Published on April 2nd, 2014 | by Rob0
In Appreciation of Brad Dourif
Is Brad Dourif the most underappreciated actor of his generation? While most movie fans will recognise him from any number of character roles, Dourif hasn’t received anything like the kind of widespread acclaim his body of work so richly deserves. He has one of the most distinctive appearances in Hollywood, but not everybody knows his name, much less acknowledges the full depth and range of his talent.
With his angular, bony face, alarmingly high cheek bones and eyes so intense and piercing they appear to be staring 50 yards into the great beyond, it’s inevitable that Dourif would get typecast playing creepy outsiders and the mentally disturbed. And he is great in that kind of role. But as his four decade career amply demonstrates, Dourif can pretty much handle any role that gets thrown his way. What makes him such a brilliant actor is his perennial ability to bring something a little bit different to a role, an off key note or two that makes him fascinating to watch. Even when he appears in a relatively minor, B-level movie, Dourif’s performance always seems to stand out as something memorable, transcending the limitations of the material. And as a supporting actor, he has an uncanny habit of upstaging more prominently billed stars. Dourif might not have anything like the name recognition of should-be peers such as Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson, but there’s no doubt that he was born to act. As the man says himself:
“Being a character actor is a very insecure life. You don’t always get to do what you want. I guess the reason I’ve held on is because I love it.”
It’s time to give a little appreciation to Brad Dourif, treading his own path in Hollywood while shunning the trappings of fame like the class act he is.
This article selects ten movies from Dourif’s career for review. That doesn’t even really begin to scratch the surface of his extensive filmography, but it should give some indication of the range of Dourif’s roles, and the kind of things he is capable of. Two separate ratings are provided for each film: one for the quality of the movie itself, and one for the level of Dourificness – how much Dourif’s idiosyncratic style contributes of value to the movie.
BRAD DOURIF: SELECTED FILMOGRAPHY
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Billy Bibbit (1975)
Milos Forman’s adaption of the celebrated Ken Kesey novel is a firmly established crowd pleaser. The movie tones down some of the more disturbing and hallucinatory aspects of the novel, deemphasizing Kesey’s pointed commentary on a mechanistic state apparatus breaking down individual will. In focusing the narrative around R.P. McMurphy, rather than telling the story through the eyes of the mentally ill Chief Bromden, Cuckoo’s Nest is reduced to a simple fable about a charismatic rogue who inspires a group of cowed mental patients to rediscover their zest for life. Nonetheless, the movie succeeds on the level of emotionally involving entertainment, remaining popular with succeeding generations even where other (arguably superior) examples of seventies American cinema have fallen by the wayside. Much of the film’s continued success can be attributed to the superb cast. Jack Nicholson radiates insouciant charisma as R.P. McMurphy, in what has become one of his defining roles. Louise Fletcher is one of the most immediately dislikable characters in movie history as the manipulative and coldly sexless Nurse Ratched. And the cast of mental patients (including early roles for the likes of Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd) are all played with affectionate comic wit. No insight into the grim, hopeless reality of genuine mental illness is provided here. Rather, the mental patients are just downtrodden half-men in dire need of some spirited, rebellious horseplay to revitalise their lives. It’s a breezily manipulative cinematic confection, but undeniably enjoyable nonetheless.
Movie Rating: 8/10
The timid, sexually naive Billy Bibbit is Brad Dourif’s first role of real note, and it’s a brilliant performance. In the scene where Nurse Ratched callously grills Bibbit about a pathetic misadventure with a girl of his affections, Dourif’s stammers, awkward refusals to make eye contact and watery glances convey both humour and pathos. It’s upon the sensitivity of Dourif’s performance that the story’s tragic denouement largely depends, and he carries it off with aplomb. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is generally considered to be a Jack Nicholson vehicle, but Dourif more than holds his own in this supporting role.
Wise Blood – Hazel Motes (1979)
Adapted from the scathingly satirical Flannery O’Conner novel of the same name, Wise Blood is a bleak, depressing examination of faith and hucksterism in the gothic heartland of the American South. It’s also quite possibly the most obscure and eccentric movie of director John Huston’s celebrated career. The story focuses on Hazel Motes (played by Dourif in one of his rare leading roles) a man in fevered rebellion against the fire and brimstone upbringing of his childhood. Frequently mistaken for a religious minister because his hat, Motes is actually a sort of anti-preacher, spreading a gospel of irreligion through his “Church of Christ Without Christ – where the blind can’t see, the lame don’t walk, and the dead stay that way.” The irony being that Motes’ atheism is pursued with the same ferocious zeal and bloody single mindedness of a fundamentalist fanatic. We follow Motes through a series of rambling encounters in Macon, Georgia, a place which – if it’s really anything like it appears in this movie – must be one of the most soul-crushing towns in America. Motes is alternately drawn to and repulsed by the succession of lunatics, nymphomaniacs and shysters he encounters, finding validation for his wild-eyed religious repudiation under every façade. That is, until his sin and desperation lead him to a kind of religious awakening of his own. He might well find his redemption, but it’s a fate ghastly to behold. Wise Blood is not a movie that goes out of its way to endear itself to the viewer. None of the characters are remotely likable or sympathetic, and its worldview is bleak to the point of nihilism. It’s all maddeningly confounding, but it’s not a viewing experience that is easily dislodged from the mind.
Movie Rating: 8/10
Wise Blood is a rare case of a movie where it’s nearly impossible to imagine any other actor in the lead role. Dourif already looks like he has one foot in the beyond, and that glint of madness in his eyes is perfectly suited to the role of a rabid preacher (or anti-preacher as the case may be). But there’s a line in Flannery O’Conner’s novel that already sums up Dourif’s performance better than anybody else ever could. “Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”
Dune – Piter De Vries (1984)
Attempting to boil down Frank Herbert’s labyrinthine novel into a 137 minute movie was never likely to turn out well. The cult science fiction classic explores such wide ranging themes as planetary ecology, feudal political intrigue and the phenomenon of messiah-cults, conveyed through an epic, sprawling plot encompassing the fall of an intergalactic empire some 20,000 years in the future. It’s a work of imaginative fiction on a comparable scale and complexity to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Even a drastically watered down version of Dune would require a four hour running time to do it a modicum of justice. Universal Pictures never really understood what they had, and hoped the adaption would be an action packed space opera in a similar vein to Star Wars. But David Lynch, never a likely choice to direct a mega-budget blockbuster, refused to conform to the studio’s demands and set about crafting his own uniquely disturbing take on the subject material. Unfortunately, Lynch never did quite manage to get a workable script together throughout the movie’s difficult shoot. Unsurprisingly, then, Dune was plagued with issues of narrative cohesion right from the beginning. The movie as delivered was widely derided as an incomprehensible mess, and Lynch publically disowned it. At the time of release, it was the most expensive movie ever made, and it bombed into oblivion at the box office. And yet, it’s a movie that’s impossible to entirely dismiss. In fact, it may very well be one of the most interesting “failures” in movie history. The level of craft and imagination that went into the set and costume design is quite staggering. Visually at least, this is a science fiction movie to rival Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey. All too often, the movie flirts dangerously with campy farce. Yet there are also scenes as haunting and imaginative as any in Lynch’s oeuvre. In particular, the director derives great relish from his depiction of the villainous Harkonnens, who fairly seethe with dark and disturbing malice. Dune is too fundamentally flawed to ever be declared a genuine classic, but it’s worth checking out for its visual flair and some memorably over-the-top performances.
Movie Rating: 7/10
Brad Dourif steals every single scene in Dune that he appears in. It’s a shame that he plays such a relatively minor character, because when he’s on the screen it’s impossible to look away. As the twisted mentat Piter De Vries (a profession that combines the functions of strategic adviser and master of assassins) Dourif couldn’t possibly get any further away from Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In Lynch’s adaption, De Vries is depicted as a sadistic sociopath, on a level way beyond Herbert’s original characterisation. Dourif brings a venomous intensity to the role, and an oddly clipped style of speech that conveys a state of fanatic derangement (“It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion..”) Dourif would become increasingly typecast after this role, repeatedly cast as a psychopath in films of varying quality, despite being capable of so much more. Still, he does make for a really great psychopath.
Blue Velvet – Raymond (1986)
Arguably David Lynch’s most accomplished film; Blue Velvet is a hypnotic, perturbing and blacker than black journey into some of more harrowing recesses of the human soul. As the introductory sequence depicts, panning down from a portrait of antiseptic suburbia to reveal a swarming nest of insects just below the surface of the earth, Blue Velvet is all about exploring the sinister undercurrent of ugliness and corruption that hide behind every facade. Make no mistake about it, Blue Velvet is one of the more disturbing films ever committed to celluloid. It’s not an especially violent or gruesome film, but rather probes at the surface of taboo while exploring characters in a state of extreme psychological distress. It’s also wildly comic in a vein that’s not far removed from the demented cackle heard in the more freakish corners of a fun house carnival. Dennis Hopper portrays a genuinely scary movie villain here, the psychotic, drug addled pervert, Frank Booth. This is one guy you’d most definitely never want to encounter in real life. Kyle MacLachlan is effective as the callow youth with a yen for risk, finding himself caught up in a world that goes way above his head, and Isabella Rossellini spares nothing in her portrayal of a woman who is tormented and emotionally bruised beyond all reason. There’s plenty of Lynch’s trademark weirdness on offer, but it’s wrapped up into a more accessible and conventional narrative than in some of his more obscure work. And there are scenes that rival Hitchcock in their power to build up a state of nervous suspense in the viewer. In Blue Velvet, Lynch has crafted a daring and unpredictable ride that is impossible to look away from, no matter how harrowing the experience.
Movie Rating: 9/10
It’s very much a minor role for Dourif here, playing one of Frank Booth’s lackies, the mentally unhinged japester, Raymond. Dourif appears to have been cast mostly for his ability to look weird and disturbing while standing in the background, as he’s given very few lines to speak. Still, weird and disturbing is very much Lynch’s stock and trade, and Dourif fits as naturally into the director’s warped and fantastical world as any character actor ever has. Dourif aficionados will wish that more abundant use had been made of the great man’s talents in Blue Velvet, but the movie is unmissable regardless.
Child’s Play – Chucky (1988)
Chucky the killer doll has become a minor horror icon, situated somewhere behind Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees in the slasher pic hall of infamy. After umpteen sequels in which the killer doll has increasingly been played for laughs (Bride of Chucky, Look Who’s Stalking etc) it’s relatively easy to forget that the original Child’s Play played it relatively straight. And hey, it’s actually not a bad slasher pic, featuring reasonable production values and decent performances, at least going by the typical standards of the genre. How scary you’ll find it very much depends on how sinister you think children’s dolls are. My guess is not very. I mean, it’s just a goddamn doll, right? How much damage can it really do? I quite fancy my chances against Chucky in a straight up street fight. There’s not much in Child’s Play that deviates far from the standard slasher pic playbook. There’s plenty of false alarms. Y’know, a character hears a strange noise somewhere in the apartment, but after a nervous buildup of tension, discovers nothing is there. What a relief! Cue the psychopath / monster / killer doll coming out of nowhere and attacking them with an axe. It’s nothing you haven’t seen a thousand times before, but it works well enough when it’s executed with any degree of competency. Most of the best moments in Child’s Play come from the blackly comic possibilities of a psychotic doll spouting obscenities and brutally murdering people. Case in point, a woman realises that maybe something is up with this doll when she discovers it’s been functioning without batteries. So she brandishes it in the air and threatens to throw it in the fire if it doesn’t start talking. Cue Chucky coming to life and snarling “You stupid bitch! You filthy slut! I’ll teach you to fuck with me!” before savagely biting her on the arm. You can hardly expect a horror masterpiece from this sort of material, but Child’s Play is an agreeable enough bit of nonsense and at just 87 minutes of running time, it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Movie Rating: 6/10
In many respects, this period represented something of a low point in Dourif’s career. The quality work just wasn’t coming in, and Dourif found himself increasingly relying on B-movies to pick up a pay cheque. Graveyard Shift and Critters 4 were not quite fitting vehicles for a guy who won a Golden Globe for best acting debut in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Nonetheless, Dourif does his best to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear in such lightweight fare. As the voice of Chucky, Dourif nails the balance between horror and comedy exactly right, and naturally, he’s given all the juiciest lines. He also makes an in the flesh appearance in the opening of the film as the serial killer Charles Lee Ray, who has his soul transferred into a children’s doll to create Chucky.
Mississippi Burning – Deputy Clinton Pell (1988)
Hailed upon release as a powerful adult drama, Mississippi Burning has since been taken to task for its cavalier attitude towards the “facts”. I can’t help but feel that this is largely a case of nitpicking over minor irrelevancies, however. Yes, like any movie that is supposedly based on a true story, Mississippi Burning manipulates actual events to create heightened drama. It would be more accurate to describe Mississippi Burning as a fictional story, albeit one with a basis in a recent and deplorable history that many people would still prefer to ignore. Beyond anything else, it’s a well-made and engrossing movie featuring solid performances from a talented cast. It works best as dramatic fiction; perhaps less convincingly as a document of the civil rights movement. The story is based around the murder of three civil rights workers by racist cops in hicksville, Mississippi, and the subsequent FBI investigation into the affair. Willem Defoe is excellent as the idealistic young FBI investigator. He plays a character so self-seriously pious he approaches fanaticism. Even better than Defoe is the superb Gene Hackman – one of Hollywood’s greatest actors in my book – as the more cynical and savvy counterpoint to Defoe’s idealism. Hackman, a master at expressing subtle nuance in his performances, brings self-deprecating wit and streetwise wisdom to his role. The conflicting approaches of the two men – with Defoe unleashing an army of G-Men on the hostile town, and Hackman preferring a clandestine investigation which ultimately turns the racist cops’ own brutality against them – drives much of the story. Surprisingly for a movie that draws from the civil rights movement, none of the black characters are given developed roles, instead portrayed as little more than abject victims. This is not necessarily inaccurate. Many black people of the period, offered no protection by racist authorities, were simply powerless to act against prejudice, with the merest hint of retaliation punished with the direst consequences. Mississippi Burning can make for uncomfortable viewing at times, as the brutal racism of the period setting is depicted in a series of graphically upsetting sequences. Ultimately, the sixties civil rights campaign was driven by a popular, grass roots movement, and not by the FBI, which you might be forgiven for believing if you had no access to historical sources outside of this movie. But Mississippi Burning functions well enough as both cinematic drama and an angry condemnation of racism to overcome its shortcomings as a historical document.
Movie Rating: 8/10
Thankfully, Mississippi Burning gives Dourif a significant, dramatic role to play amid a period characterised all too much by B movie hack work. Dourif delivers a strong and convincing performance as the racist deputy, Clinton Pell. He conveys the plain, pig headed stupidity endemic to bigotry, but also the piteous streak of self-hatred that underlies it. In a very real sense, he’s a violent racist not out of any particular ideology, but because that’s what’s expected of him. It makes him “one of the boys”.
The Exorcist III – The Gemini Killer (1990)
Better than any horror movie with a number after its title has any right to be. After the execrable campiness of The Exorcist II, you’d be forgiven for wanting to give The Exorcist III a miss. But in this instance, it’d be a mistake. For fans of “serious” horror films, as opposed to generic teen slasher affairs, The Exorcist III is close to a must see. Which isn’t to say that it’s an unqualified classic. It’s a bit too convoluted and incoherent for its own good. But it does dare to take its subject matter seriously, and features one or two moments of pure inspiration that hold up well with the scariest moments in any horror movie ever made. As Stephen King points out in his informal study of horror fiction, Danse Macabre, you have to put up with a lot of dreck in horror movies to get to the nuggets of pure terror, but when you do stumble upon those nuggets, they wield a kind of power that is rarely matched by other genres. The hospital hallway scene from The Exorcist III is precisely one of those moments. Those who’ve already seen the movie will know exactly what I’m talking about. William Peter Blatty, the author of the original Exorcist novel, is in the director’s chair this time around. Wisely, Blatty chucks everything that happened during The Exorcist II out the window and goes off in a fresh direction, based largely on a script from his novel Legion. Blatty’s dialogue has a tendency to get rather ponderous, but his direction is stylish and suitably ominous. George C. Scott plays the lead role as Lieutenant Kinderman, replacing Lee J. Cobb, who passed away after the original Exorcist. A natural ham, Scott tends to chew the scenery more than is strictly necessary. But the biggest problem with The Exorcist III is that the studio insisted on an exorcism being tacked onto the conclusion, against Blatty’s wishes. This really doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, since the movie is only tangentially linked to the events of the original Exorcist. Perhaps the story would’ve been better served by being made into a stand-alone film. Nonetheless, The Exorcist III remains a serious and effective horror. So many horror movies fail to deliver genuine chills, but this one is the real deal.
Movie Rating: 7/10
Dourif goes into all out serial killer mode here. The scenes where a straitjacketed Dourif faces off against George C Scott in a battle of psychological wills are mesmerising and disturbing. For my money, they are more interesting than the similar exchanges between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins is allowed to play up the charm of his character to the extent that he comes off more like a friendly uncle than a serial killer. But there’s never any doubt about Dourif’s total malevolence. His description of what he enjoys doing to severed heads is particularly unnerving. Unfortunately, the movie tosses in a couple of gimmicks that detract somewhat from Dourif’s performance. An unnecessary sepulchral effect is sometimes applied to his voice, I guess in an effort to make him sound more “demonic”. And then there’s the constant shifting between Dourif’s face and that of Father Karras – the priest from the first Exorcist film. Apparently, this was done at the studio’s insistence, in order to emphasise the links to the original movie. It doesn’t really add anything to the story other than to make it more confusing than it already is.
Alien: Resurrection – Dr. Jonathon Gediman (1997)
There’s really no getting away from it: Alien: Resurrection is an uninspired hack job that takes a giant dump on a once great movie franchise. Even the widely derided Alien 3 – which admittedly didn’t work all that well – at least tried to take the series in an intriguing new direction. The fourth Alien film has no such redeeming features. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of the surreal fables Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, was given the director’s chair for the fourth Alien outing. Why anybody thought Jeunet would be a good choice remains a mystery. There’s nothing in his back catalogue to suggest that he’s suited to directing a tense science fiction thriller. Unsurprisingly, then, the fourth Alien movie is neither tense nor thrilling. The extent of Jeunet’s crime against the Alien franchise is twofold. Firstly, there is the general feel of malaise and creative bankruptcy that permeates the entire affair. There is literally no sense of suspense, excitement, horror or mystery built into the movie at any point. Secondly, Jeunet plays the Alien for low comedy, completely destroying the mystique of Ridley Scott’s original, terrifying killer. I guess there’s a time when all the iconic horror monsters outlive their infamy and get pimped out for cheap laughs. Abbot and Costello met Count Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein. Well, now they get to meet the Alien. For some reason, Winona Ryder turns up in Alien: Resurrection, looking completely out of place in a silly and inept subplot. Ryder tends to get a lot of flak for her supposed lack of acting chops. I’d like to defend her (I mean, she was pretty good in Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence) but in this she is quite simply horrible. But the final insult is reserved for the last act, in which H.R. Giger’s brilliant Alien design is reduced to… well, Giger himself describes it best: “I created the Alien to be something beautiful, but now it looks like shit. It is now something that looks literally like a turd.”
Movie Rating: 4/10
Leave it to Dourif to come up with one of the few salvageable moments in the movie. The role of Dr. Jonathon Gediman – an archetypal horror movie mad scientist type – is Dourif in all out scenery chewing mode. His twisted, deranged love for the Alien abomination he is spawning provides one of the few good, creepy moments of entertainment in Alien: Resurrection. It’s not quite enough to justify sitting through the rest of this stinker, but it does ease the pain somewhat.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – Grima Wormtongue (2002)
The middle part of Peter Jackson’s cinematic interpretation of Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy is the most awkward and disjointed of the series. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, it just doesn’t flow as coherently or satisfyingly as The Fellowship of the Ring or The Return of the King. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the film that feels the need to fiddle around the most with Tolkien’s narrative, in a fashion that can come off as irritating and unnecessary to fans of the novel. Through several repeat viewings, I’ve arrived at something of a love / hate relationship with Jackson’s movie versions of The Lord of the Rings. On the one hand, they are elaborate and exciting action adventure epics of a kind we rarely see made these days, and the mind boggling attention to detail expended on the production design inspires awe. When Jackson gets it right, Tolkien’s material really soars on screen. On the other hand, Jackson’s insistence on deflating dark and frightening scenes with moments of broad humour threatens to derail any suspension of disbelief. And he gets some of the characters completely wrong. The Elves, for example, come off as an exercise in high camp. Not at all like the noble, doomed, otherworldly beings that Tolkien conceived of. Jackson has taken the populist route of de-emphasising everything that is alien about Tolkien’s world in favour of standardised Hollywood cliché. The atmosphere of elegy that permeates Tolkien’s epic work of tragic high fantasy is largely lost amid the amped up action set pieces. I do enjoy the spectacular battle scenes in Jackson’s films. I just wish he’d also taken care to capture some of the more subtle aspects of Tolkien’s work. Still, all problems aside, these movies make for stirring viewing.
Movie Rating: 8/10
Dourif is one of the casting decisions that Jackson got right. I can’t think of another actor who is more suitable to play Grima Wormtongue. Dourif’s portrayal comes off as rather more gothic than the Grima of the books; more sinister and less slimy, all hoarse whispering in darkened chambers before the knife is plunged into an unguarded back. Dourif also appears briefly in the extended edition of The Return of the King, in scenes that were cut for the theatrical release.
Deadwood – Doc Cochran (2004 – 2006)
Along with The Sopranos and The Wire, Deadwood was one of the forerunners in television’s current trend towards sophisticated, adult drama. Showrunner and chief writer, David Milich, used the real life setting and characters of the frontier town of Deadwood to craft an elaborate western mythos, exploring the idea that civilisation is inevitably built upon a foundation of corruption and violence. Slow burning story lines and nuanced character development immediately set Deadwood apart from other television series of the time, as does Milich’s richly textured dialogue, combining ceaseless profanity with Shakespearean lyricism to create an idiom all of its own. A cast of some thirty odd major characters are introduced over the course of Deadwood’s three season run, establishing a fully realised fictional community. The most charismatic of them all is the Saloon and Brothel owner, Al Swearengen, who has his fingers on the strings of all the nefarious operations in the lawless town. Played with sardonic malevolence by British actor Ian McShane, Swearengen is by turns conniving, ruthless, and wickedly funny. Deadwood is a grimy, gritty and occasionally bloody affair. It’s hilarious and grotesque and has some of the best written dialogue you’ll ever hear. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite popular enough to sustain its considerable production costs and was cancelled prematurely, a fact still much lamented by fans of the show today. The story threads left dangling frustratingly at the end of Season 3 do detract from the experience somewhat, but this is still essential television.
TV Series Rating: 10/10
In many respects, this represents Brad Dourif’s ultimate role. He performs at the peak of his powers, portraying a beautifully written character, on one of the best TV shows of the last decade. In a town that is filled with reprobates, outlaws and villainy of every description, Doc Cochran is one of the few characters to possess any sort of moral compass. He’s ultimately a decent man, but a tormented one. He’s traumatised by his experiences in the Civil War, and alludes to a vaguely sinister past involving grave robbery and medical experimentation. The Doc is perpetually world weary, disgusted with the amorality of his surroundings and niggled by the affairs of the world. He’s also one of the few characters who has the courage to speak his mind openly to Al Swearengen. An especially affecting scene is when a drunken Doc falls to his knees in supplication over the ravages of Reverend Smith’s impending insanity, deploring a God who would allow such suffering to take place. It’s a scene worthy of Dostoevsky. Brad Dourif as Doc Cochran… acting simply doesn’t get any better than this.