Pleasence Watch 2018 - A Pleasence Beginning
Britain has produced its fair share of classic leading men over the years, both in mainstream or genre fare. Just as Hollywood had its Humphrey Bogarts and Cary Grants, the British Isles had Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Peter Cushing and so on - the list is long and varied. Many of those chaps made the leap across the pond to leading man status in the good ol' US of A, while others would crop up in parts big and small in Hollywood franchises like Star Wars while saving their leading roles for home grown films or European B Movies.
Donald Pleasence is sort of the forgotten gent of genre stars. Hardly, if ever, a traditional leading man, he is that rare beast amongst Brit actors of his era - a steadily working, unpretentious character actor with enough familiar, high profile roles under his belt that he is slightly more of a household name than say a Freddie Jones or even a Peter Vaughn type.
Pleasence started his acting career professionally after the second world war had ended. He had been a prisoner of war at the infamous Stalag Luft 1 during that conflict.
Interesting sidebar: while many of the cast had served in the armed forces during various wars, Pleasence was one of only two cast members of the film The Great Escape to have been a POW. The other, Hannes Messemer was imprisoned in Russia and actually escaped his prison by walking hundreds of miles to the German border.
When the war first broke out, forever a pacifist, Donald Pleasence refused conscription as a conscientious objector, but, after London was attacked in 1940, he joined the Royal Air Force. He served as an aircraft wireless-operator with No. 166 Squadron in Bomber Command. He flew almost sixty raids over occupied Europe before being shot down in August, 1944.
Why is all this World War II stuff important?! I hear you cry. Well it was at Stalag Luft 1, believe it or not, that Pleasence started to produce and act in plays.
I can't remember when I became such a fan of Donald Pleasence. Halloween had always been my favourite of the big three slasher franchises and it was somewhere around watching those films endlessly in my late 20s that I realised what makes that franchise rewatchable and holds them together with any kind of "continuity" is the balmly, histrionic yet strangely comforting and definitely compelling performance of Donald Pleasence as Dr. Sam Loomis. As much as Peter Cushing is the ultimate Van Helsing to Christopher Lee's Dracula, Pleasence brought his own unique madness to the tortured yet stalwart Loomis, redefining the Van Helsing like hero for a contemporary story of good versus evil.
Go back and watch Halloween 1, 2, 4, 5 & 6 sometime, but just for Pleasence - it's really quite wonderful: There's an unstoppable killing machine, who is pure evil personified, out to get teenagers in a small Illinois town and the only hero we, as an audience, can really get behind is a rapidly aging and, possibly quite mad, psychiatrist. He has no physical prowess to speak of, no great plan and he is as scared and despairing of Michael Myers as anyone, if not more so, because he knows who Michael is. Try as he might to round up the local police or even vigilante groups of hillbillies, he knows, deep in his troubled heart, that when the shit comes down it's him versus Michael. That's my kind of hero. Give me an old British guy in a long coat with paragraph after paragraph of mad gibberish to spout about the nature of evil and I am as happy as pig in poop.
The other thing that warms my heart is that, at some point, in the history of the franchise, producer Moustapha Akkad must've said "if we're bringing back Michael for part 4 we are bringing back Donald Pleasence."
The reason for this is that, as we all now know, Halloween II was meant to be the end of the whole Michael Myers thing and following films were meant to be different tales of horror set, each year, on Halloween. Hence Halloween III: Season of the Witch. When that did not make the requisite, Akkad required, buckeroos, the plan was to bring back Michael. Bringing back Michael is easy enough as he's not clearly defined as human but bringing back Loomis, that's not exactly a given - hence the above sentence must've been said at some point.
Then a nervous writer and/or intern probably pointed out in a slightly shaky voice "but... didn't he... erm... blow himself up at the end of 2?"
I like to think Moustapha defiantly responded "I want Pleasence, the fans want Pleasence. Give him a scar on his hand and face or something. Must I think of everything?!" Then after a proud and determined pause he said "It's true there's no Halloween with out Michael, yes, but there is DEFINITELY no Halloween without Pleasence!"
The funny thing, of course, is had Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee's agent seen the potential in the film, Donald - the always willing third fiddle - would never have been cast. As it was, an iconic and quintessentially Pleasence hero was born.
So if, like most, it was the Halloween franchise that really brought the good Donald onto my radar it was probably his, completely different but no less compelling, performance as Inspector Calhoun in Death Line AKA Raw Meat that cemented my fascination with him as an actor. Yes I had, of course, seen his hammy yet creepy, menacing and quintessential Blofeld in You Only live Twice, as well as THX-1138, Escape from New York, Prince of Darkness, Shadows and Fog and even his small part in Look Back In Anger but it's his nose blowing, tea drinking, hippy hating, Christopher Lee baiting, cockney copper in Raw Meat that explains in one, sublime, movie saving role just what is incredible and endlessly enjoyable about The Pleasence.
The movie as a whole, stripped of Donald's presence, is atmospheric in places, grim in others but mostly annoyingly slow and hampered by two awful Brit actors, pushing 30, pretending to be college kids. Even the boil ridden, drooly, underground cannibal is just kind of gross rather than terrifying. Add a behatted detective Pleasence into the mix though, chewing scenery like he hasn't eaten in weeks, and the movie becomes a must see, must buy, must keep and must re-watch at least once a year.
So since my Pleasence fever took hold I have seen Wake In Fright, Alone in the Dark, Warrior of the Lost World, Django Strikes Again and River of Death (most of which I would highly recommend watching) and I even went ahead and wrote a ten track album, The Pleasencing! Thanks to my brothers over at the Bloodbaths & Boomsticks Podcast, Kyle Poling and Tim Gross for the suggestion and challenge.
I have declared that in 2018 I will be doing Pleasence Watch and trying to find and view as many Pleasence movies as possible. I have also said I will make a follow up album to The Pleasencing! based on some of the new movies I watch called The Pleasencing Two!: Pleaselectric Boog-a-loo The Return of Donnie P. I decided also that, as the urge takes me, I would write some stuff about the movies I discover.
It's funny actually because initially this piece was going to be write up on the first of my good Donald viewings, Race for the Yankee Zephyr but I got carried away explaining my fascination with the man and introducing him to those who may know the face but have not delved deeper. So this article serves as an introduction to Pleasence Watch 2018 and I urge, that if I have piqued your interest, that you watch along with me!
Let the Pleasence begin!