Meet the Unknown Scribe Behind Three Cult Classics

Sometimes you find yourself a fan of somebody’s work without knowing it.

This doesn’t happen with books. An author’s name is on every page, so you know if you’re a fan or not. It’s happening less and less with television shows: if Dick Wolf’s name is on something, you know it’ll involve cops, robbers, and lawyers.

If Shonda Rhimes’ name is on it, it’ll start out okay and then devolve into an unwatchable stew of intersectional feminism.

With movies, we generally tend to know the greats, alive or dead:

  • Martin Scorsese
  • Brian De Palma
  • Steven Spielberg
  • Stanley Kubrick

But what about those lesser-known screenwriters or directors, the ones who create some of your favorite movies, but don’t get as much notoriety?

Gregory Widen is a perfect example. He wrote “Highlander” and “Backdraft,” and wrote/directed “The Prophecy.”

Now I’ll bet you’ve heard of him.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw “Highlander.” It was the late 1980s, when HBO wouldn’t broadcast R-rated movies before 8 p.m. and you had to look at an actual, physical magazine calling itself TV Guide to find out what was going to be on TV.

“Not Necessarily the News” was the comedy show to watch, not least for Rich Hall’s Sniglets, and they’d put interstitial comedy bits and “Making Of” segments between movie broadcasts to fill up time.

These days HBO is best known for George R.R. Martin’s Rape and Murder Fantasy Hour (With English Accents), but back then, it was glorious. The lame TV Guide description of “Highlander” said something like, “An immortal swordsman battles for the Prize in New York,” or some such, which was good enough for teenage me.

"Highlander (1986)" Theatrical Trailer #1

What an amazing film. These secret immortals walking among us, concealing swords (somehow), living centuries through history. A terrible, frightening villain without a single redeeming quality except for his sense of humor.

  • Sean Connery
  • Swordfights in modern times
  • Showers of broken glass
  • And a kick-ass soundtrack by Queen (A Kind of Magic is their best work) 

Yes, it’s silly that a French guy is playing a Scottish guy, and the Scottish guy is playing an Egyptian guy, but who cares? There were swordfights. Katana vs. broadsword. A dude who made fun of nuns. In a church.

The Prize was pretty dumb, yeah. I mean, who wants that? And the less said about the sequels, the better. Still, whatever you want to say about it, “Highlander” remains the ultimate cult film, one a fan could watch again and again.

FAST FACT: Widen came up with the concept for “Highlander” as a 20-year-old UCLA film school student.

When it comes to firefighter movies, there’s “Backdraft” and there’s everything else. It’s not even that great a film, but it’s nevertheless the standard against which all firefighter movies must be measured.

Backdraft (9/11) Movie CLIP - That's My Brother (1991) HD

Not that there are that many of them, particularly compared to medical dramas and cop films. When it comes to the cast, you couldn’t beat it: Robert De Niro, Donald Sutherland, one of the Baldwins, Kurt Russell, and, of course, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was at the top of her game in 1991, fresh off her roles in Last Exit to Brooklyn and Miami Blues.

Like “Highlander,” it relied more on action than good storytelling, but it was nevertheless a fun flick, with appropriate scares and two antagonists: the arsonist and the fire, which became a character itself.

And then there’s Widen’s “The Prophecy.” While I dug “Highlander” and liked “Backdraft,” this was a movie I watched with eyes and mouth wide open from opening to closing credits. Warrior angels on Earth. Christopher Walken as a frustrated, malevolent Archangel Gabriel, complete with trumpet (and undead servant). Viggo Mortensen eating daisies.

The Prophecy (9/11) Movie CLIP - The First Angel (1995) HD

Very much like “Highlander:” violent men in long coats on secret missions, who can only be killed in a certain way. But it also had a secret chapter of Revelation, angelic script, visions of Heaven, cannibalism, an American Indian exorcism and this exchange:

Catherine: Go to Hell!

Gabriel: Heaven, darling. Heaven. At least…get the zip code right.

Catherine: It’s all the same to you, isn’t it?

Gabriel: No! In Heaven, we believe in love.

Catherine: What do you love, Gabriel?

Gabriel: Cracking your skull.

What’s not to like?

This depiction of angels as warriors was rare in media; we’d gotten used to them as protectors, guardians, Clarence, Della Reese with a kind smile. Not fighters. Not killers.

Widen isn’t a prolific screenwriter, but he inspired many terrible movie sequels and a long-running television show based on “Highlander.” That proves he’s capable of capturing cult lightning in a bottle while most writers aren’t. And the best thing is that “Highlander,” “Backdraft” and “The Prophecy” still hold up, even decades later.

So are you a Widen fan, or not?

David Dubrow is the author of the Armageddon trilogy of Biblical horror/fantasy novels and the managing editor of the Appalling Stories series. Find him at his official web site.


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