Primer: Nicolas Roeg
Four essential rentals from one of the '70s most acclaimed filmmakers
Few directors had a better run in the ’70s than Nicolas Roeg, whose eclectic sensibility led to such varied and artistically daring fare as Performance, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and Bad Timing. Roeg’s 1971 feature, Walkabout—which plays Friday through Sunday at UWM Union Theatre— deals incisively with the culture clash between young Australians and Aborigines in the Outback. Walkabout will probably make you curious about other Roeg films, so here are some suggestions to check out.
The Masque Of The Red Death (1964)
Perhaps the most acclaimed entry in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe cycle, 1964’s The Masque Of The Red Death boasts gorgeous widescreen photography by Roeg, who would use a similar color scheme for his 1973 horror film Don’t Look Now. Vincent Price stars as a Satanist who invites dozens of local aristocrats into his castle in an effort to protect them from the oncoming plague. In the midst of a masked ball charged with depravity, Price notices a hooded stranger dressed entirely in red and believes him to be his master in human form. When Price discovers the man’s true identity, he’s shocked and horrified.
Roeg scored a coup with his directorial debut Performance by landing Mick Jagger to play one of the two leads. Jagger’s appearance launched Performance to cult status at a time when people didn’t much care what a midnight movie was about, so long as it blew their minds. And Roeg—working with co-director Donald Cammell—certainly did his damnedest to add to the great pop freakout of the Swinging London era: He experimented wildly with editing and camera moves while telling a boldly metaphorical story about a mobbed-up thug (played by James Fox) and the rock icon (Jagger) who gives him refuge and teaches him how to turn on.
The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
Among the flood of images in Roeg's hallucinatory 1976 science-fiction parable The Man Who Fell To Earth, one sums up the whole project. Thumbing through a coffee-table art book, failing high-school physics teacher Rip Torn settles on a reproduction of Pieter Bruegel's Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus. The painting depicts the mythical flyboy's plunge into the sea, but following Ovid, it does so from a distance; its foreground is consumed by the mundane workings of everyday life and those who barely notice the descent, if they notice it at all. In The Man Who Fell To Earth, an adaptation of The Hustler author Walter Tevis' novel, David Bowie plays Icarus' spiritual heir, an alien who comes to Earth looking for water and finds a way to drown.
The Witches (1990)
Roald Dahl is a tough author for filmmakers to adapt: Though his books are ostensibly for children, their dark undercurrents make it hard to hide the thorniness. Roeg dared to share the Dahl spirit in the 1990 horror-comedy The Witches, which stars Anjelica Huston as the head of a witches’ society whose annual convention is inadvertently crashed by a plucky orphan. Huston turns the kid into a mouse. The mouse then proves hard to shake, working behind the scenes to overcome the witches’ nefarious plans. Roeg doesn’t shy away from the gruesomeness of mouse life (or kid life), which may explain why The Witches was beloved by critics but rejected by wider audiences.