There Can Be Only Nine – The Highlander Franchise

This article originally appeared in The Fringes Newsletter #1 – sign up here for a quarterly newsletter and a loyalty card – http://bit.ly/fringecinema

This quarter we are ticking off a few 30th Anniversary screenings in the Crossing The Streams 80s night strand. In August we stood by them with an anniversary screening of Stand By Me and in October we are feeling the need, the need for speed with an anniversary screening of Top Gun. Then in November we are decapitating people in honour of Highlander’s 30th Birthday….

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Okay, so Health and Safety are saying that decapitation is a big no-no, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun watching other people do it! On the 11th November we are screening a new 4K restoration of Russell Mulcahy 1986 tale of immortals living through history until the time of the Gathering (in this case 1985 New York City) where they will fight for the Prize. The only way an immortal can be killed is by severing their heads from their bodies, so you’ve got loads of immortals engaging in sword fights throughout history because in the end there can be only one. Or can there?

Highlander is a great 80’s high concept idea that has spawned numerous sequels, spin-off television shows and animes. Plus novels, audio stories and comics. So while only one immortal can win the prize, a few more can have a bloody good go at it!

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Highlander 2 : The Quickening (1991)

Highlander 2 arrived five years after the original had grown a strong fanbase due to a well-received theatrical and a popular home video release. All the band were back (even one who, spoiler, dies in the first) as Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery and Russell Mulcahy cast the film into the future of 2024 and, inexplicable to the planet Ziest.

The film rewrites the original mythology established by creator Gregory Widen in the first film with a new backstory by Brian Clemens (The Avengers) and producer William N Panzer. In this version of the immortals, they are aliens banished from the planet Ziest and that the prize that they were fighting for in the first film was the choice to either grow old on Earth or return to Ziest.

Of course, once Connor MacCleod (of the Clan MacCleod) wins the prize, and grows old, the alien forces on Ziest get worried that he will return. General Katana (Michael Ironside) sends troops to kill MacCleod, but they only end up getting their heads chopped off, rejuvenating MacCleod to the youthful Christopher Lambert. The film finishes with Connor saving the day and deciding to return to Ziest with Louise Marcus (Virginia Madsen), the new love of his life (whom he’s known for like 5 seconds).

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The film is a mess! Russell Mulcahy walked out of the world premiere after 15 minutes requesting his name be taken off the credits while Lambert threatened to walk off the project but, contractually, both were forced to stay and take some of the blame.

When a much loved film franchise is butchered so completely there are often numerous efforts to salvage something from it all. There were two theatrical versions that were released in 1991. The UK version of the film has an additional 10 minutes that includes an extended prologue fleshing out the ozone layer shield plot and then a tacked on ending that is colloquially known as the ‘Fairytale Ending. Then in 1995, Mulcahy went back to the well (poisoned chalice?) and recut the film with all references to Ziest and the fact that the Immortals are now aliens. In this Director’s Cut (aka The Renegade Version)the immortals / aliens are from the ancient past…you know that time when they had access to time travel and lasers.

Then in 2004, milking that DVD cow, producers Panzer and Davis went back and reedited the film and added some new CGI special effects to the film. Now seen as the definitive version of the film, DVD Verdict said of the release “What was once a horrible, horrible film has become downright tolerable, and actually somewhat entertaining at times.” Damning with faint praise.

So as we come to the end of Highlander II with Connor MacCleod (of the clan MacCleod) shooting off back to his home planet of Ziest, it perfectly sets us up for the second sequel….

But before we get to Highlander 3, we take a popular sojourn to television.

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Highlander: The Series (1992 – 1998)

Completely ignoring the events of the second film, Highlander: The Series follows the exploits of Duncan MacCleod (of the clan MacCleod), an Immortal from the same clan as Connor. The pilot for the show has Connor MacCLeod (played again by Christopher Lambert) seeking out his old friend Duncan (Adrian Paul) to coax him back into the Game of Immortals (Head Choppy choppy game).

The series slightly retcons the first film implying that Connor didn’t win the Prize and the game is still afoot. The series ran for 6 seasons and added to the mythos of the Highlander universe with concepts and characters like The Watchers, Methos (the oldest Immortal), Richie Ryan and Amanda Darieux (more on her later).

Generally well received by the fans, Highlander: The Series is held in higher regarded that anything else in the franchise aside from the original film. While on television, we were enjoying Duncan’s adventures, the adventures of Connor MacCleod (of the clan MacCleod) were far from over.

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Highlander III – The Sorcerer (aka Highlander III: The Final Dimension, Highlander III: The Final Conflict) (1994)

Which also completely ignores Highlander II!

This follows the original with Connor living with his adopted son John some years after the events of the Gathering of 1985 New York and after the death of Brenda. He believes that he has won the Prize. But unbeknownst to him, an old enemy has been trapped been trapped underground preventing them taking part in the Gathering.

Newly freed this enemy, Kane (Mario Van Pebbles), sets his sights on Connor MacCleod (of the clan MacCLeod). Involved in this is Dr Alex Johnson (Deborah Kara Unger), an archaeologist who earths Kane and looks uncannily like an old flame of Connors. Fighty Fight Choppy Choppy and suffice to say it doesn’t end well for Kane.

Poorly received by fans and critics it does benefit from not being nearly as terrible as Highlander II.

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Connor, Alex and John move back to Scotland to live happily ever after. Meanwhile on television…

animated-hlHighlander: The Animated Series (1994-1995)

In another attempt at rewriting the mythology of the original film, this series is set in a post-apocalyptic Earth where the Immortals have thrown away their swords and sworn to preserve human knowledge and to help humanity. Everyone except on rogue Immortal, Kortan, who is still seeking the Prize! Quentin MacLeod (of the Clan MacCleod) is the lead in this series born 700 years in the future and is dubbed “The Last Of The MacLeods” (I’ll believe that when I see it!).

25 minute episodes, two seasons and a total of 40 episodes. A curious sidestep into the future of the Highlander world. The first time but not the last we are flung into the far future in this franchise.

Highlander: The Raven (1998)

The Highlander television was nearing the end of its lifespan and they were desperately trying to think of way to extend the show. So they went back to one of the special guest mainstay of the series, Amanda.

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Amanda, played by Elizabeth Gracen, is a fellow immortal and former lover of Duncan MacCleod (of the clan MacCleod). Orginally introduced as a one off for the first series, the team and the fans, liked her so much that she became a stronger part of the show. Her cunning, lying, selfish and manipulative character showed an insight into the world of immortals beyond the Good and the Bad of the films.

So the series is spun off into this show which follows Amanda trying to become a good person with mixed results. And mixed ratings too as the show was cancelled after one season.

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Highlander: Endgame (2000)

So back to the big screen for the last Highlander film to be release in cinemas. Following the success of the television series starring Duncan MacCleod and the continuing affection for the original MacCleod, Connor, plans started to plot to bring these two Immortal together on the silver screen.

Highlander: Endgame is either a great continuation of the Highlander films and mythos or a confusing mess that is incomprehensible to most of the cinema audience. Relying heavily on the audience that the television show has acquired, Highlander brings to the big screen elements that, if you had only seen the films, would be completely new to you. Characters like Duncan, The Watchers and the Sanctuary.

The plot see the return of Rachel, the little girl that Conner MacCleod (of the clan MacCleod) saves in World War II in the original film. Her death triggers a deep depression in Connor and he seeks Santuary in the…Sanctuary, a place where Immortals are kept away from the world to stop the Prize from ever being won.

Violent zealot Kell (Bruce Payne) is the villain of the piece, a man from Connor and Duncan’s home village who is made an immortal after Connor kills him and the village priest to save his mother. Kell then takes his new found immortality and tortures Connor down the ages by killing everyone who means something to him. While doing so he amasses a huge amount of Immortal Kills, 661, compared to Connor’s 262 and Duncan’s 174. So essentially he’s a badass when it comes to taking heads!

The only way to defeat this menace is to combine the might of the MacCleods! Spoiler Alert! Connor allows Duncan to take his head and his powers so as to fight Kell. Duncan does, goes on to kill Kell and absorbs all of his power.

He buries Connor next to his first wife, Heather in Scotland.

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Interesting fact was that original creator Gregory Widen was involved in the early process and was in line to direct after his success writing and directing The Prophecy. As it was it ended up being directed by Doug Aarniokoski (Nurse), and was a box office flop failing to recoup it’s budget. However it was a hit on home video and DVD (Possibly due to it’s fanbase being a mainly television based/home viewing audience). Due to this success, it also got the director’s cut treatment with new and edited footage and special effects.

Highlander – The Search For Vengeance (2007)

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Produced by hit anime studio Madhouse (Vampire Hunter D) and Imagi Animation Studios (TMNT (2007) and Astro Boy (2009)), this instalment in the franchise got a little bit animated.

In this Colin MacCleod (of the Clan MacCleod) is an honorary member of the Clan MacCleod after being born and reborn in Roman Britain. Upon his Quickening he adopts the name as the name to carry with him as an immortal.

Similar in structure to the previous instalments, the film is set in the far future of 2187 and flashes back to episodes in Colin’s past. Colin does battle with his ‘Kurgen’ in the form of former Roman general Marcus Octavius, who killed Colin’s wife and would have killed Colin had he not been safe on holy ground (Stonehenge!).

This film has lots of quirks that betray it’s Japanese origins, particularly the sci-fi setting of 2187. But it manages to do this within the confines of the franchise. The film was a modest success with good reviews.

Highlander: The Source (2007)

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Following on from the events in Highlander: Endgame, this fifth film in the core franchise follows the search for the mysterious Source of the immortal’s power. Watcher Joe (from the television series and Endgame) teams with Methos (oldest ever immortal) to track down their old friend Duncan MacCleod (of the Clan MacCleod). In their serach they discover The Guardian Of The Source, a man with supernatural speed and who is practically unbeatable (see Kurgan, Kane and Kell) and is protecting the Source which is the place where the One will be revealed. Because there can be only One.

Wow! What a mess! It is almost inconceivable that a franchise could shoot itself (or decapitate itself) so completely that not even the most harden fan could mount a defence.

“If you thought Highlander 2:The Quickening was astounding in its ability to be utterly incoherent and incomprehensible, wait until you get a load of Highlander: The Source…” – Beyond Hollywood

“Highlander: The Source is the suckiest thing that ever sucked.” – The Screamsheet.

“The final entry of the Highlander series goes beyond rock bottom and drills itself deep, deep into the earth’s crust. – Spoonyexperiment.com

“The worthwhile days of Connor MacLeod, it would appear, are officially over – dead, decapitated and depleted of their power…This series is in desperate need of a brutal beheading.” – IGN

Remake rumours (2007 – )

The remake rumour mill has been churning ever since Duncan put down his sword but there seems to be little concrete news on the film.

At one point Ryan Reynolds was also attached to star as Connor MacCleod (of the Clan MacCleod) with Justin Lin (Fast And Furious 6, The Conjuring) directing. They were even attempting to cast Tom Cruise in the Ramirez role. But that all fell through. Reynolds traded one sword wielding killer for another…

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In 2015 it was announced that Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (Director of The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016) was attached to direct from a script by Matt Holloway & Art Marcum (Iron Man, Punisher: War Zone) and Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight, Jessica Jones). Also in 2015 it was heavily rumoured that Dave Bautista (Guardians Of The Galaxy, Spectre) had been cast as The Kurgan but that was never been confirmed.

On the press junket for Huntsman: Winter’s War, Nicolas-Troyan said to Den Of Geek – “I’ve been working on this movie for quite a while. I’m still involved in it, very much so. In fact, I just talked about it yesterday with Lionsgate…I’m going to say that it’s very close to the original story, but there will be surprises. The characters you love in the first movie are back.”

 

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