Thoughts from the Ledge: David Warner – master chameleon


Welcome to my weekly series where I pay homage to those unsung heroes of the horror genre. This installment, I am going to discuss the master chameleon of fright, David Warner.

“I know that some actors take acting terribly seriously. I take it seriously in that if someone pays me to do it I know I have to deliver.” – David Warner

Master Chameleon

I have enjoyed David Warner’s work since I discovered him in the 80s. For whatever reason, I tend to gravitate toward British actors. Tom Jones (starring the always outstanding Albert Finney) featured Warner in his first major film role as Jones’ foil, Blifil.

Not one to run from a challenge, the 60s found him taking several interesting roles in classical theater productions such as The Sea Gull and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The 70s was his edgy decade. One of his best roles was in Sam Peckinpah’s incredibly disturbing film, Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman.

Another thing I enjoy about Warner is his penchant for starring in horror and science fiction films. He doesn’t shy away from them. As a matter of fact, he was considered for Doctor Who. That would have been a wonderful choice in my opinion.

To prove my point, I am going to discuss five of my favorite films of his in the horror genre. Some of the information on the flicks are from memory and some of the tidbits are from Wikipedia.

The Omen (1976)

Thoughts from the Ledge – The Omen – Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

This Richard Donner film is a classic among horror fans right up there with Rosemary’s Baby and the Exorcist. Not gory but downright creepy, the Omen received acclaim from critics and a box office return of 60 million plus which for the 70s was spectacular.

The storyline concerns American Ambassador Richard Thorne (screen legend Gregory Peck) and his wife (Lee Remick) whose only son, Damien turns out to be Satan. In a pivotal role, David Warner plays Jennings, a photographer who discovers that he can foretell how people are going to die by taking their picture near Damien.

Warner had this to say about his role, courtesy of Famous Fix. “I never saw the Omen as a horror movie. You don’t say no if you’re asked to work with Gregory Peck.” Let’s just say he is very adept at losing his head in scenes where his paranoia increases exponentially.

Nightwing (1979)

Thoughts from the Ledge – Nightwing – Courtesy of Polyc International BV

What if bats suddenly went crazy and started killing people? For some reason, this movie really bothered me back in the early 80s when I watched it. Why? Unfortunately, I have a thing about the little cuties with wings.

Being stuck in a room with no escape and one of these creatures flying around is not my idea of fun. When I saw Nightwing, I was terrified. I kept looking over my shoulder for months thinking that this tiny mammal was riddled with the bubonic plague and was out to suck my blood.

In this story with the same premise as my fear above, Warner portrays Philip Payne. Payne is the one that tips off the deputy, Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso) that vampire bats might be the cause of a rash of mysterious deaths on a Hopi reservation in New Mexico.

Directed by the Academy Award winning Arthur Hiller whose list of credits include Love Story, Nightwing allowed Warner to be the pivotal role in this effort by having his character help the hero solve the problem.

Time After Time (1979)

Thoughts from the Ledge – Time After Time – Courtesy of Orion Pictures, Warner Bros

1979 was a busy year for David Warner. However, this role in particular did quite a bit for cementing him in the minds of casting directors as a “baddie.” Although this is more science fiction than horror, his performance was so glorious that I felt it should be commended.

This film marked the directing debut of Nicholas Meyer. Meyer went on to become part of the hugely successful Star Trek franchise and the force behind the huge ABC television event, The Day After.

The premise behind this movie is what if H.G. Wells used his time machine to chase Jack the Ripper to the 20th century? Starring Malcolm McDowell (another horror chameleon) as Wells and Warner as John Leslie Stevenson (aka Jack the Ripper) we are treated to one hell of a screen match up.

Not only was this story a terrific work of time travel, it was also a touching romance between Wells and the character of Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen, who also became McDowell’s real-life wife). I just revisited this little slice of heaven recently and it still holds up which is a testament to the performances.

The Company of Wolves (1984)

Thoughts from the Ledge – The Company of Wolves – Courtesy of Incorporated Television Company (ITC), Palace Pictures

Irish director Neil Jordan is responsible for this lesser known but beautifully executed take on werewolves and the Little Red Riding Hood fable. How very interesting to have the Big Bad Wolf be a sexy fellow who awakens Red’s sexuality?

Warner is Rosaleen’s (Sarah Patterson) father. The movie takes place in the present but flashbacks to a fairy tale forest because Rosaleen is dreaming of being in the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Although he is not the centerpiece, he is integral to the plot.

This is exactly why I enjoy him. He doesn’t care how big or how small the role is for him. This is a refreshing outlook.

Waxwork (1988)

Thoughts from the Ledge – Waxwork – Courtesy of Vestron Pictures, Contemporary Films, HB Filmrullen

Anthony Hickox is an interesting talent. Toward the late 80s, he made his mark in horror with such films as Waxwork and Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat. For Waxwork, he teamed up with Gremlins cutie, Zach Galligan, scream queen, Deborah Foreman and pre-Twin Peaks sexy bad guy, Dana Ashbrook.

David Warner plays the creepy owner of a wax museum who has a penchant for murdering people inside his displays. Of course, Galligan figures out that some of the missing people in the town are actually the wax figures.

As with Hickox films, there is always a subtle dark humor to them. Warner excels at playing shadowy, lurking figures that wait in the background for the perfect moment to strike.

Underrated, Definitely!

After going through Warner’s film catalogue and revisiting some of his work, I can truly say that he is underrated. What a marvelous contributor to the horror genre.

Hopefully, we will get to see him in more frightening features in the near future. There are so many roles that he could play because he is truly a master chameleon!

Next: Thoughts from the Ledge: Ted Raimi – the genius clown prince of horror

Do you know David Warner? Do you have a favorite film? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below. We want to hear from you.