Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Heath Holland On...The Horror of Johnny Depp

by Heath Holland
He’s been giving audiences the creeps for years.

Like a lot of other A-list actors (Jennifer Aniston, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio), Johnny Depp got his first real break in a horror film. Unlike his contemporaries, who rarely look back at the genre that was their entrance to stardom, Depp returns to horror at least every few years – I count a dozen appearances in scary films — with mostly successful results and only a handful of misfires (I’m looking at you, Dark Shadows). Here are a few of Depp’s horror and scary movie appearances that I think work the best.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

It’s a sad fact that most of the horror movies in which young actors get started in aren’t very good. They’re usually low-budget films that cast unknowns, have laughable plots and are best viewed as silly fun. It’s kind of a crazy fluke that Johnny Depp’s very first film is one of the greatest horror flicks to come out of the 1980s, so I couldn’t leave it out of this list. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is an insanely entertaining (and still very scary) movie that was a cultural landmark of horror. Depp plays Glen Lantz, the heroine Nancy Thompson’s boyfriend. There’s not a lot of heavy lifting as far as the acting goes, and that’s probably for the best. He doesn’t have much of a screen presence and probably could have been anyone, but it’s cool to watch the film knowing what we know now. Plus, he does get a great death scene and the bragging rights of being the third ever victim of Freddy Krueger. It’s also cool that he pops back up for a few seconds in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.

Secret Window

This 2004 movie is based on a Stephen King novella called “Secret Window, Secret Garden” from the book Four Past Midnight. The plot centers around a novelist named Mort Rainey (Depp) who faces accusations from a creepy southerner named John Shooter (John Turturro) that Rainey stole Shooter’s story and passed it off as his own work. There’s some cat-and-mouse action and some truly uncomfortable and cringe-inducing scenes that take place at Mort Rainey’s cabin out in the woods. It doesn’t all click, but enough of it does to make it worth seeing. Turturro is believable and doesn’t push his role into parody, while Depp plays his character as a guy struggling to balance ego with inadequacy.
Stephen King tales don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to translation to the silver screen: for every good film adaptation of a King story, there are at least two bad ones. Thanks to the work of writer/director David Koepp, who had previously contributed to the screenplays for Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, the underrated The Shadow, and Mission Impossible, the adaptation of Secret Window fares better than most of King’s writings, though there are some big differences between the prose story and the screenplay. There’s also a new ending, which I don’t really think works. Then again, I don’t think the ending of King’s short story would have worked in this movie, either. I tend to have a lot of third-act problems with the majority of the Stephen King’s work, but I usually find that the first two acts are so good that they balance out my problems with the final act. That’s how I feel about Secret Window.

From Hell

This 2001 Victorian horror film is directed by The Hughes Brothers and finds Depp playing a psychic inspector investigating Jack the Ripper’s murders in 1888 London. It’s based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore; this is the same Alan Moore who wrote Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V for Vendetta, not to mention one of the top three Batman stories, The Killing Joke. His writings are ripe for adaptation, yet the film versions almost never come close to touching his source material. That’s true of From Hell, as well, though it’s certainly one of the better films based on his work.
Heather Graham is miscast as Mary Kelly, a prostitute and potential victim of The Ripper, but she makes the most of it. Faring better are actors Ian Holm and Robbie Coltrane, who bring some class and gravity to the proceedings with their classical background. I think Depp does a really great job with what he’s given here, and convincingly portrays a man who is haunted by the visions that make him such a valuable commodity for the Ripper murder investigations. The killings are appropriately gory and the tone is bleak, making From Hell a memorable and disturbingly dramatic horror film that works pretty well.

The Ninth Gate

It can be really hard to separate an actor or director’s work from their private lives. The things they say and do in real life probably shouldn’t change the way I feel about the art they create, but I’d be lying if I said that it never did. I’m pretty sure my personal opinion of director Roman Polanski hasn’t quite overshadowed his work on the film The Ninth Gate. Depp plays a rare book dealer who finds himself on the trail of a tome that supposedly has the power to call forth the devil. I’d be on board with this movie even if it were just about an antique book dealer’s black market dealings to obtain rare volumes, but the added punch of the supernatural and the weird spiral of darkness, sex, and danger that plague Depp’s character only make the film that much more interesting. The location filming in countries Portugal, France, and Spain sweeten the deal even further.

Like a lot of horror movies, The Ninth Gate doesn’t quite pay off on everything it promises, but I think that’s okay. After all, this kind of movie was a staple of the 1970s, but has fallen out of favor in the last few decades. It’s good to see someone TRY to make a movie in that style, even if it’s not a director I love and the film doesn’t end in total success.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I have a ton of affection for this story, which has been around in some form since 1846 and has been filmed at least four times. The Stephen Sondheim play from 1979 is amaze-balls, and even it was adapted from an earlier play. What I’m saying is, Sweeney Todd has been around for a really, really long time, which makes it even more impressive to me that Tim Burton pulled off his cinematic version as well as he did and made perhaps the most lasting and accessible version of the story to date. Not everyone will have a chance to see the play or the silent version, but Burton’s take will be around for a long time.
Despite being against conventional casting for the role, Helena Bonham Carter totally works for me as Mrs. Lovett, and Depp is kind of awesome as the demon barber bent on vengeance. Making things even better is Alan Effing Rickman as Judge Turpin, the slimy, corrupted authority figure that has custody of Todd’s daughter. Even Ed Sanders, the 14-year-old boy who played the ragamuffin Tobias Ragg, is exceptional. I even have to give a special shout out to Sacha Baron Cohen for showing up as an actor and giving it his best effort instead of being a massive tool. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is obviously not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it’s a great horror story that stems from human weakness and tragedy (as the best horror does) and gives us characters with whom we can sympathize.

Sleepy Hollow

The legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of my all-time favorite scary stories, which is why it’s come up in my Scary Movie Month contributions a couple of times this year. I loved the Washington Irving story when I read it in junior high, I loved the Disney version as seen in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and I loved Tim Burton’s film version when it hit theaters in 1999. I recognize that it’s a very flawed film; I’m not sure I agree with the casting of the leads, the broader beats in Depp’s performance, OR some of the details that screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker added to the story to give characters like The Headless Horseman motivation. As we say often around here, we don’t necessarily want to know how the sausage is made.

But you know what? I still love it. When I recently wrote about Hammer Horror, I cited Burton’s Sleepy Hollow as the closest thing to a Hammer movie we’ll ever see that wasn’t actually made by Hammer, and it’s true. The movie is dripping with Hammer influence: the sets and locations are incredible, and the presence of Hammer actors Christopher Lee and Michael Gough appearing much older and more grizzled than they ever did in their Hammer heyday lend the film that distinct Hammer quality. After being packed away for years and years in mothballs, Hammer started making movies again in 2008, but the only film that’s carried on the tone of their classic work is The Woman in Black. In my opinion, Hammer should focus on what they always did best: making movies in the same vein as Sleepy Hollow, leaving the modern horror to everyone else.
For the most part, I like Depp’s performance in this film as the effeminate and cowardly Ichabod Crane. I appreciate that he’s playing a character completely unlike himself and that he’s going out on a limb and making a clear choice. However, I do wonder if this wasn’t an early example of the actor doing that thing that he would come to do almost exclusively for the next fifteen years. All of the other films from this list show Depp giving a performance based in reality. Some of the characters have accents, but they’re real people. Ichabod Crane, on the other hand, is a cartoon character. In 1999 this was the exception rather than the rule, but now when I look back, I cringe a little, not because Depp isn’t doing a good job, but because it’s a well that has been returned to so many times over the passing years.

Well, there you have it! Those are what I consider to be Johnny Depp’s best scary movie roles. Did I leave any out, or are there any of his movies that you think I omitted unfairly? Do they rhyme with Fark Madows? Let me know in the comments section!


  1. Don't really think you left anything out, but maybe Edward Scissorhands deserves an honorable mention since it's pretty much a remake of Frankenstein.

    1. It sure does. You know who's in Edward Scissorhands? VINCENT MUTHAFUCKIN' PRICE. Great call, Charles.

    2. You know who else is in it? ANGRY MUTHAFUCKIN TOWNSFOLK!

  2. Great work Heath. I'm with you about Sleepy Hollow. Thought it is flawed I love the atmosphere. The way the movie feels which you perfectly descibed as close to being like a Hammer film. Its a great mood film

    The only film you did not mention which he is very scary in is Willy Wonka. He is freaky in all the wrong ways in that film. Creeped me the F out

  3. I'm really glad you mentioned Sweeney Todd because I personally really like that movie and people always forget to talk about that one since Tim Burton has just been making piles of shit in the late half of his career. I think it's the only burton reimagining that actually works and benefits from his style of filmmaking and it's one of the few musicals I can stand to watch.

    1. To me, "Sweeney Todd" is one of Burton's best movies. The marriage between this story and his visual style is just about perfect. I love, love, love the final gory shot. It's beautiful in a macabre way, which is what I think Burton is always going for but rarely accomplishing (at least these days).

  4. I was going to say Edward Scissorhands too.

    It is fun that Depp's A Nightmare on Elm Street doesn't really offer a glimpse of the star he is to become, though like you say, it's cool knowing what we know now. As for the others - I haven't seen them so can't really comment other than to say you've made me more interested to watch these than I've ever been, so great article in that regard!

  5. I loved this and last week's column. That point about Sleepy Hollow being a Hammer film fresh after I re-watched it. I love so many elements of it. I really do wish there was more old school gothic fun with actors like Miranda Richardson and Micheal Gambon!