The Best Hal Holbrook Movies You’ve Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week, we look at some lesser-known gems from a recently passed star.)

It’s been a while since the great Hal Holbrook graced the big screen. He showed up on television here and there, and he starred in a handful of indies over the past few years, but it was Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) that last saw the graceful, gravelly voiced actor reach millions with his charm and eloquence. Holbrook passed recently at the age of ninety-five and leaves behind a filmography filled with memorable turns in fantastic movies.

Some of his best-known films/performances include All the President’s Men (1976), The Fog (1980), Creepshow (1982), The Firm (1993), and Into the Wild (2007), but while they’re being rightfully celebrated there are plenty more to enjoy despite their far lower profile. They’re not all easily accessible and are instead criminally unavailable, but sometimes good and great things require effort. Or a YouTube search… anyway, keep reading for a look at six underseen films worth watching starring the late, great Hal Holbrook.

Eye of God (1997)

A small town in Oklahoma is shattered by violence, but the answers surrounding it are far from forthcoming. A teenager is found bloodied and scarred to the point of being unable to speak, and the investigation leads the town sheriff to a man consumed by faith. He also finds the man’s wife, a woman who left god behind long ago, and he soon realizes another tragedy might be just around the corner.

Tim Blake Nelson wrote and directed this bleak glimpse into the “lonely, indeterminate silence” that hangs over our lives, and it is a sad stunner. The religious elements are present both in their literal sense with people’s faith in god tested daily, but also in the way we put our faith in each other. If you look to someone as having every answer for you, what happens when those answers stop coming? Nelson unfolds his tale in a fragmented manner, jumping forward and back, repeating scenes with new understanding, and it keeps viewers just enough on edge to land with real power.

The cast is stacked with talent including Richard Jenkins, Margo Martindale, Mary Kay Place, Nick Stahl, and Holbrook as the sheriff hoping to find the answers before it’s too late. He’s fantastic, from his haunting opening narration onward, but the standout here is a devastating turn from Martha Plimpton. She plays a once lonely woman who forced herself into finding a necessary comfort with the wrong man, and it’s an affecting turn that too many of us will recognize from our own lives.

Eye of God is currently unavailable to stream.

Girls Nite Out (1982)

A college campus is home to all manner of hijinks, but this year at DeWitt University those shenanigans will involve a scavenger hunt… and bloody murder! A killer in a bear costume — the school’s mascot — is targeting “loose” young women along with anyone else who stands in their way, and it’s up to the campus security guard to put the pieces together before it’s too late.

Readers of this column know that I like to toss a gimme into the mix alongside the far stronger films, a movie that others probably wouldn’t go to bat for necessarily. Well this is that movie. Holbrook has only a supporting turn here and doesn’t even show up until nearly forty minutes in, but he brings a mature weight into a cast that’s otherwise populated by thirty-year-old “teens” and party antics. It delivers an abundance of red herrings along the way although modern audiences should be quicker to identify the killer than early 80s viewers were.

It’s no lost slasher classic, but there’s fun to be had as the killer tapes steak knives onto his bear paw to simulate claws and the youths party on like they’re going to live forever. Heads up fools, you’re not! The film takes good advantage of the campus landscape finding dark hallways and shadow-filled trails between buildings, and while too many of the students are interchangeable — seriously, kudos to you if you can tell these guys and gals apart — they do solid enough work shaping their characters before being sliced and diced. Girls Nite Out, aka The Scaremaker, is easily the slightest film on this list, but if you’re a fan of 80s slashers it’s worth a look.

Girls Nite Out is currently unavailable to stream.

Murder By Natural Causes (1979)

Arthur Sinclair is a renowned mentalist known for reading minds and selling millions of books, but while his wife knows his secret — he uses tricks and private investigators to pretend he’s psychic — he doesn’t know hers. Not only has she been having an affair, but her and her lover have planned his imminent murder so she can inherit everything.

Holbrook has 137 acting credits (per IMDB), and the vast majority of them are for supporting characters. That’s not a bad thing as he brings a lot even in smaller roles, but he’s even more of impressive as a leading man. He has great fun here as a successful showman used to outwitting doubters and skeptics, and the film sees him bounce between confidence and concern with equal aplomb. His scheming wife is played by Katharine Ross, and she does equally strong work pretending she loves the man even as she’s planning his demise. She’s wonderfully duplicitous, and it adds to the suspense of it all.

I don’t often include television movies on these lists, but an entertaining flick is an entertaining flick. This one manages some fun twists along the way to keep viewers invested, and you can’t help but pull for the old guy as those around him reveal just how far they’ll go for his cash. Barry Bostwick and Richard Anderson add to the fun in supporting roles, but this is Holbrook’s show as his character suggests a bit of a preview for the one he’d embody just three years later in Creepshow.

Murder By Natural Causes is currently unavailable to stream.

Natural Enemies (1979)

Paul Steward has some big plans today. He’s heading to work in the city where he runs a magazine, spending his lunch break in bed with five prostitutes, sharing some heavy conversations with his best friend and a therapist, and then going home for dinner — where he plans on killing his wife, his three children, and himself.

Hoo boy. This is an incredible film that I suspect was a bit ahead of its time in the late 70s, but it’s deserving of a rediscovery. The general themes surrounding man’s inclination toward violence and his avoidance of mental and emotional self-care are both front and center, and the film confronts them in no uncertain terms. “All men think of killing their families,” says Steward, and it’s no less haunting a comment for its generalization. It’s raw in its honest discussions on marriage, relationships, and the expectations men put on themselves and those around them, and it hurts.

Like Eye of God above, it’s a remarkably heavy film, but unlike that ensemble it’s Holbrook who commands the screen throughout here. He narrates allowing viewers a glimpse into one man’s utter despondency including how Steward rewrites most of the articles published in his magazine and wishes he could rewrite his own life as easily. In his head, and in the minds of far too many people, the only way to rewrite a life is by destroying the current one. It’s such an honest look at depression and defeat, and while it features Holbrook in a hot tub with five naked women there’s no joy to the scene, only sadness. Steward is angry — at life, at himself, at a wife whose uninterested in sharing his bed — and the gun in his closet is calling his name. Find this film and experience a powerful American tragedy… from the director of Revenge of the Nerds (1984).

Natural Enemies is currently unavailable to stream.

Rituals (1977)

Five friends, all doctors, head out on a camping trip to a remote locale for a relaxing getaway, but that’s not what they find. A madman finds them instead, and as the days pass into nights he strikes with surgical precision against their supplies, confidence, and increasing fears.

While The Fog and Creepshow are the two horror joints that Holbrook is best remembered for, you’ll find plenty of love for this cult favorite as well. It’s an ensemble cast that also includes Lawrence Dane and Robin Gammell, but it’s Holbrook who takes lead all the same as the friends face their mortality with panic, distrust, and absolute terror. He offers a grounded character, one capable of rational thought in the face of uncertainty, and he becomes a comfort in the face of it all.

Some might dismiss Rituals as a Deliverance knockoff, but that’s a lazy critique as it finds its own thrills, suspense, and social commentary. Here the physicians begin to question their own culpability in the events befalling them, and it speaks to the limits of how we see ourselves and others — as gods and collateral damage, perhaps? It’s far from heady, though, as thrills and suspense are the order of the day en route to a reveal that’s as damning as it is convenient. Toss in some mild gore, detached heads, and Holbrook fighting for his life, and you have a solid slasher/survival thriller hybrid.

Rituals is available to stream.

That Evening Sun (2009)

An old man nearing the end of his life leaves the retirement home behind to return to his real home — the homestead he owned and worked for multiple decades. Abner arrives to discover that his son has rented it to an unruly family with the option to buy, and soon a feud erupts.

As his final leading role, Holbrook embodies a man whose life is essentially over with its brightest glories behind him. It’s fitting, but he never turns it into a showy swan song and instead finds the man’s inner strength and quiet rage as his focus. He’s as angry at the man sleeping in his house as he is at a hard-fought life that’s only served to lead him here, but through this confrontation he realizes that the path to war and peace are both equally under his control.

The supporting cast includes the likes of Mia Wasikowska, Walton Goggins, Barry Corbin, Dixie Carter, and Ray McKinnon. All of them are fantastic here, but McKinnon is especially powerful as the young family man who’s taken over the land. His own past is nothing he’s proud of, and he sees this as a fresh start for he and his family, but Abner’s stubborn rage ignites his own short fuse leading to conflict. A critical success out of SXSW 2009, it’s definitely a small character piece, but it’s an affecting goodbye for Holbrook all the same.

That Evening Sun is currently unavailable to stream.

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