By Richard Winters
My Rating: 5 out of 10
4-Word Review: Terror at a diner.
The year is 1968 and the setting is a small, lonely diner nestled at the border of Texas and New Mexico. Richard (Hal Linden) and his violinist wife Clarissa (Lee Grant) arrive for a morning cup of coffee. There is also Angel (Stephanie Faracy) the diner’s lone waitress and Stephen (Peter Firth), who was nicknamed Red during his youth due to his red hair at the time, but besides them the place is empty and peaceful. Then Teddy (Marjoe Gortner), an unhinged Vietnam vet and his hippie girlfriend Chery (Candy Clark) enter. They are without money and stranded with a broken down van, which makes Teddy particularly volatile as he begins harassing the others with evasive questions before eventually terrorizing them all by trapping them inside the place and forcing them to do whatever weird, sick thing he asks.
The film is based on the 1973 Off Broadway play by Mark Medoff, who also wrote the screenplay. In many ways it’s similar to the 1967 black-and-white drama The Incident in which Tony Musante and a young Martin Sheen trap several subway riders inside a subway car and spend the rest of the night terrorizing them simply for their own personal amusement. Both films are structured the same with the first part examining the characters before they arrive at the scene and revealing a bit of the personal dramas that each of them face and then spending the second half showing them trapped in a claustrophobic setting and forced to deal with their reluctance at confronting their fears.
The 1967 film though outshines this one as there were more characters, which gave it a better variety of personalities as well as bad guys that were menacing and believable. Gortner is too much of a ham making him more irritating than scary. The part was originally played by Kevin Conway during its Off Broadway run and his performance won many accolades, which should’ve been enough for them to have offered him the chance to reprise the role here. Gortner, who also produced seemed intent at trying to use this as a vehicle to promote himself as being a ‘serious’ actor, but he was too old for the role from the beginning since he was already in his mid-30’s at the time this was shot while vets coming back from the war during the ‘60s where only in their late teens or early 20’s.
The film only gets mildly interesting during the confrontation sequence inside the diner, which takes 45 minutes of the film’s 2-hour runtime just to get there. The way the characters respond to Gortner’s scare tactics and the supporting cast’s performances, who are all far better actors than Gortner, is the movie’s only compelling element, but even here there are issues. The biggest one being that the people seem too wimpy and today’s viewers will get frustrated at how overly compliant they are to Gortner’s demands and never once try to overpower him despite having ample opportunity.
The movie is also notorious for featuring some rather shocking moments of nudity. It starts out with a full body shot of Candy Clark in the buff, who was married to Gortner in real-life at the time this was made and that isn’t too bad, but then it proceeds to later show 48-year-old Linden in nothing but speedo shorts doing sit ups with his butt crack clearly exposed. Still later there is a scene where 52-year-old Lee Grant has her shirt hoisted all the way over her head with her breasts in full view and then paraded around the diner in mocking fashion. The film’s most over-the-top moment though comes when Gortner himself is stripped naked and bent over a table while having a proctoscope shoved up his rectum as he continues to have a conversation with the man who’s doing it.
Filmed on-location in Fabens, Texas, which was also the site of a famous scene in The Gateway, and Las Cruces, New Mexico the movie just doesn’t convey enough tension to make it compelling or worth catching. It would’ve worked better had it skipped the first half dealing with the backstories of the characters, which was never a part of the original play anyways and just gone straight into the diner sequence while also casting a leading actor that had some actual acting training.
My Rating: 5 out of 10
Released: February 9, 1979
Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes
Director: Milton Katselas
Studio: Columbia Pictures