true member of the ghoul one percent.
Daybreakers chiefly follows Ethan Hawke’s character—a scientist working for Bromley, who discovers a miracle cure for vampirism—but Neill does get some decently meaty scenes, ordering his daughter, a human holdout, to be “turned” against her will, and later undergoing his own unwanted reverse transformation. Also, bragging rights: Bromley’s horrifying, head-ripping death scene is by far the best in the movie.
One of Neill’s earliest genre roles had him playing one of horror’s most iconic characters: Damien Thorn, the mini-Antichrist, now grown up (but sporting a not-dissimilar hairstyle), running his late father’s multinational corporation and embracing his sinister place in the world. On the surface, of course, he’s a sophisticated young businessman who’s just been appointed the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. As an added perk, he begins romancing a TV journalist who just so happens to be single mom to a highly suggestible 12-year-old boy. In the shadows, of course, Damien—who keeps a Jesus statue in his house so he can stalk around it and insult the “cursed Nazarene”—gathers strength for the Second Coming of Christ, even as the Catholic Church’s dwindling supply of assassins try to take him out before his full powers emerge.
All told, Omen III: The Final Conflict is not a very good movie, especially compared to the original Omen—instead of baboons, this movie’s evil-animal attack pack is...adorable fox hounds!—but it’s a benchmark moment for Neill, who exudes oodles of upper-crust evil, whether he’s seducing his unfortunate love interest or ordering his followers to slaughter babies for Satan.
Neill’s first collaboration with John Carpenter is mostly a showcase for Chevy Chase, who plays the title character. But Neill has the juicy role of Jenkins, an oily CIA agent who’s eager to exploit Chase’s character, logically assuming that being invisible would make him the perfect spy/secret agent/assassin. Jenkins ruthlessly pursues (or tries to pursue; the guy is invisible, after all) his quarry, resorting to kidnapping and other nasty business to get what he wants. In stories like this, the invisible man is usually the villain, but Jenkins is clearly the bad guy here—a man with the exact blend of off-kilter moral compass and shark-like menace his line of work demands.
The King Arthur legend gets a wizard-centric spin in this 1998 made-for-NBC miniseries (and its sequel). Neill plays the title character, a half-human, half-magic man created by Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson) in an American Gods-esque plot to lure the recently Christian people of England back into worshiping the pagan gods. But she’s so deceitful that Merlin ends up forging his own path and they become sworn enemies.
There’s a huge ensemble cast here, full of big names (Isabella Rossellini, Martin Short, Helena Bonham Carter, Rutger Hauer, a very young Lena Headey, the unmistakable voice of James Earl Jones), and while Merlin is not always the center of the action, he’s always its driving force, trying but not always succeeding when it comes to making the right decisions. Neill gets to do magic and wield a sword—Excalibur, natch—and there’s also a tender love story with Rossellini’s character that builds out Merlin’s motivations beyond just being a kingmaker. In the Holy Grail-focused sequel, Merlin returns with a spectacular beard to train a young thief with magical gifts who’s actually, unbeknownst to both of them, Merlin’s son. Twist!
John Carpenter rounded out his “apocalypse trilogy” (after The Thing and Prince of Darkness) with this deliciously mind-bending tale of an insurance investigator named John Trent (Neill) who’s tasked with tracking down popular horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow)—a sort of Stephen King-meets-H.P. Lovecraft type—who’s gone missing without completing his highly anticipated next novel, to be titled In the Mouth of Madness. Trent and Cane’s editor, Styles (Julie Carmen), hit the road to Hobb’s End, the off-the-map New Hampshire town where Cane sets his stories, thinking they’ll find him there.
Trent, who makes his living uncovering insurance fraud, is cocky and skeptical at first. It must all be a publicity stunt, he figures. But since most of the movie takes place as an extended flashback—as told by Trent in a padded room—we know where he’s heading. Neill is excellent as a man who’s prepared to deny what his own eyes are showing him, even as the eldritch nightmares lurking in Hobb’s End begin to shred the fabric of reality. And when he finally fully embraces the madness of the title, it’s a well-earned over-the-top moment after nearly an entire movie of desperate denial.
When first we meet everyman hero science-nerd Dr. Alan Grant (Neill) in Jurassic Park, he’s more enthusiastic about hanging out with velociraptors (their fossils, anyway) than he is about precocious children. By the end of the adventure, after barely surviving rampaging raptors brought to life at you-know-which theme park, he’s decided kids are OK after all; along the way, we’re treated to such delights as Grant laying on a triceratops, just marveling at the way it breathes, and Grant cradling a newly hatched baby dino with sheer awe that turns to horror when he realizes just what species it is.
In the third Jurassic Park film, Grant is lured back to dino-land by a divorced couple searching for missing loved ones who probably shouldn’t have been parasailing in that particular vicinity, just saying. There, of course, he faces raptors once again, only this time they’re even smarter than before. We’ll get to catch up with Grant for a third time in Jurassic World: Dominion; here’s hoping his return to the series is bigger than Jeff Goldblum’s glorified cameo in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
Dr. William Weir (Neill) isn’t exactly in the best mental health when he joins the crew of the Lewis and Clark to answer a distress call that seems to be coming from the Event Horizon—a ship he designed that was thought to be lost in deep space. When we first meet him, he’s already having disturbing visions of his wife, who took her own life after feeling neglected by her workaholic husband. But once the mission reaches the Event Horizon, which is basically a haunted house with mindfuck powers floating on the edge of the solar system, Weir’s breakdown continues, and eventually he transforms into the ship’s monstrous avatar, swallowed up by his own grief, guilt, and the manipulations of his creation.
Neill, who’s great at portraying a man who’s both impressively intelligent and emotionally haunted, also manages to make Weir’s plunge into total insanity—like, gouging-out-your-own-eyes levels of insanity—feel believable. Gruesome and awful, but still believable.
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