Monthly Archives: October 2019

The Omen (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He’s the devil’s child.

Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is an American ambassador living in London who learns that his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) has given birth to a stillborn child. One of the priests at the hospital suggest that he take a newborn whose mother has just died during childbirth and treat it like it were his own, which he does, but without telling Katherine. When they take the child home things start out fine, but eventually a series of strange deaths begin to occur to the people around them convincing the couple that their child may possess some sort of dark power as unbeknownst to them he is the son of the devil.

Considered at the time to be a rip-off of The Exorcist, whose success many other studios were hoping to replicate, this film has managed to rise above the rest of the tacky satanic themed films of that decade and in the process has created a franchise of its own that at this point has spawned 3 sequels, 1 remake, 5 novels, and even a TV-series. While the story does border on being unintentionally campy at many points it still succeeds due to the death scenes that many consider the best moments of the film, but for me the creepiest part is when they go into the small, dingy room of the priest who has every inch of the walls covered with pages of the bible.

The film’s weakest link is the child who’s given only a few words of dialogue making his presence transparent and not frightening at all. If this kid is from hell then he should behave like it by doing mean things that the Patty McCormack character did in The Bad Seed, but he doesn’t and with a few exceptions he behaves pretty much like a normal kid, which ultimately makes him uninteresting.

Spoiler Alert!

While Peck is solid I felt his character arch was too wide as he starts out as a non-believer, or at least we can assume this since he doesn’t take his kid to church until he is already 5, who goes from  being skeptic to paranoid believer too quickly. Having him start out as devoutly religious would’ve made his transition less extreme and might not have required the David Warner character, who ends up ‘educating’ Peck about Damian, being needed at all.

Remick, whose only facial expression is that of panic,  is equally one-dimensional and genuinely wasted. I also felt the scene where she gets knocked off the chair that she is standing and then literally leap frogged over the railing was too exaggerated as she most likely would’ve just fallen onto the upstairs floor instead. Seeing the later shot of her crashing through the roof of an ambulance gets too underplayed by showing only a small trickle of blood coming from her mouth when in reality her entire face would’ve been mangled, but isn’t

Billie Whitelaw as the sinister nanny Mrs. Baylock is terrific and helps add underlying tension, but I felt she should’ve come better prepared to protect the child. Granted she had a guard dog, but there needed to be another weapon at her disposal like a rifle that she could’ve used against Peck when he tried to take the child instead of just throwing herself at him physically in a desperate attempt to stop him, which nonetheless is still a great moment as it’s so rare to see a woman and a man going at it in a physical altercation while on equal footing, which should’ve been enough reason to have this scene extended out even more.

Ultimately though it’s Richard Donner’s outstanding direction and the way he implements interesting touches that keeps this thing engaging throughout instead of being laughable, which it could’ve easily have become otherwise. While it’s been many years since I saw the 2006 remake, and I can’t remember it in much detail, I did come away feeling this one was the better version and infinitely superior to its two sequels, which will be reviewed later today.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 25, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 51 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Richard Donner

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Savage Intruder (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Aging actress employs psycho.

Katharine Packard (Miriam Hopkins) was once a famous actress, but is now largely forgotten and lives like a recluse in her decaying Hollywood mansion. One day while drunk she falls down the stairs and breaks her hip. Vic (David Garfield) a unemployed vagabond who enjoys cutting off women’s hands after witnessing his mother (Sybelle Guardino) having sex with 5 different men at the same time when he was a child, gets hired as a nurse to help her get around while her hip recovers. Katharine enjoys having a young man around while Vic uses her lust for attention to manipulate her out of her money and live a more privilege lifestyle than he would otherwise. However, Leslie (Gale Sondergaard), who works as Katharine’s personal secretary, is onto what Vic is doing and becomes determined to put a stop to it.

This obscurity does at least offer the chance to see Hopkins, a one time big star of the 30’s and 40’s and at one point a rival to Bette Davies, in her last screen appearance and despite the tawdry material she really puts a lot of energy into it and her presence makes it more fun than it should. Sondergaard, who came out of a 20 year film hiatus to star in this, is quite good too and looks almost like a much scarier version of Morticia from ‘The Addams Family’, especially with her hair down.

David Garfield, who was the son of legendary actor John Garfield, is the only casting choice that doesn’t work. He lacks the same acting skill of his father and comes off like he was stoned and barely into his part at all. His one-dimensional character is dull and why anyone would hire him to take care of an old lady when there’s so many red flags about him right from the start makes the script seem very poorly thought out.

Donald Wolfe, who’s best known for writing a biography of Marilyn Monroe as well as an in depth look at the Black Dahlia murder, lends some interesting touches in his one and only directorial feature. His best bit comes right at the start where the camera captures the Hollywood sign real close-up, focusing on how rusted and tattered it was with no music and only a howling wind blowing while the opening credits appear onscreen.

The violence is more graphic and bloody than you’d expect for a film from that time period, so gorehounds may rejoice, but it also becomes quite redundant as the only thing you ever see are women’s hands getting caught off again and again. The story also lacks any interesting twists and plays itself out in a painfully predictable way with characters that are too dense to figure out what’s going on even after the viewer has already caught on to things way earlier. Shooting it on-location at the sprawling estate of former silent film actress Norman Talmadge is not effective as it doesn’t take full advantage of the large, majestic home by only managing to capture a few of the rooms and doing it with dark, dingy lighting, which despite a few flashes of flair here and there help to ultimately make this a very boring and thankless viewing experience.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: October 4, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Donald Wolfe

Studio: JBA

Available: None at this time.

Frenchman’s Farm (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Witnessing a past murder.

Jackie (Tracey Tainsh) goes traveling in her car throughout the Australian countryside while bush fires rage all around her. When her car breaks down she visits the nearest farmstead for help. It is there that she finds herself suddenly swept back to the year 1944 where she witnesses a murder and then just as quickly she comes back to the present day. When she tries to tell others what happened nobody believes her, but eventually her boyfriend Barry (David Reyne) takes up her cause and with the benefit of old news articles help find the real killer and the secret behind what motivated it.

Although marketed as a horror flick, it seems more like iffy sci-fi and could’ve easily have been targeted to a pre-teen audience since it’s not all that tense, or scary, especially with the majority of it filmed in the bright sunny daytime. When it does finally take place in the darkness of night a cliched thunderstorm gets conveniently put in while the killer is made out to being a ghost who pops in and out like it’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Initially I kind of liked that that she didn’t stay stuck in the past and was able to be her own detective, which kept me intrigued for awhile yet it started to make me wonder why the time traveling event occurred to begin with, which the movie has no suitable explanation for except to say that the bush fires created some sort of ‘atmospheric disturbance’, but if that was the case why was she the only one affected? The film also does a poor job of recreating a past era, as Jackie and her boyfriend go back to the farm where the murder occurred, but do it in the present day and yet the trees in the backyard where she witnessed the killing 40 years earlier all look the same even though they should’ve either died or grown bigger.

I found it annoying too that the boyfriend, who has a generic ‘surfer dude’ presence, starts to take over the investigation even though it really wasn’t his personal battle to solve. In order for him to take such an interest he should’ve been transported back in time with Jackie, or for a more original touch, it could’ve been Jackie and a female friend who witnessed the killing and then proceeded to becoming amateur sleuths together.

A few veteran Aussie character actors, such as an aging John Meillon, help give it some stature, but the production overall is quite bland and how it ever got considered as being a part of the Ozploitation genre, which stands for Australian exploitation cinema, is beyond me since outside of a brief skinny-dipping minute there’s nothing titillating or shocking about it.

The ‘surprise ending’ is also really dumb and doesn’t even involve the main character who gets phased out of the storyline before the ending even comes about, which is not satisfying for the viewer to follow a character around  for the whole movie only to have her ultimate fate left open to a murky explanation.

 

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: September 9, 1987

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ron Way

Studio: CEL Film Distribution

Available: DVD

The Beast in the Cellar (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Elderly sisters harbor prisoner.

Soldiers throughout the English countryside are being gruesomely murdered by what seems to be some wild beast, but the authorities have no idea what type of creature it is, or where it came from. Ellie (Beryl Reid) and Joyce (Flora Robson) are two elderly sisters living together in an isolated rural home, who fear they may know the answer and it has something to do with a dark family secret that lies imprisoned in their basement.

The film’s perceived charm revolves around the casting of two legendary actresses in offbeat roles where they at times come-off both as antagonists and the anti-heroes. Reid is especially interesting because here she’s a child-like individual while just a few years earlier she was a controlling, domineering woman to Susannah York’s child-like one in The Killing of Sister George, so seeing her able to play both parts effectively is fun and impressive.

The banter between the two though needed to be played-up more and I was expecting, given the storyline, more of a campy, dark humored tone, which really never manifests. The dialogue gets too extended, as the women do nothing, but pretty much talk, talk, talk until it seemed to be almost a filmed stageplay with the camera locked in the house and nothing visually stimulating to captivate the viewer.

The scares consist mainly of a handheld camera swinging back and forth  in an apparent attempt to replicate the beast attacking the victim, which ends up being more dizzying and amateurish looking than frightening and the fact that this technique gets done with each attack makes it quite derivative. It would’ve been better had the attacks not been played-out at all, but instead simply revealed the mangled. bloody body afterwards. The film also makes the tacky error of portraying the eyeball, which gets gouged out on one victim, as being shaped like a ping pong ball, which is probably what was used, when in reality it is more oval shaped.

A good horror film should have a frightening image to latch onto, but here that’s lacking despite a few prime opportunities where one could’ve been implemented. Reid’s retelling to the police inspector about the backstory dealing with their basement prisoner has some interesting cutaways making it the best part of the movie, but no shot of the shell-shocked, war weary father even though he’s an integral component to the plot. The ultimate reveal of the beast is highly disappointing in a climactic finish that completely fizzles, which makes sitting through this not worth your time.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: April 14, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated R

Director: James Kelly

Studio: Tigon Film Distributors

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Allison’s Birthday (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Teen ages very rapidly.

Allison (Joanne Samuel) decides to spend her 19th birthday with her aunt (Bunney Brooke) and uncle (John Bluthal) who live in rural Australia and have been raising her ever since her parents died when she was just a child. However, this visit includes her meeting her elderly grandmother (Marion Jones) for the first time and a mysterious illness that also affects her while she is there. Her aunt and uncle refuse to allow her boyfriend Peter (Lou Brown) to visit causing him to go to great lengths to get her away from them and back to safety as he fears they’ve come under the influence of a cult.

This low budget Australian sleeper managed to become a hit in its own country mainly from its attempts to work against-the-grain of that era by creating a horror film that did not involve blood and gore, but instead relied on good old fashioned creepiness. For the most part it succeeds, but gets hampered by a plot that plays itself out too slowly.

It becomes too obvious that her aunt and uncle have some evil intent in mind and this should’ve been camouflaged better because when the big reveal finally does come about during the third act it’s not surprising at all. The cult that they’re involved with is portrayed in such a cliched way from the tacky black robes that they wear to the Stonehenge-like meeting place that  it seems like high camp. The opening sequence featuring a ouji board and a talking spirit, is equally heavy-handed and almost sinks this thing before it’s barely begun.

Some of the action segments particularly her boyfriend’s attempts to outrun the cult members who try chasing him down is exciting, but he’s in too much of the movie, while Allison remains virtually bedridden making it seem like he’s the main character instead of her. A good protagonist should be able to fight her own battles and in this case she does too little, which doesn’t elicit enough emotion from the viewer to want to cheer her on.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s twist ending in which, due to the ritual ceremony done by the cult, a young Allison suddenly wakes up to find herself trapped inside the body of her grandmother, is pretty cool and genuinely quite horrifying when you think about it. However, this should’ve occurred during the middle part and the rest of the film spent with her trying to return her spirit back to her youthful body, which could’ve involved a wide array of intriguing and unique elements. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen making the film only a skeletal blueprint of what it could’ve been.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: May 1, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Ian Coughlan

Studio: Australian Film Institute

Available: VHS

Happy Mother’s Day, Love George (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Searching for his father.

Johnny (Ron Howard) is a young man who arrives in a small seaside town searching for the identity of his parents. After speaking with the various eccentric personalities that live there he come to the determination that a waitress at a local cafe named Ronda (Cloris Leachman) is his mother, but she refuses to divulge who the father is and he begins to suspect that the secret may lie in the strained relationship that she has with her sister Cara (Patricia Neal).

It’s hard to tell what motivates people to take on certain projects. Darren McGavin had a great career in front of the camera, but this remains outside of a few TV episodes that he did, his only foray as a director. Yet it means little as the story is quite pedestrian and moves at a slow pace making it seem more like a drama and it takes until the third act before there are any chills at all.

The on-location shooting, which was done in the seaside towns of Mahone Bay and Lunenburg that are both situated in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, is quite scenic and it almost seemed like McGavin and his crew had access to the entire town as the camera follows Howard walking up and down the residential streets while homeowners stare out their windows at him at each house that he passes. If this was a film specializing in the New England vibe it would be a success, but as a horror film the plot progresses too slowly and by the time the mystery finally gets answered you really don’t care  anymore.

The eclectic cast is interesting and really the only reason to watch it. Bobby Darin, in his last film, shows great potential as a feisty short-order cook, but his screen time is painfully limited. Neal gets in a few snarky remarks, but not much else and Leachman essentially channels the same character that she played in The Last Picture Show.

The one that gets the showiest part is Tessa Dahl who was Neal’s daughter in real-life and looks almost exactly like her to the point that I initially thought she was Neal at first. Her British accent helps add some flair as does her knife-wielding finish. Even more ironic is the fact that she has grown in recent years to suffer serious mental health issues much like her character.

As a novelty this film, which was reissued as Run Stranger Run, might be worth checking out just to see Opie with dark brown hair instead of his trademark red, but as a horror flick it lacks punch and has very little scares.

Alternate Title: Run Stranger Run

Released: August 17, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Darren McGavin

Studio: Cinema 5 Distributing

Available: VHS

April Fool’s Day (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: It’s all a prank.

A group of college students get together at an excluded island home of one of their friends Muffy (Deborah Foreman) to celebrate their last year in school together. Then as the weekend progresses they find that a killer is knocking them off one-by-one. Will the remaining survivors be able to escape, or is there something more to these murders that no one realizes?

The film was an attempt to revive what at the time was a lost interest in the slasher genre by creating a irreverent tone to the staid formula and in that regard it does an okay job. The main issue though is that it gets too jokey making it seem more like a misguided comedy that losses sight of its intended horror fan audience completely.

I didn’t mind a few of the pranks, but too much time gets spent on them and 40 minutes seemed to be a ridiculous wait (if you don’t count the injury that occurs on the initial boat ride in, which seemed more like an accident) before we even get to the first killing. The pranks bordered on being too elaborate and something a regular person wouldn’t be able to pull off. For instance one deals with Rob (Ken Olandt) turning off one light in a room only to have another one turn on, all to the amusement of his girlfriend (Amy Steel) who apparently (I guess?) rigged the lights to do this, but where did she  get the electrical background or time to wire the room in this manner?

If the pranks are supposed to revolve around the fact that it’s April Fool’s Day then all the action should  take place within a 24-hour period instead of over several days. The scenery doesn’t have a spring-like look either as there should be blossoms and buds on the trees, but instead, since it was filmed in August, it looks more like late summer.

The cast comes-off too much like crude and obnoxious junior high kids whose only topic of conversation is sex instead of young adults ready to enter the working world and their dialogue doesn’t seem genuine.  One dumb bit has Harvey (Jay Baker) trying to make amends with Nikki (Deborah Goodrich) by trying to prove to her he really isn’t as much of a ‘dick’ as she thinks, but then proceeds to tell that he’d like to ‘plow her field’, which would only convince her otherwise.

Spoiler Alert!

The killings are brief and feature virtually no gore at all, which will disappoint those expecting to see at least a little. The ending, which reveals the killings to being just another gag, was novel, but there still needed to be a secondary twist. In the film’s original cut Skip (Griffin O’ Neal) kills Muffy after everyone else has left the island, but the studio execs nixed this opting for an ‘upbeat’ ending instead. Upbeat endings are fine if it’s a comedy, but a horror film should have a dark undertone and the fact that this one doesn’t have one at all makes it woefully undernourished.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: March 28, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Fred Walton

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube.

The 8th Annual Horrorween Film Festival

We here at Scopophilia are proud to announce our 8th Annual Horrorween fest where between now and Halloween we’ll review horror movies only, but this year there will be a slight twist to it. Usually we only review films from the 60’s through the 80’s, but this year we’ll also take a look at a couple of post 2000 horror films that were remakes of classics from the 70’s and see how they compare to the originals. So bolt your windows and lock your doors and get ready to be scared!

Boardwalk (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Gang terrorizes elderly couple.

David and Becky (Lee Strasberg, Ruth Gordon) are an elderly couple who spent their entire lives living on Coney Island, but find that their once nice neighborhood has been overtaken by a street gang lead by Strut (Kim Delgado) who demands money from David for ‘protection’. When David refuses to comply it causes Strut and his gang to go on an unrelenting terror campaign where they not only evade David’s home and scare Becky, but also destroy the synagogue where he worships.

The film has a nice independent feel to it and I enjoyed the way the neighborhood’s of Coney Island, many of them with old and picturesque homes gets captured, but this also proves problematic because the area comes off looking too nice to be marred by gangs. In order for the plot to make more sense the couple should’ve been living in a rundown tenet building in an extremely bad part of town instead something looking straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

The gang itself is laughable and outside of their campy looking leader seem to be made up of children no older than the fifth or fourth grade. The kids behave threateningly one minute and then get quickly scared off the next. The way they scurry off like a flock of frightened birds makes them seem not very street tough at all, but instead like a bunch of hellions with too much time on their hands and not enough adult supervision. I was also confused why they never get caught and thrown into juvenile detention since they commit most of their crimes in broad daylight for everyone to see.

The story doesn’t focus that much on their activities either as there are long segments in between the gang activities that deal instead with Becky’s cancer and David’s grandson Peter’s (Michael Ayr) rocky love-life, which is actually more interesting and made me believe that the gang storyline could’ve been cut out completely and the movie would’ve been better off for it.

Strasberg, gives a good performance though he’s a bit too serious and probably unable to play a comedic role, or be funny even if he wanted to. Gordon is okay too, despite the fact that her delivery always makes her sound like she’s drunk, but having her collapse and die quite literally in the middle of their 50th wedding anniversary party was over-the-top.

I enjoyed Joe Silver’s supporting performance as David’s grown son especially when he chases a kid who refuses to pay for his food out onto the street and then physically drags him back inside. The scene where David and Becky look through an issue of Playboy before going to sleep is amusing too, but overall the amateurish way it portrays the young gang and the violence that they commit ends up sinking it especially with its  laughable ending.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: November 14, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Stephen Verona

Studio: Atlantic Releasing Corporation

Available: YouTube

Dad (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Son cares for father.

John (Ted Danson) is a busy executive who learns during one of his business meetings that his mother (Olympia Dukakis) has had a heart attack and rushes back home to care for his father (Jack Lemmon) who isn’t use to doing things on his own. John teaches his father how to do the every day chores while also learning to bond with his own son Billy (Ethan Hawke) who comes to visit. Just as things seem to be getting better and his mother gets out of the hospital it is the father who then gets sick with cancer leading to even further complications.

The film is based on the 1981 novel of the same name by William Wharton, which I’ve never read, but if it’s anything like this script then it’s not too good. One the main problems is the extreme shifts in tone that starts out with elements of Rain Man and then at the halfway mark becomes like a dark satire of incompetent medical delivery in the vein of Hospital and then in the third act turns almost fable-like.

My biggest beef is the pseudo-science that gets thrown in after the father goes to the hospital with his cancer. This is when the old man suddenly without warning starts going delusional and then ultimately into coma only to one day miraculous snap out of it. We’re told that the explanation for this is that the father was so fearful of cancer that the brain produced some sort of enzyme that acted as a defense mechanism that shut off the mind so it wouldn’t have to deal with it and it was the love shown by the son that ultimately allowed the dad to come back to consciousness, but what reputable medical journal has ever discussed this phenomenon?  Things get even more ludicrous when the old guy starts thinking he’s on a farm in a different time period and we’re told this is a schizophrenic condition caused by the cancer and everyone needs to play along with it, or he’ll go back into a coma.

Danson, for what it’s worth, gives a strong performance here, probably the best in his otherwise lukewarm film career. I found it frustrating though that his character doesn’t have all that much of an arch. Supposedly he’s self-centered at the start and needs to learn to be caring, but this only gets explained by the character during a long soliloquy during the middle part, when the viewer should’ve instead seen the transition play out. I also thought it was wacky that he’d be allowed to bring in a cot and stay with his father inside his hospital room as I’m pretty sure most doctors would not allow this.

Lemmon’s performance is good too, but I didn’t like how a tuft of white hair was kept on his otherwise balding head as I found it distracting. While it was nice that his character wasn’t a crotchety old man, which has become a bit of a cliche, I found his extreme dependency on his wife, to the point where he allowed her to dress him and even butter his toast despite the fact that he was physically able to do it himself, as pathetic. His later transition to laid-back hippie who wears colorfully garish outfits as he takes on a whole new perspective on life is too jarring and extreme.

The film never comes together as a whole and if anything could’ve been shortened with the first half dealing with the mother’s heart attack taken out and just started with the father’s cancer diagnosis as that’s when the main plot gets going. In either case it tries too hard to be cute while compromising too much on the believability.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: November 10, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 57 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gary David Goldberg

Studio: Universal Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube