Take One: Slither (2007)
Rooker has a very bad time of it in Slither. For starters, he plays a brute and tyrant, and is almost pathologically cocksure of his local status as a small-town car dealer. He’s horrible and unfaithful to his wife and his name, Grant Grant, is doubly dumb. So when he’s “killed” by an alien parasite in a meteor which re-animates him as a mind-absorbed, ET-hosting slug-mutant, you don’t exactly sob over his lot in life. But things get worse: he has a future as the head of a fleshy multi-person blob – the kind of thing that Brian Yuzna or David Cronenberg might cook up after particularly eventful dreams – to look forward to. Before that, Rooker leaves a slime trail of extraterrestrial carnage.
For much of his screen time, all he does is slither (the title has it) about sporting gruesomely daft prosthetics that make him look like an exploded can of refried beans or a particularly nasty dental accident. Kudos to him for embracing his OTT part in so heartily; he goes with the giddy flow of all the comically gory sci-fi/horror trappings, playing up his macho onscreen persona to great effect. Grant gets a slippery comeuppance, but he gets some of the best lines too (“It’s just a bee sting!”) More actors ought to take Rooker’s lead and cake themselves in elaborate special effects to debase themselves in the name of cheerfully grisly supporting parts.
Take Two: Cliffhanger (1993)
Despite a career which tips heavily towards mean men and psychopaths, Rooker has shaken up the trend with a few good-guy roles. His part as Hal Tucker, Sylvester Stallone’s best (estranged) mate and rock-climbing partner in Renny Harlin’s 1992 mountain peril-a-thon Cliffhanger is one of the nicest. He and Sly have history: Hal’s still bitter at him for accidentally letting his girlfriend plummet to her death eight months ago. Well, wouldn’t you still be miffed to see rock-climb-obsessed Rocky turn up again if that happened to you? With a face as ragged as the mountains he scales, and a fresh vertiginous conundrum about to kick off, Hal soldiers on. Their differences are set aside when John Lithgow and his evil thieving cronies pester them with outrageous villainous demands and pelt them with dubious British accents. Rooker does a lot of shouting and stumbling, and then becomes Lithgow’s suitcase-tracking bitch. But he’s not submissive for long. He gets the opportunity to take part in a spectacular set-piece where he fights off henchman Craig Fairbrass with a small amount of wit and weaponry. The fight scene allows for some frosty fisticuffs that raise the excitement factor higher than 11,000 ft and for Rooker to show off his impressive physical skill whilst avoiding tumbling to his death. It’s often hard to tell what’s going on by looking at Sly’s face, so Rooker’s granite-hard visage is our thrill marker. We look to him for our second-fiddle action needs. The film’s rugged, ragged and ropey. And that’s the point. You can take the piste all you like – Rooker’s entertaining turn in Cliffhanger is one to hang on to.
Take Three: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Every few years we’re treated to one of those intensely memorable performances that rip right through the celluloid: Christian Bale in American Psycho, Eric Bana in Chopper, Tom Hardy in Bronson, Daniel Henshall in Snowtown. A horrendous roll call of riveting turns. It could be said that Rooker, back in 1986, set this current crop rolling. His serial killer Henry in, er, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is his most distinctive role. The film is a grim snapshot of the life of a repellent murderer discussing and carrying out his “work”. It’s a horribly compelling film driven by Rooker's stealthy, cracked performance.
Henry has the kind of ‘mummy issues’ that would surprise even Norman Bates. And he lives in the kind of house that Ed Gein might deem uninhabitable. You wouldn't want him living next door, for obvious reasons. But director John McNaughton places us right there; Rooker does his best (worst) kitchen-sink killer routine to keep us from leaving. Cramped locations serve to highlight Rooker’s physicality and intensify his presence. His general demeanour is that of a threatening bulk, and when shot in extreme close-up he appears expressionless, imposing – like the bastard offspring of Jake LaMotta and Hannibal Lecter. Rooker adds moments of cold normality to his visceral performance, making the times when Henry barely withholds his seething undercurrent of hatred for everyone that extra bit unsettling. It’s this key aspect of his performance, above the shocking scenes of killing, which remains with you. It’s worth a repeat visit to Henry’s place just for Rooker’s beguiling performance.
Three more films for the taking: Sea of Love (1989), The Trigger Effect (1996), The Lena Baker Story (2008).