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The Essentials: The Films Of Nicolas Roeg

Features
by The Playlist Staff
June 23, 2011 4:06 AM
11 Comments
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The Witches" (1990)
Forgotten about almost as quickly as it debuted, "The Witches" is arguably the last Nic Roeg film to actually matter. (This was right before he slipped into making chintzy made-for-television crap.) Based on the beloved children's book by Roald Dahl, it's a genuinely weird and unsettling adaptation, possibly the only cinematic incantation of Dahl's to capture his gonzo spirit that hovered right between terror and glee. Angelica Huston, in one of her finest and most underrated performances, plays the leader of a coven of witches who turns the main child character into a mouse for a majority of the running time and outlines a plan for exterminating the children of England. It's heady stuff, especially for a family movie, but Roeg brings it to the screen with his characteristic stylistic impishness (lots of hard zooms, fish-eye-lenses and the like; sadly the film has never been released in anamorphic widescreen in the United States). Also of note was that this was the last feature film that Jim Henson worked on before his untimely death. Given Henson's love of the bizarre and grotesque (hello, "Dark Crystal!"), it seems fitting that this was his big-screen cinematic swansong. The movie is positively bewitching. [B+]

For The Completists: As you may know, Roeg made a few films in the mid-to-late 1980s, and several in the 1990s, which we haven't talked about here. This is because, principally, they're not very good, with even the greatest fans of the director struggling to defend them. The '80s entries, "Castaway" and "Track 29," are at least watchable, with the director's skills still firmly in evidence. The former is notable mainly for far more exposure to Oliver Reed's cock than anyone ever really wanted, while the latter, a collaboration with British TV great Dennis Potter, suffers from the miscasting of Christopher Lloyd, but does at least have a strong early performance from Gary Oldman.

The 1990s, however, was when the rot truly set in. A disappointing TV version of Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth" with Elizabeth Taylor closed out the 1980s, while poorly-regarded erotic thriller "Cold Heaven" followed "The Witches." After that, there was a version of "Heart of Darkness" with John Malkovich and Tim Roth, made for TV, an episode of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," more sub-"Basic Instinct" stuff in short "Hotel Paradise" and "Full Body Massage," forgotten oddity "Two Deaths" and a television version of "Samson & Delilah," one starring Liz Hurley as Delilah, which should be a key to the quality of the finished film.

Roeg finally returned to the big screen with 2008's "Puffball," and the wait was definitely not worth it -- a dreadful horror flick starring Kelly Reilly and Donald Sutherland, it was a pale reflection of past glories, and rightfully disappeared on its release.

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11 Comments

  • Ondra | June 27, 2011 1:32 AMReply

    Personally, I think Two death are pretty decent film, definitely not among Roeg's masterpieces, but worth mentioning more than "forgotten oddity"
    However, great article, thanks... don't you know anything about movie he is supposedly preparing "Night Train" with Sigourney Weraver ?

  • Mr. Arkadin | June 24, 2011 9:48 AMReply

    “Walkabout” (1971) [b][A+][/b]

    fixed

  • DL | June 24, 2011 2:19 AMReply

    As someone who worked on Puffball, I hate that it turned out this way. I think it was a promising film butchered by poor editing, score and SFX. Oh well, que sera...

  • jimmiescoffee | June 23, 2011 9:42 AMReply

    did you guys ranks 'Don’t Look Now' an A+ before TIME OUT list? seems like that flick is getting NEW recognition.

  • bugaloo | June 23, 2011 9:00 AMReply

    I agree it was pretty dreadful, but describing "Puffball" as a "horror flick" suggests the author didn't actually see it--it's got a supernatural aspect but is far from classifiable as horror, aiming more for whimsy than scares.

  • Catie T | June 23, 2011 8:04 AMReply

    Love Don't Look Now and anything with the amazing Theresa Russell in it! She was one of the most underrated actresses ever. Her performance in Bad Timing is sublime, and in Insignificance beyond brilliant. No one has captured Marilyn Monroe's essence and spirit better that Ms Russell. God love her! And, of course, the brilliant tortured amazing Mr Roeg!

  • DaveT | June 23, 2011 6:42 AMReply

    I kinda want to know more about the dodgy lost films, even the late 80s/90s ones...it'd save us having to watch them, at least. But nice article. Eureka definitely sounds worth a watch.

  • Nik Grape | June 23, 2011 6:13 AMReply

    I only remember watching "The Witches" when i was young and it scared the shit out of me.

    This is one director I have yet to explore. This article does good in peaking my interest even more. Great stuff.

  • hank | June 23, 2011 6:08 AMReply

    Brilliant director. Your being very kind with your description of "Castaway" as watchable, though.

  • rotch | June 23, 2011 5:07 AMReply

    Great, great write-up. Roeg is the film buff's most underrated filmaker par excellence.

  • TheoC | June 23, 2011 4:37 AMReply

    Brilliant.

    I had forgotten all about The Witches. Insignificance sounds brilliantly odd and anything that reminds me of 'symbols and signs' tends to give me a boner. Thanks

    Great feature, well done all involved.

    I'm a midget with a mask on.

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