Category Archives: 70’s Movies

Voyage of the Damned (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: This ship goes nowhere.

Based on the true story of the ill-fated voyage of 937 Jewish refugees who left the port of Hamburg, Germany in 1939 on the ocean liner St.Louis, which was supposed to arrive in Havana, Cuba where they hoped to start a new life free of the rising antisemitism that had plagued them in Europe. However, when the ship reaches Cuba they are not allowed to dock and when the ship’s Captain (Max Von Sydow) tries to take them to the US and Canada they are refused entry as well forcing them to return to Germany.

Given the high production values and riveting story-line I was expecting it to be far more compelling than it ends up being. It’s not like Stuart Rosenberg’s direction is poor either because it isn’t, but it never gains any dramatic traction and the more it goes on the more boring it gets. This is definitely one instance where cutting the runtime would’ve been advantageous. I know we live in an era where the ‘director’s cut’ is considered the gold standard, but sometimes there’s good reasons for why studios edit it and usually it’s because some of the footage just isn’t necessary. I watched the 158 version, but the theatrical cut was trimmed to 134 minutes and after watching this one I can only presume that version would’ve been an improvement and if anything could’ve gained a better pace, which is something that is seriously lacking here.

There also too many characters and it’s hard to keep track of all them or get emotionally invested in their quandary especially when by-and-large their all suffering from the same dilemma. The time span between when they show a character to when they return is so long that by the time you see them again you’ve pretty much forgotten all about them.

The large cast is full big names and familiar faces and a few of them do a terrific job. I felt Von Sydow’s performance as the beleaguered but stoic captain was right on-target and I also enjoyed Orson Welles as the glib Cuban politician. Kudos also should go to Lee Grant, who ended up getting nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar here, for her one shocking scene where she cuts her hair down to its scalp, but overall most of the talent gets wasted. This includes Denholm Elliot and Jose Ferrer who appear onscreen for only a few minutes and Katherine Ross who has only two scenes that come near the end, but still managed to somehow get a Golden Globe nomination for her efforts anyways.

Spoiler Alert!

The film ends on a supposed happy note when the ship’s captain informs the passengers that Belgium and France will accept them, but then the denouncement states that 600 of them ended up dying anyways during the German Occupation making the viewer feel much like the passengers that they’ve just spent almost 3-hours going in circles. Maybe that’s the point, but as an insightful drama it fails. I was almost hoping that the Captain would’ve gone through with his plan to have the ship crash off the shore of England and allowing the passengers to disembark as a safety precaution, but still trying to make it look like it was an accident and not intentional. Although this would’ve swayed from what really happened it could’ve been an interesting thing to see and brought some genuine action into the mix, which was otherwise missing.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 22, 1976

Runtime: 2 Hours 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Stuart Rosenberg

Studio: Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dog turns on owner.

Abel Marsh (James Garner) is the police chief of a small west coast seaside town who’s put in charge of investigating a baffling case where a dog inexplicably turned on its owner and killer her. The clues though don’t match up convincing Abel that the dog is innocent and used simply as a ruse to cover-up an even more sinister crime.

This is the first of four films all written by Lane Slate to feature the character of Abel Marsh. All of the subsequent films featured the same small town setting and quirky themed murders, but where made for TV instead featuring Alan Alda in the role of Abel for Isn’t it Shocking and then Andy Griffith playing the part in The Girl in the Empty Grave and Deadly Game.

The mystery here has its share of intriguing elements and I liked the methodical pace, which is reminiscent of actual police work where the clues don’t just come easily and quickly. I also liked how the viewer remains just as in the dark about who did it as the investigator. The subplot involving the doberman is interesting as well and like in the film To Kill a Clown, which came out the same year, the dog ends up being the ultimate scene-stealer from his human counterparts.

Due to this being the last film made on MGM’s famous backlot many former stars from Hollywood’s golden age agreed to appear in small roles including Ann Rutherford in an amusing bit as a old-school secretary who can’t figure out how to work an electric type writer. The best bit though comes from June Allyson who doesn’t have any speaking lines until the very end where she gets a bravura-like finale similar to Betsy Palmer’s in Friday the 13th and even sports the same type of hairstyle as hers and sweater/pants, which makes it all the more ironic.

The thing though that I found annoying was the formulaic romance that starts almost immediately between Garner and Katherine Ross. For one thing the mystery could’ve worked just as well had Ross’ character not been in it at all, but if they did feel the need to throw in a romantic subplot it’s always more interesting when there’s some friction or resistance at first only to have it evolve into a relationship later versus making it a ‘love at first sight’ scenario, which is too quick and unrealistic especially when there’s a 15-year age difference between the two.

What gets even more aggravating is that after spending the night with her Garner then starts to suspect that she may know more about the crime than she lets on, so the next day he storms into her apartment and quite literally starts strangling her to get the info. Then when he realizes he may have jumped to the wrong conclusion he leaves her place in a huff without even bothering to apologize. Several hours later he sheepishly returns, but instead of slamming the door in his face she asks if he’s alright?!

Later near the end of the film she returns to his office and acts like somehow it was all her fault and seems to leave things open to rekindling the romance, but why? Unless she’s desperate (and she’s way too beautiful for that) or has extremely low self-esteem she should’ve ended things right when he attacked her because it was an obvious red flag and the fact that she doesn’t shows how dated and out-of-touch the film is in regards to modern day relationship dynamics.

The scenery is nice especially the Malibu location of the victim’s house and seeing it get burned quite literally to the ground is kind of cool too. However, the quirky elements don’t gel and overall the film ends up being transparent and flat.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: November 22, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: James Goldstone

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), YouTube

The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bumbling buddies cause havoc.

Amos and Theodore (Tim Conway, Don Knotts) are two former members of an outlaw gang who are now trying to go straight, but as they enter the western boom town of Junction City they find their hopes of living life free of their old criminal ways to be dashed when they get mistakenly accused of robbing the town’s bank. They go on the run from the town’s relentless sheriff (Kenneth Mars) by enlisting in the United States Calvary, but accidentally cause a fire there that ends up burning the whole fort down and getting them into even more trouble.

This very weak sequel to  The Apple Dumpling Gang, has little to recommend and barely any connection to the first one. Besides Knotts and Conway no one from the original cast appears here except for Harry Morgan who plays an entirely different character. It was also the kids in the first film that were called the Apple Dumpling gang and not the two bumbling men, which just cements how unnecessary this film really is.

It’s not like any of the cast from the original film was all that memorable, but they at least helped balance the story from being just one long inane slapstick act, which is all you end up getting here. Knotts and Conway can be good comic relief in brief sporadic spurts, but trying to tie a whole movie around their bumbling act makes it quite one-dimensional.

The supporting cast isn’t any good either with Tim Matheson as bland and transparent as ever as a heroic officer and his romance with the feisty Elyssa Davalos is formulaic and cliched to the extreme. Mars goes overboard with the arrogant sheriff who goes crazy act until it becomes just as annoying and overdone as everything else in the film.

I’ll admit as a child I thought this movie was entertaining, but as an adult I got bored almost immediately despite finding the first installment to be genuinely enjoyable. Part of the problem is that the first one was based on a novel and had an actual story mixed in with the gags while this one is centered exclusively on extreme coincidences to help propel its thin plot along while throwing in slapstick bits that are predictable and unoriginal.

The only thing that surprised me at all was seeing Conway get top billing even though Knotts displayed a wider acting range while Conway merely stands around looking perpetually befuddled. Knotts also had the majority of lines and a little more dimension to his comedy while Conway just acts like a cross-eyed dope, which to me got boring real fast.

I understand that these films have a certain nostalgic appeal for those adults who remember watching it as a kid, but I honestly think that appeal will wear off quickly after about 5 minutes. If you’re under 10 you may like it better, but others should beware.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: June 27, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Vincent McEveety

Studio: Buena Vista 

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Oliver’s Story (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Adjusting to wife’s death.

It’s been 6 years since Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) lost his wife to leukemia and he’s still having a hard time learning to move on from it. He hasn’t been in a serious relationship since and his friends including his step father (Edward Binns) are pressuring him to start dating. Finally by chance he meets Marci (Candice Bergen) while she is out jogging. She is secretly an heiress to a massive fortune, which allows the two to connect due to their similar well-to-do upbringings, but when things start to get serious Oliver finds himself  resisting unable to cut the ties from his past and move forward.

This is definitely a sequel that nobody asked for and in fact both O’Neal and Bergen initially had no interest doing it. The original film worked because it centered on the couple and when you take away one of them you have only half a movie. Oliver on his own is boring and watching him learn to adjust to life as a single person is not compelling and no different than the hundreds of other movies dealing with the dating scene.

John Marley, who played Jenny’s father in the first film, refused to appear in this one because he was unhappy with how his name was going to be placed in the credits, so he got replaced by Edward Binns who seems to be playing a completely different character. Here the father-in-law and Oliverhave acquired a chummy friendship and even hang out together despite this never having been established in the first film. Ray Milland reprises his role as Oliver’s father, but gets portrayed in a much more likable way while in the first one he came off more as a heavy.

The film’s only interesting aspect is seeing how much the social norms have changed. Here being single is considered like a disease and his pesky friends are emboldened enough to set Oliver up on dates and openly telling him that he needs to ‘get out more’ even though by today’s standards the single lifestyle is much more prevalent and accepted and doing these same types of actions now by well meaning friends would be considered intrusive and obnoxious.

Having one of the women that he meets at a dinner party invite him back to her place despite barely knowing him is something not likely to occur today either. The way though that Oliver meets Marcie is the most absurd as he quite literally chases her down while she is jogging, which would scare most women into thinking that they had a crazy stalker on their hands.

On the production end the film is competently made with the springtime scenery of New York as well as shots of the couple’s trip to Hong Kong being the only thing that I enjoyed. The story though lacks punch and drones on with too many side dramas. O’Neal’s performance is good, but his chemistry with Bergen is lacking, which ultimately makes this a production that had misfire written all over it before a single frame of it was even shot.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 15, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Korty

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video,  YouTube

Love Story (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Romance and then death.

Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) is attending Harvard Law School where he meets Jenny (Ali MacGraw) a student studying classical music. The two don’t hit-it-off at first, but eventually fall in love and marry despite the objections of Oliver’s father (Ray Milland). Just as things seem to be falling into place Jenny gets diagnosed with a fatal illness, which sends Oliver’s world spinning out-of-control.

Erich Segal’s script, which he later turned into a best-selling novel, is simplistic, but the on-location shooting done in and around Harvard is outstanding and helps give the film, along with some well done hockey footage, an added energy. This is one of only a few films to be allowed to shoot there and they were kicked out after only a week due to being too much of a distraction, but it was just enough to give the movie a good authentic college vibe. The snowy landscape plays a big part of it and there’s even a scene where the two play in it, but some shots feature a lot of it in the background only to have a few scenes spliced in where there is none of it on the ground, which makes it a bit visually jarring.

On the romantic side I liked the fact that Jenny is initially prickly towards Oliver and he has to work at getting her to soften up. Men actually do enjoy a challenge and having a woman just throw herself at a guy, or having the relationship start out seamlessly is just not as interesting or realistic. However, having Oliver profess that he ‘loves’ her after only the first date glosses over the courtship aspect too much and essentially ruins the intrigue in the process.

O’Neal is excellent here and he was picked over a lot of other big name stars simply for his ability to react to a situation in effective ways, which he ends up doing quite well. Yet I felt it would’ve worked better had he been the one from the poor-side-of-town as he’s more convincing as a rugged blue collar type instead of a studious student, or their contrasting economic backgrounds not been played-up at all since for me it didn’t really add much.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s most notorious flaw though, and one that was parodied in a very funny send-up of the movie on ‘The Carol Burnett Show’, is the whole mystery illness thing (supposedly it’s leukemia, but never explicitly stated) that comes out of nowhere without Jenny ever showing an symptoms and having her die in a sudden car accident would’ve solved this issue and been more believable.

Personally though I was more shocked by the fact that the Dr. tells Oliver about Jenny’s diagnosis before he informs her. If she were a child that would be fine, but she’s an adult and deserves to know about her own health affairs before anyone else and if this had occurred today it would’ve gotten him into a lot of trouble.

The narrative also gets a bit askew as Oliver takes the news much harder than she does. Shot after shot shows him getting all misty-eyed almost like the viewer should feel worse for him, as he is now losing the object of his affections instead of her for losing her life.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The film is also famous for the line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”, which to me never made any sense as relationships are dependent on the other party asking for forgiveness when they’ve done wrong and simply presuming they can get away with anything and expect unconditional acceptance doesn’t work. Two of my female friends agreed with me on this, which only proves how placid and shallow this film ultimately is.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 16, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Arthur Hiller

Studio: Paramount

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

To Kill a Clown (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Couple harassed by veteran.

Timothy (Heath Lamberts) and Lily (Blythe Danner) are a couple suffering through a rocky marriage. In an attempt to try and save it they decide to rent a beach house for a summer where they hope the quiet seaside scenery can help mend the friction. Their landlord is Evelyn (Alan Alda) a crippled war veteran with two dobermans who resides in a large house next to theirs. Evelyn considers Timothy to be effeminate and ‘unfocused’ and decides to challenge him to a psychological game where he will put Timothy through the rigors of army training. Initially Timothy finds this challenge amusing, but the game becomes much harsher than he expected and when he tries to get out of it Evelyn won’t let him, which eventually leads to Timothy and Lily becoming hostages inside their own home where Evelyn’s two ferocious dogs guard them.

The film is based on the short story ‘The Master of the Hounds’ by Algis Budrys that appeared in the August 1966 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. The plot certainly has some intriguing qualities, but the pace is too laid-back and I spent much of the time rather bored with it. The tension comes in spurts and when it does get going it cuts away just as it gets interesting. The Timothy character is overly smug and to some extent I actually enjoyed some of the harassment that Evelyn gives him, which ultimately minimizes the ‘horror’ that the viewer is supposed to be feeling.

In the story the setting was supposed to be the Jersey shore and in the film it’s somewhere off the New England coast, but in actuality it was filmed in the Bahamas and in an attempt to mask the tropical surroundings they found one of the blandest looking beaches to film it on. The lack of scenery gives the film no visual flair and it ultimately comes off like something done on the cheap end by a director lacking talent of vision.

The only interesting aspect is seeing Alda, who was known throughout the 70’s and 80’s as being a very liberal, ‘sensitive’ male, playing someone who is the exact opposite and to a degree he does it well, but it could’ve and should’ve been played-up much more. Lamberts is good too, but it would’ve been better had the character been an actual army deserter, which would’ve then made the men’s contrasting personalities even more vivid.

Danner though, in her film debut,  comes off best by acting as a buffer between the two men. The dobermans though are the real stars and I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of them. In fact the film’s best moment involves one of them standing guard as it holds the frightened couple hostage in their living room and growling threateningly if one of them even moves their head in he slightest.

Unfortunately the action takes too long to get going and the whole thing gets misguidedly underplayed. I found the freeze-frame shots, which the film uses to transition from one scene to the next, distracting and overly artsy especially for a movie that is supposedly trying to be reality based.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 23, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes (Reissued at 1 Hour 26 Minutes)

Rated R

Director: George Bloomfield

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS

American Hot Wax (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: DJ plays the hits.

The film centers on real-life disc jockey (Alan Freed) who was instrumental in bringing rock ‘n’ roll music to the airwaves during the late 50’s and even credited with coining the phrase. Unfortunately he also got wrapped up in a payola scandal in which record companies paid him under-the-table to play their records on the air, which destroyed his career and left him in virtual poverty before dying in 1965 at the young age of 43 from cirrhosis of the liver.

I’ll admit I never longed for the nostalgia of the late 50’s or early 60’s.  Everything from that period seemed silly and antiquated to me and yet this film nicely brings out the excitement that people living then had. There clearly was a feeling of change on the horizon particularly in the music scene and it’s fun seeing all the young people jumping in and trying to become a part of it. The recreation of that energy is great and the one thing that this movie does well. Unfortunately it quickly becomes one-note with an unending procession of different music groups clamoring to become the next big act. Watching people stop Freed on the street and giving him a impromptu audition is at first fun, but seeing that scenario get repeated continuously is tedious.

There are some famous fresh young faces in the cast including Jay Leno, Fran Drescher, and Laraine Newman, but their parts are small and their appearances erratic. The story desperately needed a central character for the viewer to latch onto and none gets forthcoming. The barrage of people that get thrown in and then just as quickly forgotten makes the film unfocused and lacking any type of real plot.

McIntire is excellent, but his character badly undernourished. There’s a hackneyed dramatic segment where we see him conversing with his father on the phone and are given the idea that he is on rough terms with him, but it never gets explored further and for the most part we learn nothing at all about his personal life including the fact that he was married three times and had four kids, which never even gets mentioned while the payola scandal is only briefly touched on. The film would’ve had more substance had they explored the man’s personality and life more, but instead he remains as a frustratingly distant figure.

Clearly the filmmakers were looking to cash-in on the success of American Graffiti and hence the similar title, but just recreating the look and music of a bygone era isn’t enough. Even the appearances of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis fail to save a superficial effort that justifiably bombed badly at the box office.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: March 17, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Floyd Mutrux

Studio: Paramount

Available: None at the time.

Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: His life in prison.

Smitty (Wendell Burton) is a young first-time offender who’s sent away to the Canadian penitentiary for six months. He gets assigned to a cell with three other men: Rocky (Zooey Hall), Mona (Danny Freedman), and Queenie (Michael Greer). Queenie is an openly gay drag queen while Mona is a soft-spoken young man who likes to write poetry. Rocky is the tough guy who offers Smitty ‘protection’ if Smitty agrees to become his subordinate and do anything he asks including sexual favors. To avoid the harassment that he sees others getting that don’t have the same ‘protection’ he agrees, but eventually he grows tired of Rocky’s dominance and decides to challenge it.

The film is based on  a play written by John Herbert who also wrote the screenplay. It is based on actual experiences that he received when he was arrested for dressing in drag in 1947 and taken to a reformatory at the age of 20. The play, which was written in 1967 initially had a hard time getting produced due to the subject matter, but was eventually put on the stage by Sal Mineo who directed and also played Rocky while Don Johnson played Smitty and Greer, like in the film, played Queenie.

The film version though makes many changes to the story some of which I’m not sure I liked. The one thing though that I thought was excellent is that it was shot inside an actual prison, which helps add authenticity. As opposed to most movies which shoots things from outside the cell looking in this one captures everything from inside the cell, which makes the viewer feel like they’re locked in the jail with the rest of the men and gives one a true feeling of the claustrophobic prison experience.

The shock element may not be as strong as it once was. The scene where Rocky rapes Smitty in the shower as the camera fixates on the running faucets and we hear only Smitty’s cries may be a bit too stylized and even kind of hokey by today’s standards. The segment though where Mona is grabbed from behind by a brute and taken into a dingy cell where he’s gang raped while the guards look away was to me far more potent. A later scene dealing with a prisoner being taken to a back room and beaten by the guards could’ve been stronger had it been extended.

For me personally the most shocking element is seeing Smitty’s transformation from naive man who we the viewer can mostly relate too, to someone who becomes almost as bad as Rocky. However, I found it annoying that it’s never made clear what he did that got him into prison in the first place and his character arch would’ve been stronger had the film started with him in the outside world committing the crime and subsequently getting arrested.

Burton’s acting abilities don’t seem quite on par with the demands of the role. His blank-eyed stare and monotone delivery make him seem like a one-dimensional actor and he was most likely given the role simply because of his babyface. Greer though in many ways steals it as the flamboyant drag queen and the outrageous performance that he puts on during the Christmas show at the prison is quite memorable.

Spoiler Alert!

The film remains compelling, but is hampered visually by being done almost entirely in one setting. The ending though leaves open too many questions. Does Smitty ever get out? How does he behave once he does and how has his experiences in prison changed him? None of these things get answered, which to me made the film incomplete and despite some good dramatic efforts here and there unsatisfying.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 15, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Harvey Hart, Jules Schwerin (uncredited)

Studio: MGM

Available: VHS

The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Orphaned kids strike gold.

Russell (Bill Bixby) is a slick gambler living in the old West who finds that he has unwittingly become the guardian to three orphaned children ( Clay O’Brien, Brad Savage, Stacy Manning). Initially he tries to pawn them off on other people, but eventually he takes a liking to them when he realizes that they’ve inherited a mine that has gold in it, which soon makes everyone else in town want to adopt them.

This Disney film, which was based on the 1971 Jack Bickham novel of the same name, fares better than most of their other films and in fact became its biggest money maker from the 70’s. It helps that the main character of Russell isn’t as squeaky clean as the typical Disney leading man as it’s strongly implied that he cheats at the poker games that he wins and the fact that he gradually softens towards the kids through time creates a nice character arch. Susan Clark, who’s the love interest, is good here too as she plays against type for a Disney leading lady by being more tom boyish and masculine despite the fact that apparently behind-the-scenes she was scared to death of horses and every scene that required her to ride one had her instead on a mechanical one although you could never tell.

The typical Disney comical trappings are given a unique spin here too, which also helps. Instead of having another boring barroom brawl, which is so common in many western comedies, we are treated to a funny lovers spat between Clark and Bixby inside the bar where props get thrown around between the two while everyone else sits frozen and unsure of what to do. There’s no cartoonish car chase at the end either, but instead a genuinely hair-raising battle between Bixby and Slim Pickens, who plays one of the bad guys, down the white rapids of a river. The shooting was also done on-location at Deschutes National Forest in Oregon, which improves the setting from the usual studio back lot.

Even the kids are tolerable without having their cuteness or innocence get overdone even though the running joke dealing with the young girl constantly having to go pee isn’t as funny as it seems when you think about it and most likely in reality would’ve been a warning sign of a very serious medical condition instead. Also, the scene showing the kids getting trapped in the mine after an earthquake should’ve also shown how they were able to get out instead of simply cutting to the next scene with them back in town of it without any explanation as to how they got there.

The real stars of the film though are Don Knotts and Tim Conway as the comically bumbling would-be crooks. This marked the first of five film appearances that the two did together and in many ways this is probably their best effort. I always liked seeing them together because it was a rare chance for Knotts to play the smarter of the two instead of always being the dope himself although some may find Conway’s extreme ineptness more annoying than funny. In either event they help enliven the proceedings and became the stars of the sequel The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, which will be reviewed next week.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 1, 1975

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Norman Tokar

Studio: Buena Vista

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: She suffers from schizophrenia.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Joanne Greenberg, which was written under the pen name of Hannah Green, the story focuses on Deborah (Kathleen Quinlan) a 16 year-old who is put into a mental institution during the 1950’s by her parents (Ben Piazza, Lorraine Gary). A pretend secret kingdom that used to be a childhood fantasy has now completely taken over her life and she is unable to deal with reality. At the institution she works with a sympathetic therapist named Dr. Fried (Bibi Andersson) who tries to get Deborah out of her fantasy world an back into the real one.

The film was produced by Roger Corman better known for his cheap, sleazy drive-in fare, so seeing him try to take the helm by producing a serious picture is a concern since exploitation always seemed to be his foray, but with the then recent success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest he felt stories with a mental institution theme was a potential money-maker. The production values though right from the start look pretty cheap especially when compared to the Milos Foreman film making this a very weak cousin to the 1975 classic.

The producers made many changes from its source novel much to the consternation of the book’s author who was never consulted during the making of it and who ended up disliking this film version immensely. One of the biggest difference is that the film completely omits the antisemitism, which the filmmakers felt was too much of a ‘hot button topic’, that the main character in the book had to deal with and instead blames her mental health problems solely on her bout with cancer.

For me though the biggest issue centers more on the recreation of Deborah’s make-believe, mystical world which she calls The Kingdom of Yr. In the book the kingdom starts out as a beautiful magical place that slowly turns ugly and threatening while in the movie it’s portrayed as scary from the very beginning, which is confusing as there’s no explanation for how the whole thing started. The sound of the whispering voices going on inside Deborah’s head is creepy, but sight of the characters inside the kingdom, which was played by members of Oingo Boingo looks cheesy and like the singers from the Village People, which gives the film an unintended camp feeling. Instead the characters should’ve been captured from a distance where they were seen as ominous shadowy figures whose faces were never shown.

Despite these drawbacks I still found myself caught-up in much of the drama especially the cruelty that Deborah and her fellow patients received at the hands of an abusive orderly played by Reni Santoni. Unfortunately some of the scenes showing Deborah interacting with the other mentally-ill people in the hospital gets watered-down by having a lighthearted melody played during it, which gives off the idea that this is ‘lightly comical’ instead of the gritty no-holds-barred drama that it should be.

Quinlan gives a great performance, possibly the best of her career and I particularly enjoyed the way she uses her expressive blue eyes to convey her inner madness and turmoil. You also see her as a relatable human being who you want to see get well as opposed to being some sort of ‘freak’. Susan Tyrrell is great in support as one of the patients as well as Martine Bartlett who plays another troubled patient and who starred just a year earlier as the cruel mother in Sybil, which was a TV-movie with a similar theme. Casting Bibi Andersson though as the psychiatrist was for me a distraction since she also played one in Persona, which was her signature role and therefore I couldn’t separate her from that one.

In 2004 the novel was turned into a play under the full cooperation of Greenberg who acted as a consultant. The antisemitism from the book was incorporated into the play as well as several other things that had been omitted making me believe that a remake based on the play should be given a much needed green-light as this film unfortunately is adequate, but not great.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 14, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 36 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Anthony Page

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video