THE SAXON CHRONICLES
Prolific actor John Saxon passed away on July 25, 2020, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, USA. He was 83 and had been suffering from pneumonia. Most newspapers and trade websites acknowledged his death with reference to his co-starring role in “Enter the Dragon” with Bruce Lee. If it wasn’t that, it was a reference to his role as Heather Langenkamp’s cop father in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series. But Saxon wasn’t your typical actor or “B” movie star. He appeared in around 200 roles on the big and small screen and had a career that spanned more than half a century.
He was born Carmine Orrico in Brooklyn, New York in 1936. After joining a talent agency, and changing his name, he started to get bit-parts in films like “It Should Happen to You” (1954) and George Cukor's “A Star Is Born” (1954). It was an early career that featured several Westerns such as “The Unforgiven” (1960) and “Posse from Hell” (1961). After that, he moved onto parts in practically EVERY popular US crime and Western TV series of the 60s and 70s (“Starsky and Hutch”, “Petrocelli”, “Gunsmoke”, “Bonanza”, etc., etc.). Sci-Fi series also got a look in, with Saxon popping up in “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Time Tunnel”. But it was a career that also contained a wonderful mixture of horror projects, some classic, some exploitation, some good, some bad, all worth watching if only for the presence of the actor himself. He worked with directors like Wes Craven, Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and others. He only ever directed one movie himself… and guess what genre that belonged to?
So here is a brief appreciation of John Saxon’s horror movies (with a couple of minor diversions), to thank the man for the exceptional entertainment he has provided genre fans with over the years. It’s not just an obituary; it’s a history of how genre films have changed over the last 50 years or so.
RIP John Saxon. Legend.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
(Directed by Mario Bava, 1963) – Plays Dr Marcello Bassi
An early encounter with Giallo (but not his last), this Hitchcockian thriller is considered a seminal version of this film-type, and maybe even the first one. It was called “The Evil Eye” in the US, which played up the horror (and comedy) aspects. It takes place in Rome as Nora Davis (Leticia Roman) visits her ailing aunt, who is being treated by Bassi (Saxon). When she apparently witnesses a murder, the body disappears (of course it does), and the police do the classic “eye-roll” to her requests. So, Nora investigates the “Alphabet Killer”, putting her own life at risk. However, she is ably supported by Saxon’s hunky doctor, who becomes the romantic interest and one of many suspects. It’s not one of Bava’s best, and time has aged some of the better sequences, but it’s still a classic of the time. Saxon is deployed mainly as International market fodder and accepted the role as he was shooting a drama in Italy at the time. Rumour has it that the translators had downplayed the genre elements of the plot to him though. Expect the usual twisty-turny plot shenanigans, and appreciate this form being one of the trailblazers for Giallo.
The Night Caller
(Directed by John Gilling, 1965) – Plays Dr Jack Costain
Perhaps better known by stateside and genre fans as “Blood Beast from Outer Space”, or variants of that, this daft “B” movie is atypical of the time. It’s one of the aliens-steal-our-women sub-genres that were inexplicably popular at the time. It was Saxon’s first sci-fi and is a British production that means the black-&-white production has the same old-fashioned stiff-upper feel as “Quatermass” or “Dr Who” at the time. Gilling would go on to direct the Hammer classics “The Plague of Zombies” and “The “Reptile”, so you can probably get an idea of the tone. Saxon is the square-jawed hero and lead scientist who discovers a novelty lamp… err… space meteorite that summons a claw-handed alien called Thorburn. After an atmospheric first half, it gets really silly as Thorburn stalks pretty young women and uses an advert in a pervy magazine to attract them. All for breeding on Ganymede don’t you know? Entertaining B-movie stuff and Saxon says his lines with an amazingly straight face.
Queen of Blood
(Directed by Curtis Harrington, 1966) – Plays Allan Brenner
Also known as “Planet of Blood”, this film is another quickie sci-fi horror from the stables of Samuel Z. Arkoff. While it’s quite cult-ish and well-known for its cast (also including Basil Rathbone, Dennis Hopper, and Judi Meredith), it is also exceedingly cheap and steals the special effects (and plot) from some Russian sci-fi movies. The faux -Star Trek plot has earth scientists First Contact with alien life in the futuristic year of 1990 (!) The clumsy ET’s crash on Mars and need humanity’s help, so square-jawed space captain Brenner (Saxon) and his crew investigate. Of course, the main alien turns out to be a vampiric green-skinned woman, with bloody designs on Earthlings. It’s fun for what it is, and Saxon is a good lead, but to say the demise of the alien is anti-climactic is an understatement of the highest order.
Enter the Dragon
(Directed by Robert Clouse, 1973) – Plays Roper
Okay, so it’s not really horror. But it is bloody (Hans slashing prosthetic hand) and very violent (every other scene). It’s also one of Saxon’s most iconic roles as he plays opposite the legendary Bruce Lee. While Saxon wasn’t anywhere near as fluid with Martial Arts as Lee, neither was he faking it. He was a black belt in Judo and Shotokan Karate and studied under a genuine grandmaster for three years. Having said that, he found the exertion needed for an action film like this probably wasn’t for him, and he never led in any further Martial Arts films. The film itself went on to become one of the most profitable films of all time and proved to a Western audience that genuine Martial Arts could be show-stopping entertainment. The plot itself is pure “Bond”, as Lee’s undercover agent crashes a fighting tournament held on a private island by criminal Han (Shih Kien) to find evidence of foul play. Saxon’s Roper is a US gambler looking to make a fast buck but falls in with the good guys and has a surprisingly good tussle with perennial heavy Bolo Yeung. Massively entertaining, it also introduced the Western world to Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung.
(Directed by Bob Clark, 1974) – Plays Lt. Ken Fuller
This is where Saxon’s horror legacy really begins. This seminal film is often seen as the first of the great “Slasher” films in the 70s and influenced many of the upcoming genre filmmakers. Sometimes called “Silent Night, Evil Night”, the movie is cunningly directed by Clark, riffing on existing urban legends (“The call is coming from inside the house!”), and a skin-crawling villain, who is never really revealed in any detail. There is a suggestion that Clark may have approached Saxon for his role as the police Lieutenant due to his appearance in the “first-ever Giallo” (“The Girl Who Knew Too Much”). But by this time, Saxon has established a persona on TV and movies, as a rocksteady and honest cop who makes it his business to get the bad guys. This suits the character perfectly here, as he provides a shoulder for Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey) to cry on, as well as a sleuth trying to sift through the bodies and red herrings. The basic plot has a nutter terrorising a girl’s sorority with phone class and murder. The great ambiguous ending is really dark as well. Ignore both of the remakes. Please.
(Directed by Alfredo Zacarías, 1978) – Plays John Norman
Every genre actor has to do a killer animal flick at some point in their career. A Roger Corman production, this movie’s release was allegedly delayed due to a payoff by Warners Pictures, concerned that it might harm the opening of their killer-bee film, “The Swarm”. That stinker died a quick death. However, this Mexican horror is a little less ambitious and (only slightly) more entertaining. After experiments, genetically manipulated killer South American bees find their way to the states. They mutate and get super-intelligent, and yes… it mostly boils down to over-acting extras and cast members flailing around madly and falling out of windows as the bees attack. Saxon is the heroic scientist trying to find a way to stop them. But the film gets an extra point for a truly bonkers climax where the bees storm the UN headquarters in search of a peace treaty. “You have to listen to what the bees are saying!”. Also contains an OTT John Carradine, and probably Saxon’s finest line delivered impeccably. As a niece blows a kiss to her Uncle: “That's adding incest to injury...”
(Directed by Herb Freed, 1980) – Plays Larry Andrews
Every genre actor has to do a demonic possession film at some point in their career. Saxon plays the solid, dependable lead again, as the architect husband who suspects that his wife has become possessed by an evil spirit who dwells in a colonial mansion in the Philippines. Spoiler alert = Yup. He’s right. Lynda Day George is the supernaturally harassed wife, who becomes subject to the murderous whims of the female ghost called Alma. Under her control, she pushes most of the male cast off something tall. What’s more, and brilliantly so, the possession culminates in some “fricking” laser-beam shooting from her eyeballs, as the ghost attempts to pew-pew everybody in sight. It’s very much a “guilty pleasure”, and the fact that Troma picked it up for distribution should tell you everything you need to know. Director Freed got on well enough with George to have her in his next picture, the cult “Graduation Day”.
(Directed by Antonio Margheriti, 1980) – Plays Norman Hopper
A change of pace for Saxon here, as he goes from hero to bad guy. Well, unfortunate anti-hero at any rate. One of the films harassed by the UK video nasty trials, the film also goes by the other brilliant titles, “Cannibals on the Streets” and “Invasion of the Flesh Hunters”. But despite those titles, it’s quite a grim and gritty gore-fest, with Saxon giving a much better performance than needed with some real pathos. Rather than being a jungle-native flesh chomping extravaganza, the film falls into Vietnam-Vets-as-timebombs category. Saxon is Norman Hopper, a highly regarded vet that was bitten by a POW during the war.
Unbeknownst to himself, or his army buddies, they have contracted a virus that has lain dormant for some time in their systems but starts to manifest in an irresistible craving for human flesh. Years later, Hopper and his chums can no longer resist the urge to bite, and their bite now passes on the same disease. What sticks out here is Saxons’ performance. The disease doesn’t cause a loss in intelligence or undeath, just munchies for the flesh, and his character is tormented by the urge being a good guy at heart. Even so, some gruesome sequences got it banned in the UK, including death-by-angle-grinder and the famous shotgun-wound-through-the-stomach. Nasty, but also surprisingly different to what you might expect.
Battle Beyond the Stars
(Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami, Roger Corman, 1980) – Plays Sador
Again, this sci-fi offering from Corman isn’t exactly horror, but it earns its place here. After all, Saxon plays a genocidal villain, who extends his own life by having the limbs of his enemies grafted to his body! Otherwise, this is basically “The Magnificent Seven” in Space, cashing in on the “Star Wars” rip-offs of the time. As it’s an outer-space cowboy flick, you might have expected Saxon to take one of the heroic roles. But he has great fun as the rampaging warlord, who kills without remorse or empathy. Richard Thomas is the space farmer Shad, who gathers the “Seven” mercenaries to protect his planet. That group includes George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, and the statuesque Sybil Danning, and following the usual plotline, a number of them bite the dust before Sador is destroyed. It’s good wholesome fun, and there’s a great bit where his own arm actions an assassination attempt on Sador. (It sort-of makes sense in the film). It also looks good with a larger budget than Corman was usually prepared to spend out on, and he ripped off the footage for his future films. It even provided an important stepping stone into Hollywood greatness for composer James Horner and director James Cameron.
(Directed by Jeffrey Bloom, 1980) – Plays Capt. Pearson
You’ve got to love this daffy exploitation horror if only for its basic concept and shameless promotion. Riffing on the popularity of Jaws, and even stealing the strapline from “Jaws 2”! “Just when it’s safe to go back in the water… you can’t get across the beach!”. Despite the daftness of the monster and concept, it’s a hugely enjoyable piece of hokum, which genuinely scares with some of its execution. Something unseen in the sand? Grabbing you and pulling you under the surface to be consumed? *shudder*. And that is the plot in a nutshell. People on Santa Monica beach are either disappearing or being murdered by someone who leaves “bits” behind. Despite the suspicions about a serial killer, it turns out to be a unique creature that drags victims to its lair under the local pier. Saxon doesn’t play the lead here and is in dependable copper mode, which helps to cover over Burt Young’s annoying cop character. But he adds a professional sheen to what could otherwise by a groanworthy monster flick. There are some nice bad-taste moments (a would-be sex-attacker loses something valuable to him as he crawls across the beach!). The monster itself is barely glimpsed and looks like a cross between a lugworm and a Venus flytrap when it does appear. The concept would go on to be used in films like “Tremors”, and the recent underrated teen-horror “The Sand” (which incidentally works as a prequel to this film rather than a remake).
The Scorpion with Two Tails
(Directed by Sergio Martino, 1982) – Plays Arthur Barnard
Another Giallo that comes from that morbid fascination that Italian horror has with Etruscan stuff. This will invariably result in zombie shenanigans or sacrificial serial killers. Sometimes known as “Murder in the Etruscan Cemetery”, this one features Saxon as an archaeologist who’s studying the titular area. As it happens, his wife Joan (Elvire Audray) seems to have some strange psychic connection with the place and dreams of sacrifices that happened there. When someone close to her suffers an identical fate to a dream, she starts to freak out. Without spoiling things too much, Saxon isn’t around for much of the movie but does have a great exit scene. And it’s unusual to see him stumble around reading Latin (or whatever) phrases. Full marks for including the line “Do you really think 2000-year-old zombies are going around killing people?”. It also throws in drug smuggling and a whole lot of other nonsense before the denouement. It sometimes sits uneasily between Euro Crime and supernatural thrillers, but there is some evocative imagery.
(Directed by Dario Argento, 1982) – Plays Bullmer
Another excursion into Giallo territory again for Saxon. But this time it’s arguably one of the best versions and directed by one of the biggest names. The lead, in this case, is Anthony Franciosa, who plays an author of violent novels (Peter Neal) on a promotional tour in Italy. When (very) bloody murders start to occur that seem to be inspired by his literature, he becomes alternatively suspected and protected by the police. Of course, it’s all very twisty-turny and relies on a double-bluff to surprise the viewer at the end. Saxon isn’t in it for much of the running time, but he makes an impact as Neal’s duplicitous agent, running around Italy in pork pie hat. Otherwise, most genre fans know of the exemplary cinematography and stylish gore scenes, and the reputation of this benchmark-of-a-slasher. So bloody and intense, that some countries still have it a banned list to this day.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
(Directed by Wes Craven, 1984) – Plays Lt. Thompson
Well, you can’t say much more about this entry. A film that has been dissected and analysed to within an inch of its life. It is, of course, the go-to film that most trade publications and newspapers used to identify John Saxon. You know the sort of thing: John “Nightmare on Elm Street” Saxon. You only need to look at comments on YouTube and social media to see Saxon still referred to as “Nancy’s Dad” by casual viewers. So, we won’t go into too many details. Suffice to say that this masterly introduction of the spirt of child killer Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a demonic force that kills teenagers in their dreams is a genre classic. Saxon’s role is that of another dependable police authority figure, Lt. Donald "Don" Thompson. He inhabits that role so well that is difficult thinking of somebody else playing him. He’s also refreshingly imperfect. With an over-protective attitude towards his daughter Nancy (the ever-wonderful Heather Langenkamp), he ignores the evidence for Freddy’s existence. He puts up iron bars around his home to protect her… but only makes things worse. It’s a great film to remember him by, even amongst all his other genre work.
Langenkamp probably summarised things better when she left this Memoriam to him on her Twitter account: “In 3 Nightmare films John Saxon played the tough guy, the distant father and the hardnosed cop but I came to know him as the kindest, most encouraging and dignified gentleman, father and husband to Gloria. That shooting star you see tonight is him.” Englund also posted the following message: “My charming co-star in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, DREAM WARRIORS and WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE. John was my link to Hollywood’s Golden Age. Sharing stories of working with Jimmy Stewart, Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood Audrey Hepburn, Robert Redford & Bruce Lee.”
Hands of Steel
(Directed by Sergio Martino, 1986) – Plays Francis Turner
Every genre actor has to do a “Mad Max”/ “Terminator” rip-off at some point in their career. Also known as “Vendetta dal future” (“Vengeance of the future”), the movie has some tragic significance for Saxon but is otherwise a typical sci-fi knockoff from the director of “The Scorpion with Two Tails”. In the plot, Saxon is an evil industrialist (is there any other kind?) that sends a cyborg (Daniel Greene as Paco Queruak) to assassinate a pesky do-gooding scientist. Of course, Paco eventually rebels against his orders and becomes a force for good. Bonus marks for including the nonsensical line: “When I get through with you… you gonna have to wipe your ass with your nose!” Paco saves the day by arm-wrestling (!) which seems unfair in the circumstance and has an extremely weird fighting style. Nevertheless, Saxon has great fun as the pantomime villain, and any film that ends with him going mental with a pew-pew laser cannon can’t be all bad. Saxon also had a narrow miss in the filming. Being a staunch supporter of the American Screen Actors Guild rules, he refused to act in any scenes shot in America as this was not a union film, so all his scenes were in Italy. He credited that action with saving his life, as he would have been on the helicopter that crashed and claimed the life of his co-star Claudio Cassinelli. He remained loyal to the union following this production for obvious reasons.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Directed by Chuck Russell, 1987) – Plays Lt. Thompson
Lt Dan Thompson returns, and it’s the first time that Saxon played the same genre role twice. At the end of “Nightmare 1”, Nancy Thompson’s fate was ambiguous and “Freddy’s Revenge” only mentions her in passing. But this imaginative third entry in the franchise makes the canny decision to return both Nancy and her dad to Elm Street to finish things off (yeah, right!). Both characters are well-used here. Nancy has gone on to be a therapist and enables the Elm Street kids to exhibit powers in the dreamscape to fight Freddy. Saxon is at his best in a cameo, where the stoic cop has become a barfly and can’t grasp what happened to his family. But it turns out that he’s the key to stopping the villain, as he knows where his mortal remains are stored. It all culminates in a nifty (if unconvincing) battle between Don and Freddy’s stop-motion skeleton. Top dialogue from Saxon: “I’ve already killed you once you son-of-a-bitch!” Great fun, and one of the best entries in the franchise.
(Directed by John Saxon! 1988) – Plays Colonel Gordon Burgess
Not to be confused with the recent 2017 “Death House”, which has an absolute smorgasbord of horror icons in it. This is the only film that Saxon directed (and its horror!). According to the actor, the opportunity arose when the original director of this low-budget film withdrew from the project at the last minute. He was given a chance to star and direct, and he took the studio up on it. Apparently, it wasn’t a happy experience for him though. The producers kept asking for more car chases and gore than screenplay held, and he didn’t get very much control over it. Nevertheless, he shot it in 23 days and in some territories, it was released as “Zombie Death House”. He reunites with his “Tenebrae” partner Anthony Franciosa and plays a barmy army colonel who uses prisoners as experiments for a medication to make “perfect warriors”. But it’s hardly on the level of “Captain America”. So, what starts as a prison movie, becomes a low-budget zombie one. To be fair, there are one or two sequences that are quite tense and well-filmed. But it’s probably for completists.
My Mom’s a Werewolf
(Directed by Michael Fischa, 1989) – Plays Harry Thropen
Deadpan and decidedly daft. “Mom” is a mostly unfunny parody on werewolf films at the time, and a cash-in on the success of “Teen Wolf” and “My Stepmother is an Alien”. Female lead Susan Blakely is game enough to wear oversize canines and furry leggings in search of humour. To be honest, Saxon is easily the best thing in the film. The smooth owner of a pet-store Harry Thropen (as in Lycanthrope presumably), who is given to snacking on his mice, he’s almost like Jerry Dandridge from “Fright Night”, as he pursues Blakely as a bride. “You can be my Were-Bride… Where would we live? A Were-House?!” That gives you an idea of the level of humour. Not great, but Saxon is still effortlessly watchable.
(Directed by James Justice, Umberto Lenzi, 1989) – Plays Strycher
Also known as “Welcome to Spring Break”, this is a typical 80’s slasher from the maker of “Nightmare City” and “Cannibal Ferox”. Anyway, back on the beach again for Saxon, and guess what. He’s a cop again! Less wholesome this time though and has a bee in his bonnet about the pesky kids and motorbike gangs ruining his neighbourhood. He even covers up a murder that has been performed by a mysterious “biker” figure, who starts to tear through the teenage cast with some brutal deaths. The worst one being a girl that is roasted in front of an industrial furnace, with ano