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 b