Horror Cinema’s Greatest Savants

In the world of horror cinema, the best way to fight a monster-be it a supernatural, human or natural one-is with a character that possesses special knowledge and skills.

These experts-recruited into battle by other characters or colliding with the conflict intentionally-are the Savants of the horror world.

Examples of Savant characters include David Warner’s bat expert Phillip Payne in Nightwing (1979), Zelda Rubinstein’s spiritual medium Tangina in Poltergeist (1982), Matthew McConaughey’s dragon slayer Denton Van Zan in Reign of Fire (2002), Lin Shaye’s paranormal investigator Elise Rainier in Insidious (2010) and Otto Jespersen’s monster killer Hans in Trollhunter (2010).

This article, divided into 3 sections based on what type of monstrous force is being fought, focuses on the greatest Savant characters the horror genre has to offer.

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Vs. The Supernatural

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Peter Cushing as Doctor Van Helsing in Horror of Dracula (1958) and The Brides of Dracula (1960):  In these two Hammer films directed by Terence Fisher, Cushing delivers the most iconic interpretation of supernatural horror cinema’s best known and most influential Savant.

Many talented actors have tackled Bram Stoker’s famous character with varying degrees of success:  Herbert Lom makes a valiant effort in Jesus Franco’s weak Count Dracula (1970), Frank Finlay gives an excellent performance in Philip Saville’s Count Dracula for BBC television (1977) and would’ve been a better choice for the part than his Othello co-star Laurence Olivier in John Badham’s Dracula (1979) and Anthony Hopkins gives a performance that’s as disappointingly unfocused as the film itself in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).

Cushing’s performance, aside from radiating an intelligence vital to the role, broke the ground for more physical portrayals of vampire-hunting characters such as Horst Janos in Brian Clemens’ Captain Kronos (1974), Wesley Snipes in the Blade series and Hugh Jackman in Stephen Sommers’ execrable Van Helsing (2004).

Cushing would play Van Helsing and Van Helsing-inspired characters in other films but it is his first two outings in the role that are the must-sees.

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Christopher Lee as Duc de Richleau in The Devil Rides Out (1968):  In an all too rare non-villain role, Lee is superb as a black magic expert trying to stop his friends from becoming the victims of a satanic cult and its charismatic leader well-played by Charles Gray.

Scripted by the legendary Richard Matheson from the novel by Dennis Wheatley and directed by Terence Fisher, the otherwise strong The Devil Rides Out is hampered by some weak late film special effects and a much too clean deus ex machina ending.

Rumors of a remake have circulated for many years and despite its obvious flaws, The Devil Rides Out is still a must-see for all fans of Christopher Lee and Hammer films.

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Roddy McDowall as Benjamin Franklin Fischer in The Legend of Hell House (1973):  Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House based on his own novel.

McDowall, at his intense and eccentric best, plays a psychic who is the sole survivor of an earlier attempt to confront the supernatural forces in the notorious Belasco mansion.  His character is enlisted to participate in a second visit to the mansion along with a team of scientific and supernatural investigators.

Initially reluctant to take part in the paranormal investigation, McDowall’s character springs into action as members of the team begin to fall victim to the lethal forces at work in house.

McDowall gives one of his finest performances in The Legend of Hell House and the actor went on to portray an even more hesitant Savant in Tom Holland’s original Fright Night (1985).

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Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin in The Exorcist (1973):  Director William Friedkin’s legendary adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel features wall-to-wall superb acting including Von Sydow’s famous portrayal of one of horror cinema’s great Savant characters.

As he had done a year earlier with a 48 year-old Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, makeup effects wizard Dick Smith aged the then 44 year-old Von Sydow by decades to play the frail but driven exorcist who goes head to head with the demonic forces possessing a young girl.

This performance remains one of the best of the veteran actor’s long and accomplished career.

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Chief Dan George as Old Man Hawk in Shadow of the Hawk (1976):  Native American magic is the focus of George McCowan’s little-seen supernatural gem that tells the tale of an aging Savant who draws his grandson into a battle with a powerful sorceress.

Never given a DVD release, the entertaining Shadow of the Hawk features a great scene wherein George’s character uses his supernatural skills to stop an oncoming car operated by inhuman enemies.

George, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) and a member of the Clint Eastwood character’s adopted family of sorts in Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), gives one of the finest performances of his brief acting career in this film.

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Michael Ansara as John Singing Rock in The Manitou (1978):  As in Shadow of the Hawk, Native American magic takes center stage in co-screenwriter/ director William Girdler’s adaptation of Graham Masterton’s novel.

Veteran character actor Ansara brings gravitas and charisma to the film as he shines in his role as a medicine man who finds himself in a battle with a feared and powerful sorcerer who is about to be physically reborn into the modern world.

Like Girdler’s other two great films-Grizzly (1976) and Day of the Animals (1977)the Manitou succeeds in being extremely entertaining despite the presence of ridiculous elements, in this case Tony Curtis’ lead acting performance and Ansara’s wig.

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Lam Ching Ying as Master Gau in Mr. Vampire (1985):  Though the popular horror-comedy film series stumbled in sequels, Ricky Lau’s first Mr. Vampire film stands out as one of the great Hong Kong genre films of the 1980s.

A big reason for this is the performance of Lam Ching Ying as a master of both the martial and supernatural arts who teams with a pair of his students to combat uniquely Chinese hopping vampires.

Mr. Vampire contains some great action sequences anchored by Ying and his very impressive physical skills including the execution of an amazing flying body scissors move during one of the   fight scenes.

Ying reprised his role in the lesser follow-up films in this series and played variations of this character in other films before his death in 1997 at the age of 44.

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Wu Ma as Yin Chek Hsia in A Chinese Ghost Story (1987):  Another memorable Savant emerged from the Hong Kong new wave of genre cinema in director Ching Siu-Tung’s classic A Chinese Ghost Story.

Wu Ma turns in one of the best performances of his career as a warrior with magical skills who befriends a young tax collector in love with a ghost and ends up confronting a powerful demon in some of the greatest supernatural action scenes of all time.

Wu Ma reprised his role in Siu-Tung’s disappointing A Chinese Ghost Story Part 2 (1990).

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Ray Wise as Jack Taggart Sr. in Jeepers Creepers II (2003):  After his son is taken away in front of his eyes by a murderous supernatural being at the beginning of the film, Wise’s character starts building weapons for his eventual pursuit of the creature.

The film climaxes with a memorable showdown between Wise’s character and the creature, with the lives of a group of stranded high school students hanging in the balance.

Wise’s intense performance as a neophyte Savant on a quest for revenge is one of the actor’s best and remains the finest part of this very uneven film from controversial screenwriter/director Victor Salva.

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Ryuhei Matsuda as Kyoichi Kagenuma in Nightmare Detective (2006):  Certainly the most unstable of the great Savants, Matsuda’s character has the ability to enter people’s dreams and finds himself in a battle with a killer played by screenwriter/director Shinya Tsukamoto.

Matsuda’s character’s special gifts give him unsettling insight into the inner workings of the human mind and he attempts suicide at one point in the film.

Though he recovers and puts himself on a collision course with the murderer, this is a Savant whose abilities continue to weigh heavily on him.

Matsuda returned in this role for Tsukamoto’s little-seen sequel Nightmare Detective 2 (2008).

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Nick Damici as Mister in Stake Land (2010):  As a rugged and deadly post-apocalyptic Van Helsing with many kills under his belt, co-screenwriter Damici delivers a superb performance in co-screenwriter/director Jim Mickle’s excellent vampire film.

Though the film is marred by a piece of miscasting that does not provide Damici’s character and his surrogate family of survivors with the truly charismatic villain they deserve, Damici creates a truly great horror cinema Savant.

 

Vs. Man

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Donald Pleasance as Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween (1978):  Pleasance turns in a famous performance full of his trademark twitchy intensity as a doctor hunting down his homicidal ex-patient in screenwriter/director John Carpenter’s milestone Halloween.

Though the role was originally offered to Christopher Lee, who turned it down, Pleasance proved to be the perfect casting choice for a first-time Savant bound for a lethal confrontation with a seemingly unstoppable human monster.

Pleasance returned for several lesser Halloween sequels in which he gives his all but isn’t provided with the material to live up to his original portrayal.

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William Petersen as Will Graham in Manhunter (1986):  Leaving later interpretations of author Thomas Harris’ character by Edward Norton and Hugh Dancy in the dust, Petersen turns in an unforgettable performance as a driven FBI agent with a special talent who specializes in psychopathic serial murderers.

Petersen captures the intensity and sensitivity of the character beautifully and although it was a  box office miss in its day, screenwriter/director Michael Mann’s Manhunter is a great film that eventually won a strong critical following and Petersen’s Best Actor Oscar nomination-worthy performance is the best of his career.

After the very successful novel and 1991 film version of The Silence of the Lambs, author Harris stuck with the far less interesting Clarice Starling character and dropped the ball with his novel Hannibal.  Naturally, the resulting movie adaptation also disappoints.

Instead of Hannibal’s focus on Starling, wouldn’t it have been far more interesting to recruit Will Graham to come out of retirement to hunt Hannibal Lecter?  That would’ve made for a far better novel and just imagine William Petersen returning as Will Graham for the film version to go head to head with Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter.

 

Vs. Nature

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Michael Murphy as James Lesko & Nigel Davenport as Dr. Ernest Hubbs in Phase IV (1974):  Here we have a pair of Savants combating a super-intelligent colony of ants in the Arizona desert.  Davenport’s character is more temperamental while Murphy’s character stays relatively cool under the steadily mounting pressure.

The two brilliant scientists do everything in their power to repel the colony’s clever attacks and stop the threat from spreading to more populated areas as the situation grows more desperate by the hour.

Good casting always raises the level of genre films (actually all films for that matter) and Murphy and Davenport’s performances certainly raise the quality of Saul Bass’ superb Revolt of Nature horror film.

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Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws (1975):  Shaw turns in a legendary, Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination-worthy performance as an experienced shark hunter in a role that director Steven Spielberg originally intended for Sterling Hayden.

Shaw’s obsessive Quint turns Jaws’ shark hunt into a Captain Ahab-style quest and is justifiably the most famous and influential of the Man vs. Nature Savants.

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Richard Jaeckel as Arthur Scott in Grizzly (1976):  Veteran character actor Jaeckel imbues his bear expert character with quirky mannerisms instead of the macho swagger usually found in Man vs. Nature Savants.

In one of the film’s great scenes, Jaeckel’s character tries to draw the lethal bear of the film’s title out into the open by tying a mutilated deer carcass to his horse and moving through the site of one of the bear’s recent kills.

A perfect example of what three talented veteran actors can bring to a film, Jaeckel joins Christopher George and Andrew Prine to form one of the most interesting monster-hunting trios in horror cinema history in this sometimes goofy but always very entertaining variation on Jaws.

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Richard Lynch as Hawk in Alligator II: The Mutation (1991):  Lynch shines in a rare non-villain role as an elite alligator hunter in director Jon Hess’ otherwise dreadful sequel to Lewis Teague’s beloved Alligator (1980).

 Lynch’s performance deserves to be in a better film and is far superior to Henry Silva’s disappointing alligator hunting Savant in the original.

Lynch’s work in this film-albeit a bad one-confirms the late actor had a lot more to bring to the table than his career-long typecasting based on his unique physical appearance would suggest.

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-Terek Puckett

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