Morbidly Beautiful

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I once again joined the team at the “Munsons at the Movies” podcast to talk about Max Von Sydow’s life, legacy, career, and influence.

Max Von Sydow

I’ve had the enormous pleasure of returning annually to join the hosts of one of my favorite podcasts, Munsons at the Movies, for their annual Halloween special. The first year, I was invited to talk about the iconic Jamie Lee Curtis, and you can bet I had plenty to say! Last year, I was invited back to chat about another member of horror royalty, Neve Campbell.

Though I thought it would be impossible to top those two incredible episodes, the guys managed to surprise me yet again with a man for whom the term icon doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.

This Halloween, we talked about a legend who may not immediately be associated with horror but has certainly made a monumental impact on the genre by starring in one of the most important, beloved, and untouchable horror films of all time, The Exorcist. Max Von Sydow plays Father Merrin, a complex and flawed hero who struggles with inner turmoil and vulnerability while exuding a sense of strength and wisdom. Rather than portraying a cliched pillar of morality, he’s conflicted and troubled — and infinitely more interesting because of it.

Despite being a remarkably convincing old man, Sydow was only 44 when he played the pivotal role, and he spent four hours in makeup every time he was set to appear onscreen. The makeup and performance were so convincing that he had trouble finding work for several years because everyone assumed he was too old.

I have love for a great many celluloid heroes, but perhaps none have earned as much admiration from me as von Sydow.

Perhaps that’s owed to his impressive body of work, spanning decades and traversing multiple genres.

He’s best known for his remarkable work with the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, my favorite filmmaker of all time. I would argue that, even if Von Sydow had never made another film besides those he made with Bergman, he would still be a legend.

His work in The Seventh Seal alone, which he starred in at the tender age of 27, cements his legacy, and his chess game with death is one of the most memorable and imitated scenes in the history of cinema.

As a horror fan, I know that he’d be considered an icon and genre giant even if he never did anything other than play Father Merrin in The Exorcist. He helped ground an unbelievable tale of supernatural evil, making every moment utterly believable and, therefore, cementing the film as one of the most truly terrifying of all time, even 50 years later.

As a cinephile, his arthouse work is something of reverence. But he also effortlessly transitioned from prestige performer to pop culture icon.

And as an admitted geek, it’s hard to deny the impact he’s made on some of the most iconic sci-fi and fantasy franchises of all time, including Star Wars and Game of Thrones, not to mention his video game voiceover work.

With his imposing stature and steely blue eyes, he also makes one hell of a menacing villain.

In fact, it’s difficult to think of another actor who was so gifted at playing both malevolence and benevolence.

He had such command when onscreen that he needed only to raise an eyebrow to speak volumes, emotionally invest the viewer, and send chills down their spine.

Even as he entered his senior years and was generally relegated to supporting roles, there were many fine ones, including Minority Report and Shutter Island.

Until his death at age 90, he was a figure of incredible force and subtlety, And he maintained that deep timbre in his voice that gave every word he uttered immense gravitas.

In his illustrious career spanning seven decades, he’s played chess with death and died for all mankind. He’s been both the son of God and the Devil himself – a devout man of faith and a tortured non-believer. He made everything he was in better and was truly one of the greatest actors of his or any other generation, and it’s impossible to deny the influence and impact he’s had on cinema.

If you are a fan of von Sydow, this is a dream episode to listen to. It’s one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive deep dives of her career you’ll ever hear — because that’s exactly what the Munsons are known for and why I love them so much.

We cover everything from the start of his career until the end, including his early work as a theater actor and young thespian dazzling audiences in the still iconic and hugely influential masterpiece, The Seventh Seal. We spent considerable time talking about his career highlights and his depth and breadth of work that proved he could adeptly handle drama and comedy in equal measures.

We also discuss some of his best roles you may have missed and explore his work with Bergman, doing our best to pick our absolute standouts from a dizzying array of impossibly brilliant performances.

The hosts were kind enough to let me review one of my all-time favorite von Sydow performances in Bergman’s The Magician

I won’t spoil everything here, but I share my love for one of Bergman’s most underrated masterpieces. Released in 1958, The Magician combines elements of expressionist horror and traditional farce to make statements about hypocrisy and human nature.

It’s a stunning visual spectacle that explores the power of illusion and the fraught relationship between rationality and superstition, reality and representation, and art and science.

Be sure to listen to get the full scoop and to hear the tremendously knowledgeable Munsons, some of my favorite uber film nerds and certified cinephiles, take a deep dive into von Sydow’s entire filmography, leaving no stone uncovered. Of course, we talk about The Exorcist. Of course, we coo about The Seventh Seal and many of Bergman’s other films featuring the iconic actor.

We talk about why von Sydow makes such a memorable villain, even in rather unforgettable or mediocre films. We talk about a man who is just as convincing as the Devil as he is playing God Himself.

I’ve said this before, but it’s truly mind-blowing how prepared the hosts are for each episode and how much time and thoughtful research goes into fully celebrating each artist’s work.

In each episode of the Munsons at the Movies podcast, the hosts, along with a special guest, randomly select an actor and rank their body of work on the Munson Meter.

Your hosts are Craig Case, James D’Imperio, Kyle Hickman, Mark Rigby, and Warren Hicks.

Each of them picks one of the important films in an actor’s filmography to cover in-depth, including the actor’s first feature film, the film with the largest critic gap, lowest critic score, highest critic score, and largest audience gap.

Just like during our discussion of the great Neve Campbell, we recognized that not everything von Sydow has done has been a homerun. But we all once again agreed that he makes everything he’s in better — and is often the best part of every film, even when he’s a minor character.

It may not be a big surprise that I ranked von Sydow extremely high on the Munson meter. In fact, he’s higher than both Jamie Lee and Neve, which really says something. I may, in fact, have given him a perfect score. Tune in to find out why.

In this episode, we explore the legendary life and career of Max von Sydow. Best known for his roles as Antonius in The Seventh Seal (1957), Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon (1980), and Father Merrin in The Exorcist (1980), von Sydow is on the list for Halloween consideration given his status as a horror icon. Joined once again by Stephanie Malone of and so much more, we recount a wild catfishing story, explore Ingmar Bergman’s filmography through the lens of von Sydow, contemplate the amount of cultural appropriation in Flash Gordon, parse through the insane plot of Branded (2012), and complement his remarkable longevity as an actor. How does he rank on the Munson Meter? Listen to find out.

You can check out the Musons catalog on ApplePodbeanSpotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. 

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