I don't think it's any secret by now that I am a horror fanatic. Some of my earliest experiences with film in general, and certainly the most memorable, have involved being scared out of my wits. The standout title of my cinephile history has to be 'Halloween'; its viewing on that titular holiday a family tradition. Of course, I am not alone in my adoration. How could you not love 'Halloween'? It has earned every iota of its classic status and continues to scare audiences over 30 years later. No small amount of the film's greatness is Dr. Sam Loomis; played to perfection by the late, great Donald Pleasence.
Donald Pleasence creates the ultimate foible for Michael Myers in John Carpenter's seminal horror opus. Where Michael is a stoic, silent wraith of concentrated evil, Loomis is a wild, desperate fanatic who no less mirrors Michael's focus. In many ways, Loomis is Michael's voice; his unheeded omens crafting the legend of Michael Meyers in the audience's mind before we even see his second kill. Loomis' hollow, almost wounded voice allows for every line that falls from his lips to sound as theatrical and spooky as a campfire story. Michael may be the boogeyman, but Loomis is the man who ensures his admittance into your nightmares. But as much as I love Donald Pleasence in Halloween, it saddens me to think there are those who remember him solely for that role.
Donald Pleasence's career is brimming with phenomenal performances both universally regarded and criminally unappreciated. In honor of this fallen icon, I've compiled a list of my favorite Pleasence roles. The one thread that appears to unite all of them is also a trademark of his career as a whole: madness.
In 1967, after a long wait fraught with elusive camera angles and mysterious, disembodied voices, James Bond fans were finally formally introduced to Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Though he had been the mastermind behind virtually all of James Bond's trials since the inception of the film series, we had not had the privilege of seeing his scarred visage until 'You Only Live Twice'. This means that Donald Pleasence became the first actor to be effectively associated with the character. His diminutive size and soft, but still formidable voice created a standard for megalomania so iconic that it would later be appreciated by a whole new generation when it became the blueprint for Austin Powers' nemesis Dr. Evil. His reserve and his calculated scheming are remarkable as we begin to believe this madman's plot to steal spacecraft from the sky and start a nuclear war is not outside the realm of possibility. As an enormous fan of the James Bond franchise, I find it absolutely impossible to imagine anyone but Donald Pleasence when I think of Blofeld.
Making his presence felt in the horror world was an occupation Pleasence mastered before John Carpenter made him a genre legend. Of his sundry performances in British horror films, one of my favorites has to be his turn in 'Raw Meat'. Although not among my favorite horror films as a whole, I would watch this film ad nauseam if only for the unhinged performance of Pleasence. He plays a police officer who is so idiosyncratic that his mental condition should very well be called into question. I think my favorite moment of off-the-wall weirdness from this mad detective is when he expresses his proclivities toward the preparation of tea as a grisly, far more pressing, murder is being recounted to him. Priceless!
If you have the patience to actually sit through 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', and this is no small accomplishment, keep your eyes peeled for another fantastically mad performance from Donald Pleasence. I find myself in the strange minority that actually finds this film entertaining despite itself, and no small part of that ironic appreciation is the insane record company executive he plays. To a rousing, uncomfortably seductive chorus of The Beatles' "I Want You," Pleasence writhes around like a man possessed and is delightfully creepy. Here the madness of Pleasence is part and parcel with the overarching metaphor about the evils of the music industry, but that makes his over-the-top lunacy no less impressive; bad hairpiece notwithstanding.
Of course I would be remiss to not briefly mention his further Carpenter collaborations: 'Halloween II', 'Escape from New York', and'Prince of Darkness'. In the latter two, his talents lent themselves well to already stellar ensemble casts. I do like his put-upon, captive president in 'Escape from New York' who then becomes a raving maniac when given the opportunity for vengeance. In 'Halloween II,' his return was so much more than a simple reprise of his Dr. Loomis role, but what should have been a powerful finale to both his and Michael's stories sadly was not. One thing is for certain, if not for his continual returns, parts 4, 5, and 6 would have been completely unwatchable. (Note he gets crazier in each sequel.)
The perfect punctuation on this, admittedly abridged, dissection of Pleasence's career is his role in Jack Shoulder's 'Alone in the Dark'. Here again he plays the administrator of a mental asylum. But this time he is given the very daunting task of keeping four of the world's most notorious serial killers in line as they coexist under one roof. My favorite part of his performance is how, in a complete 180 from his Halloween performance, he has the utmost faith that these men can be rehabilitated. He makes a habit of putting his life in jeopardy to speak plainly with them as equals; as if they weren't mad. The opening dream sequence of the film shows a more intense side of Pleasence than I believe I have ever seen and is another demonstration of his remarkable range.
It never fails anymore that when I go to see a horror film in theaters, a majority of the cast is populated with 30-somethings playing 20-somethings who aren't worth their salt as actors of any age. It would appear Jigsaw is currently horror's only connection to the more elderly talent pool. How I wish we could have Donald back, if but for a year, to add a hue of classical madness to the otherwise dull proceedings. Knowing Pleasence's tireless work ethic, that one year would most likely yield at least six monumental performances. But failing that, I will have to simply be content with imagining his pained, frantic voice shrieking "I shot him six times!" each and every time someone in a horror film is on the receiving end of a bullet.
Donald, we miss you and your madness. But we will always heed your ghastly warnings and be wary of anyone wearing the oh-so-popular William Shatner mask on Halloween night.