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The Essentials: The Films Of Nicolas Roeg

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist June 23, 2011 at 4:06AM

You might say it’s a good month to be a fan of British cult filmmaker Nicolas Roeg. Just last week the Criterion Collection released the director’s 1985 oddball picture, “Insignificance,” and this week, his landmark science-fiction film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” starring David Bowie is being given a limited U.S. theatrical re-release to mark its 35th anniversary.

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.

Gabe Toro, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Sam Price, Sam Chater

This article is related to: Vintage Directors, Feature, The Essentials, Nicolas Roeg

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