Wolfen (1981)

wolfen 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Wolves on the attack.

Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is assigned to investigate a particularly savage attack that occurred in Battery Park in New York City where a real estate magnate and his wife and bodyguard where gruesomely killed by some mysterious being that the police initially peg as a terrorist act. As Wilson investigates further and in talking with some experts he comes to the opinion that it may be wolves that killed them, but not the everyday wolf instead they are ghostly spirits intent on protecting their sacred ground. As the body count continues Wilson tries unorthodox methods to understand and stop these strange animals that remain invisible and elusive to the human eye.

For a horror film, which is based on the novel by Whitley Streiber, it has a refreshingly different approach to the material making it seem more like a modern-day drama and character study. Director Michael Wadleigh nicely captures the ambience and attitude of the city. The authentic feel and multi-dimensional lead character helps make the story more compelling. The use of showing things from the wolves’ point-of-view that gets captured through a unique colored lens is initially captivating and creepy.

Unfortunately the film does the P.O.V. thing too often, which eventually becomes redundant and boring. The genteel tone does not create enough tension and the film is barely ever suspenseful. There is one good decapitation scene, but otherwise the gore and special effects are minimal. The runtime is too long and the pacing could have been better. A good horror film or even a thriller needs a good scary image of the threat at hand to hold onto and create the fear for the viewer, but we are never shown the wolves at all until the very end. I did like the one part where the Diane Venora character goes roaming around an abandoned church and almost gets attacked by one of the wolves whose red eyes we see, but I wanted to see more of this since it was the only time I got even slightly frightened.

Finney is an odd choice for the lead. Simply because he has a reputation as being a great actor does not mean he is perfect for every role and having a grizzled New York cop speak with a British accent is off-putting. He also too old and his relationship with a female cop that is clearly 20 years younger looks weird. I did like Edward James Olmos who takes off his clothes at one point and effectively acts like a real wolf and the scene where he has a menacing conversation with Finney while high on top of a bridge is memorable.

Spoiler Alert!!

My biggest beef comes with the ending in which Finney finds himself surrounded by the wolves and in an attempt to appease them smashes the model of the construction site that was going to be built on their sacred ground, which satisfies them enough to leave him alone and go away, but it came off as corny, farfetched and anti-climactic to me. It also makes the wolves who the viewer has feared throughout the film suddenly look like the ‘good guy’  and thus stripping all the ‘horror’ from this supposed thriller and making sitting through it a pointless waste of time.

End of Spoiler Alert!!

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: July 24, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 55Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Wadleigh

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Night God Screamed (1971)

the night God screamed 3

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Nailed to the cross.

Willis and Fanny Pierce (Alex Nicol, Jeanne Crain) are an older, spiritual couple who drive along the national highways with a giant cross stuck to the top of their car. They come to a small town where Willis decides to start up a church. Unfortunately they get the unwanted attention of Billy Joe (Michael Sugich) who runs a Manson-like religious cult filled with drugged-out hippies. He feels Willis is potential competition, so late one night he and his cohorts sneak into the church and nail Willis to the cross all to the horror of Fanny who is so frightened she doesn’t do anything and instead hides in a closet. Billy Joe is later convicted of the crime and sent to prison, but his followers are not happy and seek revenge. When Fanny is hired to ‘babysit’ a group of older teens they go on the attack creating one long night of terror for Fanny and the teens.

Clearly this is a rip-off of the Charles Manson crimes, but for all of the films from that period that tried to capitalize on the fear that those crimes brought this has to be one of the better ones. The electronic music score, camera angles and shadowy lighting create an effective eerie feeling. The movie moves at a decent pace and the shot of Willis crucified to the cross is shocking and edgier than most other films from that period. The second half, which features Crain and the teens trapped in a house with the hooligans harassing them from outside manages to build up some decent tension.

Crain looks and behaves as if she were snatched directly out of the 1940’s and seems completely out-of-place with the period or other characters and yet the extreme contrast actually makes it more interesting. Sugich is great as the cult leader and it’s unfortunate he wasn’t on for the entire duration. I did think it was unrealistic though that he is seen at his trial without handcuffs, or a prison suit or even having his hair cut, which in reality I think would have happened and probably made him look even creepier.

Although the film is low budget and terribly dated I did think is was entertaining enough to be passable especially for fans of 70’s schlock. My biggest complaint comes with the twist ending, which although surprising isn’t completely plausible and leaves open too many loose ends. It reminded me too much of those ghost stories kids like to tell around a campfire that would always hinge on some unexpected ending and made this entire production seem more like a cutesy concept than an actual story.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: June 4, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 26Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Lee Madden

Studio: Cinemation Industries

Available: VHS, YouTube

Terror Train (1980)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Killer wears different disguises.

Some frat boys decide to play a nasty prank on a vulnerable student named Kenny Hampson (Derek McKinnon) which causes him to have a mental breakdown and be sent away. Now, three years later the same group of college kids gets together on a train for a raucous New Year’s Eve costume party. The problem is so does a mysterious killer who after killing each of his victims puts on the disguise that they were wearing making it impossible to track him.

Supposedly the idea for the film is the brainstorm of executive producer Daniel Grodnik who after seeing both Halloween and Silver Streak woke up one night with the inspiration of combining the two films and making a slasher movie aboard a train.  I admit when I first saw this film many years ago I thought it was pretty cool, but now upon second viewing it seems formulaic and predictable. It takes too long to get going with the first hour spent focusing on the doings of stereotypically jaded college kids who aren’t very appealing. The scares are few with the only real intense part coming at the end when the Jaimie Lee Curtis character locks herself in a cage and the killer tries desperately to get into it. The gore is also sparse and not impressive including a decapitated head that doesn’t look anything like the victim’s.

There is also a lot of glaring loopholes including having the killer murder someone inside one of the train’s cramped bathrooms and then managing to clean up all the blood, which would have taken a lot of time seeing how much there was of it, and then carting off the dead body without anyone noticing. During the climactic sequence Curtis’s character stabs the psycho in his eye, but later when the killer gets unmasked his eye and face look fine without any indication of scratches or cuts.

Curtis is a fine actress, but her presence did nothing but remind me of Halloween and they would have been better off casting someone else. Ben Johnson, who is technically listed as the star, adds some much needed stature and it is nice having a middle-aged character not portrayed as a clueless out-of-touch drip like they usually are in these types of films. Hart Bochner looks and acts like the perfect caricature of a smart-ass frat boy and its fun seeing him turn from cocky and arrogant at the beginning to desperate and frightened at the end. Magician David Copperfield is on hand essentially playing himself and some of his magic tricks are the most interesting part of the movie.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: October 3, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes

Rated R

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975)

the reincarnation of peter proud

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Reliving a past life.

College professor Peter Proud (Michael Sarrazin) starts having reoccurring dreams where he sees himself living a past life somewhere in a small New England town and killed by a woman (Margot Kidder) while out in a lake. The dreams become so strong that they interfere with his job and even his relationship with his girlfriend Nora (Cornelia Sharpe). He travels to Massachusetts in search of the place and finally finds it and even starts a relationship with Ann (Jennifer O’Neill) who may be his daughter from the previous incarnation. He also meets her mother Marcia who is the same woman who he sees killing him in a past life during his dreams. As the three get to know each other tensions and dark secrets eventually begin to surface.

The idea has some potential, but director J. Lee Thompson gives the material a very standard treatment making it seem almost like a pedestrian drama. The dialogue is dull and corny, the characters cardboard and the storyline is predictable and formulaic. For what is supposed to be a horror movie/mystery it is not very compelling or intense. The visions that Peter sees in his dream are quite ordinary and generic and eventually become redundant. In fact the film’s only twisted moment, which is when Peter makes love to Ann, who is technically his daughter from a past life, gets treated like a sweet romantic scene instead of the underlying perverse act that it really is.

The story also gets farfetched including having Peter drives through every town in Massachusetts until he finds the one he is looking for. The character of the dream researcher, which is played by actor Paul Hecht, gets overly enthusiastic about Peter’s statements regarding experiencing reincarnation and becomes almost wide-eyed at the idea of writing a book about it and making millions even though a true researcher would be much more reserved about what Peter was saying and realize it would entail much more years of study before it could even be termed a reality. I also thought it was strange that when they put Peter into a sleep study the machine is unable to read the dreams that Peter is having about his past life. Supposedly this is because they are not dreams, but ‘visions’ of some sort, but wouldn’t that still create brain activity in order for Peter to see them and thus still get recorded on the machine?

Jennifer O’Neill is always great to watch simply because of her beautiful face and Cornelia Sharpe has a few choice nude scenes as Peter’s sarcastic girlfriend, but Margot Kidder is miscast as O’Neill’s mother. For one thing she is the same age as O’Neill and although they try to make her look older by putting some gray streaks in her hair her skin is still quite smooth and in need of some age lines in order to look more authentic. However, the scene where she masturbates while naked in a tub isn’t bad.

The ending is terrible and makes having to sit through this thing a complete waste of time.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: April 25, 1975

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Rated R

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Studio: American International Pictures (AIP)

Available: VHS

 

The Hearse (1980)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Haunted by a hearse.

Jane (Trish Van Devere) is recuperating from a nervous breakdown and decides to move away from the bustle of big city life into a home left to her from her recently deceased aunt, which is situated in a small town. Unfortunately things do not go smoothly. The townspeople are reticent to Jane’s presence and weird things begin to occur including a mysterious big, black hearse that appears late at night and seemingly intent on running Jane over.

I remember I first heard of this film when it was shown on Showtime during the early 80’s as part of their ‘After Hours’ films, which typically amounted to soft core sex flicks and gory horror. However, this film was only rate PG, which always made me wonder how ‘adult’ or scary could it really be.

To some degree this fares slightly better than the usual low budget horror flick at least at the beginning. There are some nice on-location shots of the San Francisco bay area and the main character is likable enough. The production values are decent and the story, as thin as it is, has a certain intriguing quality to it.

Van Devere makes for a strong female protagonist as she is quite practical and doesn’t allow herself to scare easily and seeing a female character that is confident and poised and not used simply as a sex object especially in these types of films is a refreshing change. After a while though I started to think that the character became a little too stubborn as there were so many bad things that started to occur that I think I would have left and not come back and the fact that she stays past when most other people wouldn’t makes her seem a bit irrational.

The atmosphere is minimal and the scares are almost non-existent and depend almost completely on a few doors slamming and windows bursting open for no reason. Moments of intruders breaking into the home and shots of their feet silently creeping up the stairs starts to become redundant and dull. A dream-like funeral sequence can’t save what is otherwise a slow moving plot. The ‘secret’ behind the hearse’s presence isn’t very imaginative and the film borrows too many elements from other cheesy haunted house films without adding anything unique or distinctive in the process.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: June 5, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated PG

Director: George Bowers

Studio: Crown International Pictures

Available: DVD (Drive-In Cult Classics Vol. 2)

Bells (1982)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Don’t answer the phone.

People are being killed throughout the city of Toronto by simply answering the phone. Apparently someone has come up with a device that can create a massive electronic blast that can go through the phone lines and kill anyone listening on the other end. The blast is so strong that it can even melt the receiver. Nat Bridger (Richard Chamberlain) who is a professor at a local college decides to take matters into his own hands and investigate on his own after one of his students is killed and the police seem to do nothing about it.

Initially I found this idea to be intriguing and original, but unfortunately it throws credibility completely out the window. Had it worked more with the idea of sending some loud noise at an extremely high decibel over the phone, which would then blow out the person’s ear drum, or something of that nature then I might have bought into it. Instead it has some sort of unexplained blast that literally makes the person at the other end blow off of their seat and fly backwards crashing into walls and windows, which seems utterly ridiculous and cartoonish. The film also offers no scientific explanation to how this device was created or done, which makes it farfetched and pointless.

Chamberlain’s one-dimensional acting doesn’t help and his presence in the lead role is quite generic as he plays a character that shows the street smarts and fighting ability of a seasoned cop instead of that of a college professor making things even more unrealistic. John Houseman gets a rather thankless supporting role as Chamberlain’s mentor and is pretty much wasted except for a bit where he disrupts a guided tour through a phone company which proves mildly amusing.

The technology is horribly dated making the entire thing a relic of a bygone era and irrelevant to today’s audiences.  The climatic sequence dealing with Chamberlain’s attempts to keep the bad guy on the phone while the police try to trace the number is highly clichéd and more boring than intense. Director Michael Anderson’s attempts to jazz things up a bit by photographing phones in intimidating ways with ominous music playing in the background comes off as unintentionally funny instead of scary.

This Canadian made thriller was originally released under the title above and ran for 95 minutes, but the Warner Home Video version, which was released in 1998 and goes under the title of Murder by Phone was trimmed by 15 minutes. The version reviewed here is from the original release although the film is so silly that watching the shorter cut might be preferred simply because it would mean less time wasted.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Alternate Title: Murder by Phone

Released: May 11, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 35Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Anderson

Studio: Canadian Film Development Corporation

Available: VHS (as Murder by Phone)

The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972)

the possession of joel delaney

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Possessed by his friend.

Norah (Shirley MacLaine) is a divorced mother of two living in a well-off neighborhood of New York that is also keeping a watchful eye on her younger brother Joel (Perry King). He is a recent college grad returned from an overseas stay and still looking to find his way in the world. He lives in a poorer section of town and does so to keep a distance between he and his sister who he feels has domineering traits like his now deceased mother. As things progress he begins to show odd, frightening behaviors that at times turn violent and when conventional therapy doesn’t help Norah turns to a Puerto Rican witch doctor that is convinced that Joel is possessed.

What makes this film so intriguing is that it has far more layers than a typical horror film and its most interesting aspect isn’t the occult at all, but instead the vivid look at New York’s contrasting socio-economic and cultural make-up. It shows how buffered the rich are from the poverty stricken areas of the city and how completely helpless they become when thrown into that environment. In fact Norah’s most frightening moments are when she is taken out of the safety zone of her pampered lifestyle than in dealing with the possession of her brother.

MacLaine’s character is not too likable, but this ends up being a positive. Her exchange with a clerk at a mental hospital when she expects to receive preferential treatment is amusing as is her obliviousness to her surroundings when she walks into a rundown tenement building wearing a gaudy fur hat and coat only to later finally get the sense to take it off when walking down the street of a tough neighborhood.

King is perfect choice for the role as his clear blue eyes give off a naturally creepy look and his moments of possession are some of the most unnerving parts of the film although I would have liked more time to have been given showing him in more of a normal state. His relationship with his sister also exposes an underlying sexual theme that never gets sufficiently explored

Although the terror is more cerebral it still has some choice moments including a shot of a decapitated head of a woman hung over her nude body as well as Maclaine’s extremely odd reaction to it. The ritual involving the attempted removal of the dead soul from Joel’s body has a nice cinema vertite flair and when the man lights some kerosene on the floor and steps in it with his bare feet it looks genuine and not staged. The climatic sequence that takes place in a remote beach house is intense and includes the controversial scene showing a young boy being forced to strip as well as a young girl having to eat dog food from a dog dish that was excised from many prints, but intact on the Legend Films DVD release. There is also a cool twist that occurs at the very, very end.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: May 24, 1972

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Rated R

Director: Waris Hussein

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD

See No Evil (1971)

see no evil

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Psycho stalks blind girl.

Sarah (Mia Farrow) is a young woman who becomes permanently blinded during a horse riding accident. After months of rehabilitation she returns to her family home in the English countryside. Dealing with her new handicap is awkward at first, but things go genuinely smoothly. Unfortunately a psychotic man harboring a petty grudge lurks in the shadows. One day while Sarah is away he murders her entire family and when she returns he goes after her, but the viewer is as in the dark as she is to his identity as all that is shown are the nifty looking cowboy boots that he walks in.

Veteran director Richard Fleischer takes Brian Clemens compact script and turns it into a visual masterpiece. The camera angles and shot compositions are not only perfect, but highly creative. One of the highlights is when Sarah comes home and doesn’t realize at first that her family is dead and only slowly becomes aware of it along with the viewer. The countryside, which was shot near Berkshire, England, is majestically captured particularly during the horse riding sequences. The pace is fast and intense and never lets up with twists that prove to be quite interesting.

Farrow has a limited range as an actress, but her delicate features and the character’s self-reliant nature make her easily likable and the viewer immediately becomes empathetic to her plight. The rest of the characters are well-rounded and believable with noted character actress Lila Kaye in a small, but memorable role as a gypsy mother.

The fact that the identity of the killer is kept a secret until the very end is an added bonus, but you actually do see his face in an earlier scene, but are not made aware that it is him, which I thought was pretty cool. The only misgivings that I had in this area is the fact that the killer supposedly murders these people in a fit of revenge for accidently splashing water on his precious boots when they drove past him in a car, but then later after he kills them he goes to bed and allows the droplets of blood from his victims to dry on his boots while he sleeps even though I felt with his obsessive preoccupation with them that he would have wiped that off right away. Also, for a man who brazenly murders a family in broad daylight for such a petty reason he seems to get a little too nervous about it afterwards even though if he is that crazy I would think that he would have remained cocky about it and felt that he would be able to murder anyone else who got in his way. He also puts up no fight in the end when he finally gets cornered making him look wimpy and making the climax a bit of a letdown.

Overall though I found this thriller to be highly entertaining and its effect has not diminished through repeat viewings. They don’t seem to be able to make them like this anymore, which is unfortunate.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Alternate Title: Blind Terror

Released: September 2, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 29Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Richard Fleischer

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

True Stories (1986)

true stories

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Eccentric people of Texas.

David Byrne the founder member of the influential Talking Heads rock group tries his hand at filmmaking, which to date has been his only directorial foray of a feature film and not including two documentaries that he did in the late 80’s and early 90’s. This film centers on weird characters that were inspired from tabloid magazine stories and the list of eccentric people include The Lazy Woman (Swoosie Kurtz) who is so rich that she never needs to get out of bed and has a wide array of servants or robotic hands to help her do everything. There is also John Goodman as a single man desperately seeking a mate, Jo Harvey Allen as a chronic lying woman and Alix Elias as The Cute Woman.

The film starts out with promise. Byrne focuses on interesting symmetrical designs and colors. I also liked how every other shot seems to focus on the vast flat emptiness of the Texas landscape as well as showing rows and rows of steel sheds something that no other filmmaker would think of doing, which helps give this a unique vision. The humor is consistently offbeat and amusing with my favorite moment coming during a fashion show where the runway models are shown to wear increasingly more outlandish outfits all to the excitement of an enthusiastic audience. Byrne’s parody of driving his car in front of a blue screen is also quite funny.

Goodman is a delight not only when he gets behind the microphone and sings ‘People Like Us’, but also his TV-ad looking for eligible women. Kurtz is quite funny too especially with her entranced look while watching banal and inane TV-shows. Spalding Gray adds a good presence and the scene where he tries to create the layout of a town while using food at a dinner table is great.

Unfortunately the film ends up being a misfire mainly because it has no real plot to speak of. The quirky ideas and goofy characters are wasted in a directionless movie that goes nowhere. Certain innovative touches like having a group of children coming out of an empty field to sing a song become confusing and pointless. Byrne’s own presence as an onscreen narrator quickly loses it welcome and eventually becomes annoying. It manages to come together a little during the last half-hour with some much needed cohesion, but it is not enough to save it.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: October 10, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 30Minutes

Rated  PG

Director: David Byrne

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

September 30, 1955 (1977)

september 30 1955

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Death of a legend.

The title represents the date that the legendary actor James Dean died in a car crash and his death has an adverse effect on a group of teens in a small southern town.

Richard Thomas is the main character who, along with his girlfriend Billie Jean (Lisa Blount), seems to get the most upset. Although some of his actions may seem fanatical it is really not as extreme as you may think or could’ve been and at no time does he ever lose sight of reality. For the most part the story is more a look at lost young souls searching for an identity than it is on celebrity worship.

The plot itself is slow with scenes that become unnecessarily drawn out with heavy-handed drama. The ending is unsatisfying as it doesn’t even give us a hint as to whatever became of these characters that are all left hanging in unfinished scenarios making the whole thing seem like just another sappy 70’s teen romance/ tragedy.

Beyond the poor structure there are some good points. One is the chance of seeing budding young talents like Tom Hulce, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Christopher working together and carrying a film. The other is director James Bridges who shows strong insight into Dean’s mystic and why he made such a powerful connection with the youth giving one the feeling that Bridges himself was a big Dean fan at the time as well. He also makes an effective statement about how many lost, lonely souls there are out there and the stifling nature of small town life. His recreation of the period is excellent and the interactions between the characters seem real and authentic. The assessment of the era is honest without being condescending and you feel like you are a part of the 50’s experience, which is interesting and fun.

Unfortunately it becomes too labored and trapped by the sensibilities of a bygone era while also being completely humorless and too talky.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: August 6, 1977

Runtime: 1Hour 41Minutes

Rated PG

Director: James Bridges

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD (Universal Vault), Amazon Instant Video