Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Scalphunters (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Don’t steal his furs.

Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) is a trapper who has all of his furs stolen from him by a group of Indians. In return they give him Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) a very educated black slave. The two do not hit it off right away and Joe becomes determined at getting his property back by following the Indians and waiting for them to get drunk off the liquor that he had hidden with the hides that they took. Just as he is ready to make a move the Indians are attacked and killed by a group of scalphunters led by Howie (Telly Savalas) who take Joe’s pelts for themselves. Joe chases after them determined to get back what he feels is rightfully his and plays a crafty game of cat and mouse with Howie and his group. Joseph Lee on the other hand decides to travel with the group and become the personal servant to Howie’s grouchy wife Kate (Shelly Winters) as they plan on going to Mexico where slavery is outlawed.

This is a highly engaging and amiable comedy/western. It is hard to dislike this movie, or not to be entertained by it. The performers play their parts to the hilt. Lancaster is perfect as the not-so-bright, but highly resourceful trapper who has the perseverance you gotta love. Savalas has always done well in villainous roles and the fact that he adds some comic touches to it as he consistently finds himself outsmarted by Joe and nagged by his wife is funny. Winters always shines in caricatures of desperate and pathetic people and this one proves no exception. However, it is Davis that really makes the film work. This is probably the best role of his career. The amusing way he deals with everyone who are all quite convinced that they are smarter than he is, but aren’t is what really makes the movie fun. His bantering and arguing with Joe is good as well.

The comedy is nicely balanced as it stays consistently humorous, but manages to avoid becoming farcical. There are still enough gritty elements to call it a true western, which is good. Some of the best moments though are Joe’s ongoing ‘negotiations’ with Howie as well as an avalanche of rocks that Joe creates on Howie’s caravan when he refuses to give him his furs. I also enjoyed the long and stretched out fist fight between Joe and Joseph at the end that continues even as a bloody Indian attack occurs all around them. The two end-up tumbling through a muddy lake and seeing their bodies and faces covered in thick, caked on mud is a hilarious sight.

Director Sydney Pollock is in fine form. I loved the way he captures the surrounding landscape, which is lushly photographed with a wide lens. It was filmed on-location in Mexico and a wide variety of picturesque locales were chosen.  The DVD version is an especially clear transfer with bright, vivid colors that make you feel you are right there alongside the characters.

Although I found this enjoyable I still felt that the script by William Norton seemed to be missing something. The scenario is a little too simple and one-dimensional and I was hoping for something more maybe even a side-story, or added twist. The movie is sufficient for entertainment, but lacks the added element to make it a classic. There was potential, but it’s kept it at a mild level making it fun, but not memorable.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: April 2, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour, 42Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Sydney Pollock

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix streaming

The Car (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: No driver no problem.

This is an expectedly dumb horror film about a driverless car that comes out of the desert and begins to terrorize a small town in Utah.

The film fails to be scary or suspenseful in even the slightest way. It is basically a Jaws rip-off put on wheels, but has no basis in reality and not half as compelling. It takes a weird idea and then submerges it with a conventional narrative. The car attacks are separated by drawn out soap opera style drama making you look forward to the attacks because at least they inject some excitement. The attacks though are pretty sanitized and at times even hokey. The ending is too pat and offers no explanation as to why any of this even occurred. The consistently sunny and picturesque small town scenes are not good at creating a horror atmosphere. The one brief moment where actor James Brolin confronts the car on a lonely desert highway is the only part that offers anything in the way of interesting surrealism.

The car itself really doesn’t look that frightening and resembles a toy car and moves around like it is being run by remote control. Its horn sounds like a cross between one used for a train or a boat and comes off as being more distracting than scary. It behaves more like a thinking animal than a demonic object. It drives away from the police and seems to have a strategy for what it does. The scenes where actress Kathleen Lloyd tries to ‘talk’ to it and its responses to her talking is downright laughable.

For what it’s worth R.G. Armstrong gets one of his better grimy character roles, but Lloyd is completely wasted as usual and Brolin seems as sterile as ever. Ronny Cox must be given credit simply for his wonderfully distressed facial expressions. John Rubenstein is engaging, but then gets killed off too quickly.

Director Elliot Silverstein adds a few nice directorial touches, but it can’t overcome the basic weaknesses of the script. The closing credits features the car seemingly driving around the streets of Los Angeles in apparent attempt to ‘scare’ everyone into believing that it might still be ‘out there’. Of course judging by all the bad drivers L.A. already has this car wouldn’t make much of a difference.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 13, 1977

Runtime: 1Hour 36Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Elliot Silverstein

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD

The Dark Half (1993)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cure for writer’s block.

Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) is a novelist who writes under the pen name of George Stark, but then decides to do away with it. Unfortunately this pen name slowly starts to take on a life and identity of its own. When George is ‘killed’ he becomes angry and starts to seek revenge.

Some of the things that I liked about the movie were the theme, which is interesting because it examines the idea that we are all two people. The one we want people to know and the other we repress. It also gives a thoughtful look at just how difficult writing a book can be. The climactic sequence is one of the most unique ‘showdowns’ you will ever see as both our hero and his dark half sit down across from each other to write a book of their own and the first one to finish lives while the other will die. There is also a nice creepy little nightmare segment.

However, there are a lot of things that don’t work in this movie and the majority of it looks like reprocessed stuff you’ve seen before. For one thing the musical score that gets overplayed. It’s like we are back in the silent film era and need it played in every segment just to keep the film going. The use of the sparrows as some symbolic reference seems awkward. They are not scary even when shown in flocks and having to see a shot of them flying around every other scene becomes annoying and redundant. The basic premise itself has potential, but gets stretched too far.

Hutton was not a good choice for this. He doesn’t display enough fear or emotion with the scenario. He approaches everything like a properly trained student of drama instead of as a method actor and playing the character’s dark half isn’t much better. He is supposed to be a creepy southern guy, but instead comes off as a bad, campy version of Elvis. The make-up effects never look realistic. It’s also irritating how these super smart, super clever bad guys always get so gosh darn dumb at all the right moments.

Amy Madigan makes a good non-glamorous wife, but accomplished actress Julie Harris is pretty much wasted although she does get the film’s best line.

Overall this is an offbeat idea that is given routine treatment. Having George Romero as the director doesn’t seem to add anything and he certainly has been slumming for quite a while.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: April 23, 1993

Runtime: 2Hours 2Minutes

Rated R

Director: George A. Romero

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD

The Burning (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cropsy doesn’t look good.

A summer camp caretaker named Cropsy (Lou David) is badly burned during a practical joke gone horribly wrong. Five years later and disfigured he gets out of the hospital and goes on a murderous rampage using a pair of gardening shears. However, he kills young campers at a completely different campsite and who had nothing to do with his accident.

Jason Alexander, in his film debut, is great. He shows a lot of charisma and pretty much carries the movie. You not only get to see him with a full head of hair, but for the lady viewers you also see his bare behind along with Fisher Stevens’s. This is also Holly Hunter’s first film, but she is seen very little. The teen characters here look like real teenagers instead of college- aged young adults like in most of the other films in this genre. They also have a little more distinctive personalities and aren’t quite as cardboard as usual. The women are good looking and there is a gratuitous nude scene involving actress/model Carole Houlihan.

On the Blue Underground DVD version make-up artist Tom Savini hosts a bonus feature, but warns everyone at the start not to watch it until they have seen the film so as not to ‘spoil’ it for them. However, it is hard to figure out what exactly it is that he would be spoiling as the movie is routine to the extreme. There are absolutely no interesting plot twists or surprises. It is also hard to believe that anyone could get a pair of simple gardening shears to do the things this killer gets them to do. The only really scary scene in this film is at the beginning where you get to see a close-up of actor Lou David’s strangely shaped nose. The camera slowly zooms into him as he is sleeping and you feel almost like you are being driven into his extremely large nostrils that seem to get bigger and bigger.

Savini’s special effects really don’t seem all that impressive especially in this day and age. There is a scene on the infamous raft killing sequence where it is quite obvious that the neck that the shears are cutting through is plastic and not really that of the actor’s. Also during the opening sequence when Cropsy runs out of the cabin while on fire he is not wearing anything on top of his head yet when the camera cuts to an outdoor shot of him it is obvious that the stunt double has something on his head.

I found this to be as bad and as uninspired as all the other Friday the 13th rip-offs. This is good only as a curio at seeing Alexander, Stevens and Hunter in their film debuts.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 8, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated R

Director: Tony Maylam

Studio: Filmways Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Gotta love Sophia Loren.

This is a delightful comedy that won the Academy Award in 1964 for best foreign film. It consists of 3 vignettes all starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni and directed by the legendary Vittorio De Sica.

The first segment is entitled ‘Adelina’ and is a story about Adelina (Loren) who lives in poverty and sells cigarettes for a living. She is arrested for selling contraband products, but is released when it is found that she is expecting with the condition that six months after she delivers the baby she will be forced to serve her sentence. However, Adelina and her husband Carmine (Mastroianni) decide that the best way to avoid the sentence altogether is by keeping her continuously pregnant. Once she delivers one child she immediately gets pregnant with another, which creates overcrowding as well as an exhausted Carmine.

This segment is original and amusing throughout. Watching them trying to handle and maintain a household with such a large brood has its share of funny moments including one scene where Adelina tries to give one of her petulant children his medication. This setting vividly shows the poor side of Italian society, but unlike De Sica’s neo-realist films of the 40’s this one has a very engaging and even upbeat quality to it. The impoverished townsfolk become like a third character and their resiliency and support of one another proves to be a major plus to the story. Loren is fantastic in every scene she is in and makes this one special. Mastroianni is interesting playing against type as he is usually debonair and sophisticated, but here is simple and dominated.

The second story entitled ‘Anna’ deals with characters on the completely opposite end of the economic spectrum. Anna (Loren) is a spoiled rich woman who in an effort to alleviate her boredom with her husband who spends too much time working she has an affair with Renzo (Mastroianni). Renzo though fears that he is being used and that Anna has no intention of ever leaving her luxurious lifestyle to be with him.

All of the action takes place in a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III convertible as the two characters discuss their relationship while driving through the streets of Rome. This story is not as lively as the first and the characters aren’t as likable. However, the part where Renzo has an accident with the car and Anna’s reaction to it is quite funny.

The third and final act is entitled ‘Mara’ and deals with a prostitute named Mara (Loren) who becomes interested in Umberto (Gianni Ridolfi) a young man living next door with his Grandmother (Tina Pica) and studying to become a priest. The grandmother does not approve of Mara’s ‘profession’ and openly shuns her causing a major discord between the two, but when Umberto decide to drop out of the seminary the two work together to try and bring him back to his senses.

This story, like the first, has many amusing moments. Loren shows impeccable comic ability. I loved how the character goes from sexy seductress to a woman pleading with Umberto to go back to seminary and escape this ‘wicked world’. The shift between having Mara and the grandmother hating each other to becoming friends is equally funny. Mastroianni doesn’t have as much to do here, but still makes the most of it playing one of Mara’s customers who is just looking for a little sex, but is reluctantly thrown into the middle of the controversy.

This segment became famous at the time for a striptease that Loren does for Mastroianni. However, by today’s standards it is not much and hardly even seemed worth mentioning. I actually thought the part where Loren walks outside wearing nothing more than a towel and provocatively singing a flirtatious song to the young Umberto, who has a face that looks like it had not reached puberty, was much steamier.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 19, 1963

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Studio: Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix streaming, Amazon Instant Video

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Crazy lady versus vampires.

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) is recovering from a nervous breakdown and taken to a secluded Connecticut home for rest and recuperation. Here she starts to see strange visions, but nobody believes her making her the only one aware of the dangers that are brewing around them.

Haunted houses, ghosts, zombies, weird townspeople, madness, vampires, and even a tacky séance this film seems to want to take all the elements from other horror movies and mix it into one. The idea may sound great, but the approach is tepid. This may be due to its low budget, but either way the final result is unexciting. Yes it is creepy and eerie specifically at the beginning, but it never manages to get to the next level with no real scares or even a few minor ones.

The film is also slow with some stodgy drama used as filler. The special effects are minimal and the little that is shown looks unrealistic. Only at the very end do things start to get interesting.

Director John Hancock adds a little flair and had the script been able to reach the level of its scintillating title this film might actually have been special. His framing and photography of the outside of the old house is good. There is also a shot of an early morning sun rising off a foggy lake that makes for a perfect creepy atmosphere. I also like his placement of the howling wind and the whispering voices although he does go to this well a little too often.

One good reason to watch this film is too see Lampert. Although always a supporting player this was to date her only starring vehicle. She has a distinctive look and style that doesn’t match the glamour of a conventional leading lady. Her face exposes a nice fragility to the vulnerable character that she plays and her performance of a tormented person is excellent.

Although she has a pair of unique blue eyes like actress Meg Foster Mariclaire Costello, as the ghost/vampire, is just not frightening. The rest of the characters are boring and seem almost like stand-ins.

I got a kick out of the antique dealer (Alan Manson) who tells Jessica about the death of the original owner of the home that she is now living in. The tale is bland and transparent even though he insists, several times, that it is ‘quite extraordinary’.

Released: August 6, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 29Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John D. Hancock

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Misery (1990)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: She’s his biggest fan.

Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is a writer who has just finished his latest novel. On the way back to his publisher (Lauren Bacall) he gets stranded in a freak snowstorm and ends up being ‘saved’ by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) who is his ‘number one fan’. He is injured so she takes him to her nearby house where she proceeds to make him a helpless prisoner to her tormented and delusional mind.

The story has some interesting underlying elements. The film doesn’t really explore them, but does at least touch on it. It is the metaphor of the artist and the public. He is an educated man and yet his stories appeal to those with less education and what he puts into his work isn’t always what they take out of it. He doesn’t really like these stories and wants to expand his craft, but can’t because the formulaic stuff is what sells. In a way Paul was already trapped by Annie long before he ever got to her house and it is a sad dilemma a lot of artistic people have to deal with.
Bates as Annie plays the part really well. She is the ordinary, bland looking woman that you would never think about or consider dangerous. Her strange, erratic behaviors are slowly revealed until in the end the complete monster inside is unleashed. Screenwriter William Goldman, director Rob Reiner, and Bates herself show a good understanding of the character and what makes her tick. They create a woman who is complex, real, frightening, and at times even sad and pathetic.

Caan is a good competent actor however any one of number of actors could have played the part and maybe even done better. Yet you really sense and feel his confinement and ever growing frustration and when he finally revolts at the end you love it!

On the whole the thriller is pretty standard. There are some tense moments, but it is also routine and by the numbers. I thought it was too well lighted as a good psychological thriller always works best with a lot of shadows. The room Paul is trapped in looks more like it was done on a sound stage than in a real home and the film needed a few more unexpected twists.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 30, 1990

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated R

Director: Rob Reiner

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

The Nesting (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: House haunted by hookers.

This review will start off a month long theme where in celebration of Halloween every 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s movie reviewed will be a horror one. This film sat in pretty much obscurity until being released by Blue Underground onto DVD and Blu-ray on June 28th. The story deals with Lauren (Robin Groves) a writer who rents an old house that looks strangely similar to the one depicted on the cover of her last novel. Eerie events start to happen and she learns that the building used to be a house of ill-repute and the prostitutes who were murdered there in cold blood are now coming back in ghostly form to seek revenge.

The film was directed by Armand Weston best known for directing porn movies during the 70’s including a couple of edgy, envelope pushing rape and revenge sagas The Taking of Christina and The Defiance of Good.  The directing here is competent enough that it is watchable, but the scares and horror is at a minimum. There are a few moments of creepiness and atmosphere, but it is not sustained and the film is unable to build any momentum, or suspense. The result is rather disjointed and unfocused. The premise borders on being campy and a 104 minute run time is way too long for a plot that offers a meager payoff.

Groves is an unusual choice for the lead. Usually films in this genre cast young college age girls in these roles with high sex appeal and skimpy outfits so that way they will be able to hold the viewer’s (males) attention during the slow parts of which there are many. Groves on the other hand is middle-aged, has an oversized mouth, and a hyper personality that seems better suited for comedy. She does end up having a nude scene, which isn’t bad, but I still felt she wasn’t the right fit.

I did like the idea that the character is given some unusual traits including suffering from agoraphobia (the extreme fear of the outside world) and a kooky creative personality that initially embraces the scares that she receives in the home because she feels it will help stimulate her artistic process. However, the film does not pursue these ideas enough and by the end seemed to have completely forgotten about them.

I was disappointed that Gloria Grahame an Academy Award winning actress was given such little screen time and actually doesn’t even utter a line of dialogue until the final 15 minutes of the movie. This woman was a leading lady during the 40’s and 50’s, but had the misfortune of marrying director Nicholas Ray and then having an affair with Ray’s 17 year old son from a different marriage. She eventually married the son and even had two kids with him, but the resulting scandal ruined her career and demoted her to B-movies afterwards. Still I thought she looked terrific and was better looking than Groves even though she was in real-life twenty-five years older than her. Her best moment is when she crosses a street and then gets hit in rather graphic fashion and run over by a speeding car that gets repeated several times.

Veteran actor John Carradine also appears, but I wished they hadn’t even bothered with him. He appears frail and elderly and speaks his lines in a mumbling fashion.

I did like that the movie was filmed on-location at the Armour-Stiner house in Irvington, New York. This is a unique domed octagonal residence built in 1860 and one of the few left standing. There is even an outdoor scene filmed on the home’s roof where Lauren’s analyst (Patrick Farrelly) falls from a ledge and gets impaled by a weather vane, which proves to be the film’s best gory moment.

The wrap-up and explanation for why Lauren was so strangely attracted to the home is actually kind of neat. I also liked the scene recreating the murderous events where everybody ends up getting shot one-by-one in slow motion. However, the script was in bad need of trimming and revision. There also should have been more special effects sprinkled throughout the production instead of just cramming them all in during the film’s fiery finale.

nesting

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 3, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 44Minutes

Rated R

Director: Armand Weston

Studio: William Mishkin Motion Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video