The Actor Who Slunk in the Shadows An Appreciation of Brad Dourif By Calum Syers. In January of 2012 the made-for-TV movie Swamp Volcano premiered on the Syfy channel to 2.17 million viewers...
In January of 2012 the made-for-TV movie Swamp Volcano premiered on the Syfy channel to 2.17 million viewers. Anyone watching would be surprised to see that the villainous Jacob Capilla is played by Brad Dourif. The feeling of surprise is especially apt when considering that, in 1975, Brad Dourif was plucked from an Off-Broadway stage by Milos Forman for the role of Billy Bibbit in One Flew over the Cuckoo‘s Nest. He would go on to be nominated for an Oscar in 1976 for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and won a BAFTA Film Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture.
During the early ’70s he performed in a number of plays with New York’s Circle Repertory Theatre. Dourif, having been a part of the theatre’s summer program since he was 16, was well taught in the technical side of theatre, as well as in acting. It was in 1972, when playing the lead in the theatre’s production of When You Comin‘ Back, Red Ryder?, that Milos Forman was sitting in the audience, looking for a young man to perform alongside Jack Nicholson in his next film. In his autobiography, Turnaround, Milos Forman recalled how "[I] immediately saw Billy Bibbit in him. He was dripping talent and had the core of vulnerability that was right for the role." The rest, as they say, is history. However, while One Flew over the Cuckoo‘s Nest has been endlessly debated, critiqued and talked about by film scholars and fans of cinema across the world, it was not the Cinderella story for Dourif that people had hoped for.
The Early Years
It was the success of One Flew over the Cuckoo‘s Nest which drove Dourif underground and out of the limelight. He attended both the Academy Award ceremony and the BAFTAs, however, when it was announced that he had won the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor he refused to give an acceptance speech. The attention caused him to retreat to New York, and he thought people would soon realize that he was not talented. In an interview for Fangoria in 1990 he stated, "I felt like [the nomination] was a big mistake, that it wasn’t me. Sooner or later I felt that everyone was going to find out that I wasn’t deserving of it." During this period he turned down roles in high profile work such as Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, Milo Forman’s Hair (both parts went to John Savage) and even the film version of Red Ryder. It was an attempt at self-sabotage, to not acquire success at any cost. He would not be seen on the silver screen again until The Eyes of Laura Mars in 1978
The Eyes of Laura Mars is a silly supernatural pot-boiler in which Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway), a fashion photographer, specializes in stylized violence in her fashion shoots. These themes start to become real as Laura begins to see her friends and colleagues get murdered. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to this film and, for all its bluff about how photo shoots such as the one Laura concentrates on are demeaning to women, director Irvin Kershner seems more interested in salivating over half naked women than satirizing this type of photography. Everything from the hair, the costumes, to the type of photography that Laura dealt with seems to celebrate ’70s schlock. It is a thoroughly dull piece of work with an uncharacteristically awful performance by Faye Dunaway. Despite all the problems, it does signify an interesting moment in Dourif’s career, and the first seeds of typecasting can be seen.
Dourif plays Tommy Ludlow, Laura Mars’s shifty chauffeur with a criminal past. Could he be the murderer? Well, possibly. The film tries really hard to convince us he is, until it is revealed that he is merely a red herring. Dourif spends much of the first half of the film slinking in the shadows, looking shiftily from the sidelines. For example, after the first murder, the police take all of Laura’s models and staff to the police station for questioning. When it is time for Dourif to be questioned, he is asked by the police why he has a knife on his person, his reply is, "Cut rope and shit." Just in case it was not clear enough that he was shifty.
This is a character trait that haunts Dourif’s career. The antagonists he plays are rarely the driving force of evil, and more often than not pawns in someone else’s plan. In literature the closest comparison would be Renfield from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While Tommy Ludlow is not inherently as bad as the characters Dourif would later play, they share many characteristics. This can be seen when he plays Raymond, one of Frank’s (Dennis Hopper) lackeys in Blue Velvet. As Grima Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, where the strings are being pulled by Saruman (Christopher Lee) and even as David Langtree in Guyana Tragedy:The Story of Jim Jones, where he, with hardly a flicker of thought for himself, mixes cyanide with Kool-Aid for the ritualistic mass suicide of Jim Jones’s The People’s Church.
In John Huston’s 1979 film, Wise Blood (based on the Flannery O’Conner novel of the same name), Dourif’s character, Hazel Motes is subject to powers above and beyond his control. Hazel Motes returns from the war (presumably Vietnam, although it is never mentioned) with the idea to start The Church without Christ. While he states that he "don’t believe in anything," through flashbacks we see his way of thinking and skewered view on religion has been predetermined by his grandfather (played by Huston himself), a fire and brimstone type preacher who sermonizes about an unloving and cruel Jesus. Motes’s creed is, "I’m a member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way."
Motes is so fixated on his goal that he has trouble communicating or socializing with others, except when talking about his beliefs. There are several characters who take advantage of Motes’s martyrdom to his cause, including Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), a street corner preacher and con man and his daughter, Sabbath Lily (Amy Right), who attempts to get Motes into bed with her by any means necessary. And, lastly, Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty), a slick grifter who also attempts to make money from Mote’s church, pretending to be a loyal member as he pockets the collection.
While all these people have a hand slowing Motes’s crusade, it is eventually Motes himself who is self-defeating. He is plagued by self-doubt and haunted by images from the past. Watching Dourif’s representation of Motes is compelling. He portrays Motes’s struggle against religion externally. The louder he insists he believes in nothing, the less he believes it himself. In the end, Motes is beaten, but it is a self-destruction. He gives his life over to Christ and blinds himself as atonement, filling his shoes with gravel and wrapping barbed-wire around his chest.
Wise Blood is a rare leading role for Dourif. He would not headline another feature until Istanbul in 1985. However, it is the three major roles early in his career which would help cement his type casting. It is important to note that in the very early ’80s Dourif was at the peak of his career. His intense acting style in films like The Eyes of Laura Mars and Wise Blood had not gone unnoticed, and he no longer had to worry about merely being considered "the stuttering kid" from One Flew over the Cuckoo‘s Nest. In 1980, The New York Times’s Vincent Canby cited Dourif as one of a dozen "bright new stars to watch."
The Demise of New Hollywood and the Rise of Typecasting
The three roles which exemplified Dourif’s place in "New Hollywood" films were Michael Cimino’s Heaven‘s Gate (1980), Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1981) and David Lynch’s Dune (1984). While the first two were significant for the fact that his characters were relatively decent men and, for the most part, some of the less weird characters on screen, it did not help that his three highest profile film roles in the first half of the ’80s were box office duds.
Heaven‘s Gate, Michael Cimino’s epic Western about the Johnson County War in 1892, centers on the clash between immigrants and land barons in Wyoming. This film had a production so marred with escalating budgets and overrunning shooting schedules it has become synonymous with box office flops ever since. With a budget of $44 million (closer to $120 million in 2012), it made back a little over $3 million in its theatrical run. The word-of-mouth was so toxic that the film was all but dead on arrival, with allegations of animal cruelty (notably a cock fight and a horse blown up by dynamite) which still plague the film to this day. In 2008 Joe Queenan of The Guardian named Heaven‘s Gate as the worst film ever made, and Michael Cimino won a Razzie Award for Worst Director in 1981.
Yet, there are some things which survive Cimino’s egotism and excess. Firstly, it is clear to see where the vast budget had gone. The production design, costumes and sheer vastness of much of its outdoor shoot are second to none. Moreover, the ensemble of which Dourif is a part is impressive. Unfortunately, this is all brought crashing down by the lead (a monotonous Kris Kristofferson), as well as by the fact that while the ensemble is fine, none of them get to do much. Granted, this is partly because the three-hour and forty-minute film was cut down from a version which was over five hours long, but it really is a shame to see such fine actors reduced to also-rans.
As Mr. Eggleston, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, Dourif spends well over half of the movie without any dialogue. However, towards the end of the film he does finally get to steal one scene, which is impressive when Cimino is so intent on making a film where investment in the characters is optional. As the assembled immigrants gather for the last time in the town hall before battle, Mr. Eggleston breaks from the crowd and gives a rabble rousing speech. With a thick Russian accent and his eyes blazing he warns, "The rich are opposed to anything that will improve conditions in this country, anything that will make it more than a cow pasture for Eastern speculators." The peasants cheer in agreement, a woman runs from the crowd and kisses him and the assembled peasants grab their weapons and get ready for war. This was Dourif’s second scene in the film and he convincingly comes across as someone who could urge people to battle and be willing die alongside them.
Perhaps what was most at odds with Heaven‘s Gate was that the style and execution of "New Hollywood" cinema were drawing to a close in the early eighties. The commercial success and comparatively low cost of films like George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws made the inflated budgets that filmmakers like Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola were asking for look ridiculous. The budgets for both films were $9 million and $11 million respectively. Unfortunately, Dourif was seemingly associated with, and swept along by, the demise of "New Hollywood."
Dourif’s next feature, Ragtime, seemed to echo the wreck of Heaven‘s Gate (though not nearly as severely). Like Heaven‘s Gate it was another story of a time in America’s history. It featured a large ensemble of respected actors and was directed by another filmmaker who had risen during the time of "New Hollywood." In this case, Milos Forman; who, as previously pointed out, plucked Dourif from the stage to film stardom. While ultimately more successful than Heaven‘s Gate, both commercially and critically it was still, ultimately, considered a disappointment on both counts especially for Dourif.
Critical notices for Dourif, as Younger Brother, a member of a family of New York socialites, who were all unnamed to make all the rich, upper class characters appear as ciphers, were mixed. Vincent Canby stated that "Mr. Dourif as Mother’s Younger Brother... [is allowed to] drift off into anonymity." However, a far harsher criticism came from David Denby in The New York Magazine. "Brad Dourif, as Younger Brother, is an actor with a stalled engine you want to give him a kick so he’ll get through his lines. Forman, who has worked with Dourif before, must think Dourif’s hesitations and stuttering are a sign of spiritual grace. But while Dourif is holding the camera interminably, the audience is miserable. He is so wretchedly unappealing that when he pursues [Elizabeth] McGovern’s Evelyn Nesbit, you don’t want to see him put his hands on her."
Nevertheless, while the film got mixed responses and made a disappointing return at the box-office, it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, so it is generally remembered as a box-office disappointment, rather than an out and out flop. His next role on the silver screen after Ragtime would not come until 1984 in David Lynch’s Dune. Dourif’s first of three collaborations with Lynch, the actor pinpoints it as the movie which began his typecasting as a villain.
"That was the first sociopath I ever played," Dourif told Fangoria in 1990. "I told David that if I played it, there would be no end to it, and I was right. That was the beginning of my playing killers." Again, Dune was a flop making only $30 million of its $40 million budget. Although, unsurprisingly, it was Dune which became the cult hit and sealed Dourif’s fate, forever associating him with highly-strung, creepy lunatics such as Piter de Vries.
Piter de Vries is everything you would expect of Brad Dourif as a villain; a power behind the throne to Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (fellow Ragtime alum Kenneth McMillan). De Vries is in very few scenes and gets killed off roughly half way through the film, but he joyously chews the scenery for the duration of his screen time. Dune is a mess, suffering from being overlong and sparse on any actual details. Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s book has been judged with mixed responses from fans and critics alike. [I love it Ed.]
However, despite his fear of being typecast by Dune, Dourif enjoyed working with Lynch. In an interview with Louis Paul, writer of Tales from the Cult Trenches, he stated, "[Lynch] is one of the most original directors I have worked with. He has a unique vision." In 1986 he would work with him again in Blue Velvet. Again, his role in Blue Velvet is a small one, and as if we have been hit with a case of déjà vu, he plays another lackey to a much more fearsome, loathsome force. Of course, Dennis Hopper gives one of the most iconic performances of his career as Frank Booth, the psychotic, gas huffing gangster whose cronies do anything he wishes.
Mid-Eighties Lull and Child’s Play
During the mid to late ’80s, many of Dourif’s projects suffered from distribution problems. Istanbul, a Belgian movie from 1985 never found distribution in the United States and a DVD can only be found in its native country. Medium Rare (1987) spent a staggering thirteen years shelved, only to be eventually released online on the video hosting website, Blip.tv. On the other hand, Mississippi Burning and Child‘s Play, released in 1988 stood out as significant pieces of work for Dourif.
If Mississippi Burning did nothing to pull Dourif away from typecasting, it at least gave him the chance to be in another film which was successful critically and commercially. As Deputy Clinton Pell, Dourif plays another sniveling villain who hides behind something bigger than himself, in this case the Ku Klux Klan. Two FBI Agents, Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) have come to investigate the murders of three civil rights activists. As the local sheriff, Pell tries to assert his power by hauling Agent Anderson over the coals when he comes to talk to him and the other officers. When Anderson speaks on their level, talking about when he lived in a small town just like theirs, Pell replies with a cold, "We ain’t interested in your good ol’ Mississippi Boy stories here, Anderson. You ain’t from here no more."
As Chucky, the killer doll in the Child‘s Play franchise, he is essentially powerless. He may be the leading antagonist, but he has the limitations that a sentient doll would have. In the mythos of the Child‘s Play franchise, Chucky becomes more human (he grows organs, and cannot stay in the doll forever) and the benefits of being plastic are lost. For example, if you were to wound Chucky, he would bleed like a human. It is Charles Lee Ray, the serial killer who transported his soul into the doll via voodoo that is at risk, and he has more to lose than anyone else.
The Child‘s Play franchise, and more specifically Chucky, became bigger than Dourif and bigger than the films themselves. It has become a self-mocking parody. By the end of its five film run, it had become the horror equivalent to Mickey Mouse, with Chucky’s face on dolls, t-shirts and other merchandise. As for Dourif, there are still many people who will only associate him with Chucky, the same way people only associate Robert Englund with A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger. Or, at the very least, his voice will be associated with Chucky; his face is mostly spared from the franchise hegemony, other than for a single scene in the first film.
The Gemini Killer and the TV Years
The ’90s were a rather patchy decade for Dourif and he had to choose the best work available while attempting to avoid further typecasting. Much of his work during this period can be broken down into two categories: cameos and creeps. In the former category, the cameos would often be in studio films, with well-known stars or directors; such as Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda and Werner Herzog’s Scream of Stone.
However, it was in the latter category, playing the creeps, with which he had become typecast, and where he would get the most work. At the very least, he started the decade playing one of the finest psychos of his career in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III (1990). At the time, he got some of his finest critical notices in a long while portraying The Gemini Killer, whose spirit inhabits the body of Father Karras (Ed Miller). Vincent Canby, one of Dourif’s biggest supporters, noted how, "With the help of Mr. Blatty’s eccentric monologues, Mr. Dourif acts [Ed Miller and George C. Scott] out of the movie." It was lucky then that Dourif was not cut out of the film entirely, which nearly happened when Morgan Creek Productions thought the film was not close enough to the original film, The Exorcist.
Morgan Creek demanded that the film’s title be changed from the novel’s title of Legion, to the The Exorcist III. They also demanded that an exorcism had to be put into the film, and that Dourif’s scenes were to be replaced by Jason Miller, who portrayed the role of Father Karras in the original. In an interview with Fangoria in 1993, Dourif remembers the experience of being told that he may not be in the film: "I felt really bad about it I was to be cut out of a film which had already been finished, and for which there had already been advertisements out which had my name on them."
Luckily, Blatty stumbled onto an idea which would appease Dourif (whose performance he was reportedly fond of) and the studio. When Father Karras (called "Patient X" in the film) was in his true form, he would be played by Jason Miller. When he transformed into The Gemini Killer, Dourif would portray him. Luckily for us, this change works. For once, a villain played by Dourif feels like the dominant force. He has Karras’s soul in his clutches and during his brief screen time, he takes command of the room. Also, despite the fact that Dourif’s scenes as Karras were removed and The Gemini Killer only gets two scenes (totaling roughly 13 minutes of screen time) he is terrifying. George C. Scott may be the star of the movie, playing the cop, Kinderman, but when he is in the same room as The Gemini Killer, Dourif dominates the screen. This would go on to be one of Dourif’s most iconic roles, cementing his status as a crazy.
If only Dourif’s other psychos could be as memorable or iconic. By this time he was the go-to psycho, reportedly being considered to play The Scarecrow in Tim Burton’s aborted third Batman film, and Max Cady in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear. Although, despite being considered for roles in Hollywood, he would spend most of the ’90s starring in forgettable horror films like Tobe Hooper’s Spontaneous Combustion, Dario Argento’s Trauma and Stephen Norrington’s Death Machine. At the very least, he tried to act in as many independent films as possible, to avoid typecasting. Eventually it was not the silver screen which led to the more interesting roles, but the small screen. Throughout the ’90s he would become best known as a guest performer in several horror and sci-fi TV programs.
Unlike the cameo roles in studio films and playing villains in low-budget films with a limited audience, these programs would play to several million people and introduce Dourif to an audience who were previously unaware of him. Also, while he had been a guest performer on several TV shows in the past (Moonlighting, Murder She Wrote and Miami Vice), it was his performances in The X-Files (1994), Babylon 5 (1995), Star Trek:Voyager (1996) would cement him as a cult favorite. Many of Dourif’s most dedicated fans would consider these to be some of his finest roles. For example, the subtly named website, Topless Robot (www.toplessrobot.com) ranked his roles as Brother Edward in Babylon 5 and Crewman Lon Suder in Star Trek:Voyager sixth and third respectively in their list of "The Seven Nerdiest Roles of Brad Dourif."
The first (and probably the least) interesting show of this group is Wild Palms, which had the audacity to be a multilayered science fiction program released after Twin Peaks. It received a lukewarm reception upon release and was accused of being derivative of David Lynch’s seminal program. It also did not help matters that Wild Palms’ studio, ABC, insisted on referring to it as an "event program"; giving audiences the warning that it was actually a smug and pretentious rip off. Jay Leno, in one of his comedy monologues, asked the studio audience, "Did anyone watch Wild Palms?" The audience laughed and Leno continued, "I think someone just took a few hits of acid and watched old episodes of Twin Peaks." Dourif is only in the first three episodes, and his part is fairly small. Unfortunately, its reputation of being a knock-off harmed it, and it never picked up as big a cult following as Twin Peaks.
After Wild Palms, came a one episode stint on Tales from the Crypt, HBO’s anthology of blackly humorous horror stories. However, it was not until the release of The X-Files episode Beyond the Sea that the cult of Dourif as a television guest star would fully take hold, and it is perhaps the best received work he did on television, pre-Deadwood (2004-2006).
Dourif played Luther Lee Boggs, an incarcerated prisoner on death row who claims to have psychic powers which he will use to aid Mulder and Scully in the search for a serial killer who has kidnapped two teenagers. However, he will only use those powers if Mulder gets his sentence reduced to life imprisonment. This is an interesting episode for a number of reasons. To begin with, it is the first episode that centers on Scully, along with an uncharacteristic openness to Boggs’s claims of being a channel for the grief she feels for the death of her father. Secondly, it reverses the roles of Mulder and Scully, making Mulder skeptical and Scully open to belief. Lastly, Dourif set the benchmark for the "monster-of-the-week" villain from here on.
As Boggs opens up to Scully he reveals how he is afraid to die by way of execution, and fears that the spirits of the people he killed will return to haunt him in his final few moments. As he tells Scully this, we see a flashback to the last time Boggs narrowly escaped death by lethal injection, even getting so far as being placed on the gurney. We see the faces of the men and women he killed staring back at him as he is dragged out of his cell. It is a fantastically vulnerable piece of acting, and it shows how easily the part could have been overplayed by a weaker actor. Instead, Dourif plays Boggs with a mixture of inner turmoil and vulnerability, haunted by the souls of the people he has murdered.
Thankfully, the reception the episode received was ecstatic, with many critics considering it one of the finest episodes of, if not the first season, then of the whole show. The episode ranked second on IGN’s list of "10 Favorite X-Files Standalone Episodes," remarking how Dourif "is just as memorable as Hannibal Lecter for X-Files fans, anyway." During Entertainment Weekly’s X-Files retrospective, X Cyclopedia:the Ultimate Episode Guide, they gave it an A+, remarking how "Brad Dourif’s oddball intensity finds its perfect outlet in Boggs." In an interview with The X-Files Lexicon (www.x-fileslexicon.com) Glen Morgan, one of the co-writers of the episode, admitted that he gave up his fee to pay for Dourif to be in the installment. "He was more [concerned about] money and Fox didn’t want to pay the money. I said ‘I will give my script fee to have this happen.’"
After his episode of The X-Files Dourif appeared in Color of Night (1994) and Murder in the First (1995), two studio films which received disappointing reviews and made little money at the box-office. The former film is remembered mostly for Bruce Willis appearing naked, and the latter is barely remembered at all. Both see Dourif play small roles in an attempt to not be stuck playing villains. Unfortunately, Color of Night only made just under half of its $40 million budget and Murder in the First only pulled in $17 million. During this period he would also appear in more typical sci-fi and horror roles, in films such as Death Machine (1994) and Phoenix (1995).
Luckily, Dourif’s next two roles on television as Brother Edward in Babylon 5 (1995) and as Crewman Lon Suder in Star Trek:Voyager would be significant ones. While neither would be as iconic as his episode of The X-Files, both roles in Babylon 5 and Star Trek:Voyager owe something of a debt in terms of characterization to the former. In Babylon 5 he plays "The Black Rose Killer" and in Star Trek:Voyager his character of Crewman Lon Suder confesses to the murder of another crew member. In the same way that Luther Lee Boggs in The X-Files claimed to be a psychic, both Brother Edward and Crewman Lon Suder show psychic vulnerability. Brother Edward is subjected to a strange form of futuristic capital punishment called "Death of Personality," where the mind of "The Black Rose Killer" is wiped and replaced with that of the passive, religious, Brother Edward. Crewman Lon Suder, on the other hand, is subjected to a mind-meld, where the Vulcan character, Tuvok (Tim Russ), shares his mind with Suder. As a result of sharing minds, Suder becomes calmer and eventually even wants to become an asset to the ship, and not someone to be feared. Dourif would complete his mid-’90s period as a regular guest performer in Force Majeure, the thirteenth episode of the first season of Millennium. Unfortunately, while Millennium is well liked in cult circles, it does not have the reputation of Babylon 5 or The X-Files.
The Late Nineties and Myst III
The latter half of the ’90s were not nearly as kind to Dourif as the former. The next few years saw Dourif filling out a niche playing doctors; between the short period of 1997 and 1998 he would play no less than four doctors. These included The Duty Doctor in Nightwatch, Dr. Jonathan Gediman in Alien:Resurrection, Dr. Wheedon in Senseless and Dr. Burt Clavell in Progeny. By this point, the typecasting was taking its toll, and he frankly looks tired in these films, especially in Senseless, which lacks the fiery intensity that Dourif usually brings, even in his worst roles.
Tara Ariano and Adam Sternbergh remark, in their segment Hey! It‘s That Guy! on Fametracker.com, that "Dourif oddly plays a lot of doctors. This must say something about our collective fear of the medical profession because Dourif isn’t playing genial, hop-up-here-so-I-can-take-your-temperature-then-give-you-a-lollipop kinds of doctor. These are scary, stringy-haired, rusty-instrument-using, long-needle-unsheathing kinds of doctors."
Out of the four doctors he played, only Dr. Jonathan Gediman in Alien:Resurrection allowed him the opportunity to play one of his slimiest creeps since Piter De Vries in Dune. However, it under performed financially and critically. Evidently, this was a transitional phase. By 1997-1998 he was too old to play the villains and creeps that he had during the late ’80s and early ’90s, and he was still too young to get attention based on his cult status alone.
Between 1999 and 2001 came more of the same from Dourif. Firstly, there were the studio films which underperformed financially and critically, like the James Ellroy adaptation of Brown‘s Requiem (1998). Secondly, there were independent films which failed to get US distribution, such as The Storytellers (1999). Lastly, there was the B-movie schlock with which Dourif had become so familiar. These films would often only be released on VHS and DVD, and rarely get well rated on sites like IMDb. The titles include: Interceptors (1999), Silicon Towers (1999), Shadow Hours (2000) and The Prophecy 3: The Ascent (2000).
His next role was in Myst III:Exile, a video game for the PC, which Dourif jumped at the chance to play, according to an interview with GameSpy.com. "Well, I just said ‘yes’ immediately," he states "just because it was Myst." Playing Saavedro, one of the game’s antagonists, may not have been a huge stretch for Dourif in terms of talent, but it did reintroduce him to a mainstream audience, albeit temporarily. It was the best-selling game upon release, selling over 75,000 copies in two weeks and over a million were sold within a year. It was also a critical hit, scoring 82/100 on Metacritic.com based on 22 reviews. Dourif would lend his voice for two more video games, Run like Hell:Hunt or be Hunted (2002) and Gun (2005), but he would never top Myst III:Exile in terms of critical or commercial success. But if Dourif’s appearance in Myst III:Exile is unsettling, then that is nothing compared to his next villainous role.
From Wormtongue to Deadwood
In 2002, Dourif would play Grima Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, a reptilian villain whose white skin, stringy, black hair and missing eyebrows mean that no one will mistake him for the hero. As is expected from Dourif at this point, Grima is not the lead antagonist, and is subservient to the evil wizard, Saruman the White (Christopher Lee). Grima was once a faithful servant of King Theoden (Bernard Hill) of Rohan, but he eventually fell in league with Saruman, and from then on has worked to weaken Theoden and his kingdom through persuasion and lies. He is rat like, both in name and personality, and as he first walks on screen, it causes one’s skin to crawl. Dourif may not have much screen time, but what time he does have is significant. He is a traitor, giving away secrets to Saruman which almost causes Rohan to fall.
While playing Grima did nothing to help him break free of typecasting, he had the opportunity to play his archetypical cowardly villain to a wide audience. It may also be his finest villain and comparable to Dracula’s Renfield. In an interview with TheOneRing.net, Dourif expands on his thoughts about characters like Grima. "What got me excited to do Grima Wormtongue is when I was young I went through a period in boarding school where I was picked on a lot. And there is something about Grima, he has been picked on when he was a kid, he (Grima) is so distrustful, he is so easily corrupted." And in the end, that is what Dourif has specialized in: small, cowardly men who latch onto a higher power source and by so doing expose their own weakness but also their own humanity. Brad Dourif does this commendably.
Reviews for Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers were ecstatic, and it went on to gross $80 million shy of $1 billion worldwide and scored six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Despite only playing a small part in the film, and having his scene in Lord of the Rings:The Return of the King cut out (of the theatrical release), this would still be a personal high for Dourif in terms of box office success, and allowed him to be in another award caliber film. If Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers saw him achieve his highest success at the box office, then his next successful role, the HBO series Deadwood, saw him achieve his highest critical success in years, in a different kind of role than Dourif fans like myself had become accustomed, that is to say, playing a character who has everyone’s best interest at heart and who is not evil; a departure for Dourif, indeed.
Deadwood was the brainchild of David Milch, and would only last for three seasons, between 2004 and 2006, which is considerably less than Milch’s previous creation for television, NYPD Blue. In that brief time, Deadwood managed to portray the beginnings of an illegally built settlement camp in the old West in all its gritty realism. Bar owner and politician, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) all but runs the camp, as there is no official law enforcement and no one is willing to threaten his position. It is interesting that in a show so full of creepy character actors, all trying to outdo each other in playing the meanest people around (Powers Boothe, for example plays Cy Tolliver, Swearengen’s rival both in business and politics), that it is Dourif who comes across as one of the few kind men.
As Doctor Amos Cochran (referred to simply as "Doc"), Dourif portrays a man who cares overwhelmingly for human life and its preservation. The daily perils of the camp make sure that Doc is never out of work but, despite the pressure upon him, he never fails to do his utmost. As a surgeon during the American Civil War he had seen many horrors; however, it is these desperate sights and events which have caused him to be civilized and a non-judgmental humanist. He knows just how easily life can be destroyed. This might be cloying if Dourif did not play the role showing Doc’s cantankerous and condescending characteristics too. He may care for his patients and care for his work, but his fuse is short and he is often patronizing to people in the camp. Through Dourif’s sterling performance, and the show’s excellent writing, we discover these attitudes are rooted in something deeper and more profound than bad temper and professionalism. I believe that Doc knows he will end up dying alone, and the things he has seen throughout his life and career have made him distrust the evil (and the good) in peoples’ hearts, so he widens the gap further by being rude. In that way, it is almost a contradiction that he will fight so hard to keep people alive, but it is a fight he must continue, as he believes humanity deserves to go on.
As the show moved away from telling the story of everyday life of the supporting players and moved to chronicling the politics of the camp in the second and third season, characters such as Doc play a smaller part. This is a shame for fans of his character, but Doc’s greatest arcs are played out by the first season. For example, it is during the first season that The Doc fights the outbreak of smallpox in the camp. It is also during the first season when Reverend H.W Smith (Ray McKinnon) starts slowly dying of a brain tumor, and Doc must take care of him. Eventually, Al and Doc agree that the Reverend should be put out of his misery as an act of mercy, but then Doc spirals into what seems like a nervous collapse. He screams to the heavens in a vain attempt to blame God for the needless deaths of the Reverend and all those young men during the Civil War, and we finally see the severity of the burden on his soul.
His work was recognized, and in 2004 Dourif was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. It is considered by many to be some of the finest work in his career, and received critical raves. Keith Uhlich of Slant Magazine notes how it is "Nice as always to see the inimitable Brad Dourif, here cast against type (but with malevolence still firmly intact) as the town physician Doc Cochran." This performance had a fairly prominent impact on his career in the next few years, as he would play several more kindly men, often in paternal roles. For example, in 2007 and in 2009 he would play Sheriff Lee Brackett in Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween and its sequel, Halloween 2, which would see Dourif play one of the good guys, and arguably more decent than the film’s lead, Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell). Granted, both films received dreadful reviews, but Dourif was often pointed out as a highlight among them. Chris Swain of TheCriticalCritc.com notes how in Halloween 2, Dourif’s "character is intense right from the start, but as things take a turn for the worst, his character’s downward spiral is the most enthralling to watch."
Despite the critical derision, the first Halloween made just over eighty-million dollars worldwide, and the second one would make just about forty-million. Other films which called for him to play a nice guy would be Sinner (2007), Touching Home (2008) and Humboldt County (2008). None of these became huge hits critically or commercially, but they all had a respectable run at film festivals, and Dourif’s performances were highly regarded in all of them. Regrettably, despite this flirtation with being cast against type, eventually he would settle back in to the horror genre, with titles such as Chain Letter (2010), Turbulent Skies (2010) and Priest (2011). In the midst of this he would have three significant roles with eccentric auteur, Werner Herzog.
If you were to look back throughout Dourif’s filmography, one anomaly would be Scream of Stone in 1991, where Dourif plays a character named "Fingerless." Herzog would work with Dourif three more times (so far) between 2005 and 2009. Least significantly would be in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009) and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), which were both fairly small roles for Dourif. Most significantly would be a role in The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), which is part fiction, part documentary, where Dourif played an alien simply credited as "The Alien." The plot concerns an extra-terrestrial (Dourif) who came to earth several decades ago from his home planet (The Wild Blue Yonder), a water planet which has suffered an ice age. He lives in a small town in the middle of the American desert and he delivers a monologue about how aliens from his planet have tried before to co-exist with humans (with not much luck). He then goes on to tell how scientists have found the remains of a crashed spaceship in Roswell, which they believe has given them an infectious disease. An exploratory mission was then sent to the eponymous The Wild Blue Yonder. Herzog uses archive footage from STS-34 (a NASA Space Shuttle) and film from Henry Kaiser’s diving expedition in Antarctica to create a patchwork which is meant to represent the planet, The Wild Blue Yonder.
Dourif’s performance and the film both received mixed reviews. For example, British film critic Mark Kermode touted the film as "Film of the Week" in The Observer, and remarked how Dourif’s monologues are "hilarious." However, The A.V Club critic, Noel Murray noted how "the Dourif parts marred as they are by wild overacting and the distracting scrape of his feet on the dirt get in the way of what’s primarily a sublime mood piece." Regardless of the less than stellar notices it received, there is something fairly appropriate about a director who many consider to be eccentric or even mad to direct an actor who many have also marginalized as an eccentric. Herzog and Dourif are kindred spirits, playing by their own rules and bowing to no one. If Dourif’s performance as an alien works, it is because Dourif has been an alien in Hollywood for many years, attempting to navigate his way through its superficiality with his innate humanity and his understanding of the fragility of the human psyche, a glimpse of which was seen in his first major film role in One Flew over the Cuckoo‘s Nest in 1976.
So, as I end this piece, I notice that, along with Swamp Volcano mentioned in the first paragraph that 2012 will offer us another film made for the Syfy channel, called End of the World. However, no career, especially one as diverse and strange as Dourif’s, can be written off or judged on such roles. Regardless of typecasting his work and his life have been inspirational to so many fans of cult cinema and to those who admire character actors, and that, in terms of importance to cinema, will be everlasting.
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