Category Archives: Adolescence/High School

Hell High (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Teens regret pranking teacher.

When she is 6 years old little Brooke (Amy Beth Erenrich) accidently kills a couple by causing the motorbike they’re riding on to spin out-of-control. Now, 18 years later Brooke (Maureen Mooney) teaches at a high school where she has a confrontation with one of the students named Dickens (Christopher Stryker). Dickens decides to get his revenge by having him and three of his friends (Christopher Cousins, Millie Prezioso, Jason Brill) terrorize her by going out to her home wearing masks. Things though unravel when the demons of Brooke’s past come back to haunt her, which turns her into a psychotic killing machine right before their eyes.

To a certain degree this film is slightly above the usual cheesy horror flick level. Although the dress that the child wears during the flashback segment looks ridiculously campy I still felt this scene was the best moment in the film particularly the shot of the couple impaled by the fence. The on-location shooting is decent too as I visually got an authentic high school feel both on the campus and during the football game. The kids look like genuine teenagers too and they even manage to have distinct personalities. The spacious, remote home that Brooke lives in helps exude a Straw Dogs tone, but it was weird that she resided in the same place that she grew up in and I presume the only good reason for this was budgetary. The approach is offbeat and initially intriguing even though the tension gets destroyed by going off on a long tangent involving a high school football game that was not needed.

The biggest problem though comes when it tries to connect Brooke’s traumatic childhood experience with what she’s going through now, which is just too much of a stretch. If she is as mentally fragile as the film insists then her inevitable meltdown would’ve occurred far sooner like when she was 8 or 10 instead of having her supposedly lead a normal life and then flip-out like a light switch without warning. It’s also confusing why she doesn’t just call the police right away when the kids first started to scare her.

Once the killings happen it gets boring and mechanical and the plot would’ve worked better had it not been known until the end who the killer actually was. The animosity between Brooke and Dickens, which is well-played by Stryker who unfortunately died before the film was released, needed a better final confrontation that was more drawn-out as Brooke overpowers him too quickly making his transition from bully to scared victim not as ironic as it could’ve been.

For me though the scariest part in the film had nothing to do with the intended ‘horror’, but more with the incredibly disrespectful way Brooke gets treated by her students when she tries conducting her biology class. Teachers don’t get paid enough to be expected to tolerate the snide behavior that she does nor should teens think that is acceptable while in the classroom, which is sad and even a bit disturbing.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 12, 1989 (Filmed in 1985)

Runtime: 1Hour 24Minutes

Rated R

Director: Douglas Grossman

Studio: JGM Enterprises

Available: DVD

Prom Night (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Accidental death spawns revenge.

In 1974 five children go playing inside an abandoned building, but when one of them falls tragically to her death the other kids agree not to tell in order to avoid getting into trouble. Six years later these same four children are now teenagers and ready to attend the prom, but become terrified by strange phone calls from someone insisting he saw what happened and threatening to kill them to avenge the accidental death of the other one.

As modern day horror movies go this one starts out well especially the abandoned building footage with the rundown interiors helping to give the film a creepy look. The lighting and camerawork are more polished than the typical slasher production and it doesn’t reek of low budget, amateurish values that pervaded just about every other horror flick from that era.

Unfortunately after a decent beginning the pacing then slows to a crawl and except for a few creepy phone calls hardly anything goes on for the whole first hour. At one point it becomes like a sequel to Saturday Night Fever with a prolonged dance segment between Jamie Lee Curtis and her partner that does not propel either the plot or tension and was out-of-place.

The side-story dealing with the police searching for an escaped killer who they mistakenly believe killed the child is pointless and apparently added in at the last minute. I would think a coroner’s autopsy would’ve shown that the child died from the trauma of the fall and not by someone’s knife, which makes the crazy-killer-on-the-loose angle ridiculous and an obvious red-herring put in to ‘fool’ the viewer, which most seasoned horror movie fans would never be dumb enough to fall for anyways, so why insult their intelligence by even trying?

The actual killings don’t get going until 1Hour and 2Minutes in and by then it’s almost too late. The killer also conveys seemingly boundless energy as he busily wrestles a driver for control of a van, which he eventually forces off a cliff while miraculously jumping out of it just before it goes over and then manages just a short time later to chase another victim all around the school where no matter which hallway the young lady chooses to run down the killer always magically is at the end of it ready to jump out at her. The decapitation scene depicting a victim’s head rolling down the stage runway at the high school prom has to be one of the unintentionally funniest moments put on film and had me laughing uproariously.

PROM NIGHT, David Mucci, 1980, (c)AVCO Embassy Pictures

Spoiler Alert!

Normally guessing the killer’s identity is the one fun thing to do while watching these types of flicks, but here that gets ruined by implementing a character at the scene, which was Alex (Michael Tough) the younger brother of the victim who died, even though the viewer didn’t even know he was present when it happened. It’s also hard to believe that any young child could keep a secret for that long as most can’t. I understand why the other 4 kids didn’t tell, but why the younger brother who had nothing to do with the accident and only witnessed what happened? Why would he not immediately run back home to his parents, as most would and tell them about it so they could call the police?

In retrospect having the flashback at the beginning was a mistake as there would’ve been more intrigue had we not known why these four were being targeted. Only revealing the flashback at the very end would’ve then heightened the mystery, which is pretty flimsy otherwise.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: July 18, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 32Minutes

Rated R

Director: Paul Lynch

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Night Warning (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: His aunt is crazy.

Billy (Jimmy McNichol) has been orphaned since age 3 ever since his parents died in a tragic car accident. For the past 14 years he’s been living with his neurotic aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell), but now that he’s turning 17 he’s ready to move-out. Cheryl though doesn’t want Billy to leave her as she harbors dark incestuous feelings for him and will do anything, even kill in order to keep him with her.

The film was directed by William Asher, who mainly worked on family oriented material like the TV-show ‘Bewitched’ and the beach party movies from the 60’s, so doing this was a stretch for him, but results aren’t bad. Although there’s little gore the well-shot opening sequence in which the father gets decapitated by driving into a truck hauling wooden logs is impressive and more than makes up for it and it even gets shown twice.

The big payoff though is Susan Tyrrell’s performance, which gets completely off-the-charts. She had a love-hate relationship with her real-life mother and the two spent many years not talking to each other and I think this as well as some of the treatment that she received in Hollywood particularly with her working relationship with director John Huston while doing Fat City she used to channel the anger and rejection of her character and it really works. Watching her become more and more unhinged as the film progresses and her increasingly odd facial expressions and voice tones is a treat onto itself and makes catching this otherwise hard-to-find flick worth it.

McNichol’s acting unfortunately cannot match hers and I was shocked to see that he got top billing over her as his talent level, pedigree isn’t even close. His character though is even more annoying as I found it hard to believe that he wouldn’t have seen red flags to his aunt’s mental illness far sooner. The film makes it seem that he had no concerns about his aunt until he turned 17, but I would think living with her for 14 years there would be signs of it earlier. It’s also hard to feel for someone who is so painfully naïve and walks into his aunt’s devious traps when anyone else would’ve know better. It’s dubious too that the aunt would wait until the kid was 17 before making sexual overtures, but I suppose that’s a whole other issue.

Bo Svenson’s as a brash, unethical cop who is profoundly racist and homophobic becomes a strain too. I’m sure at the time this was considered simply ‘soft satire’ that lightly pokes fun at the bad cop stigma, but now it comes off as dated and unpleasant and probably the whole reason why the film hasn’t received a DVD/Blu-ray release.

Julia Duffy, best known for playing Stephanie on the TV-show ‘Newhart’ is on hand in support and although she was already 30 at the time plays Billy’s teen girlfriend and even appears topless, which may interest the voyeurs. However, any story that hinges on one of the characters being put on trial and then found not guilty by a jury due to temporary insanity I just can’t buy into and I don’t think has ever happened at least not in this country. There’s also too much ‘scary music’ that gets played particularly during scenes inside the house that just isn’t needed and almost becomes a distraction and I wish directors and producers would realize that the quiet/natural ambience can be far creepier than any soundtrack.

 

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Alternate Title: Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker

Released: January 1, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 36Minutes

Rated R

Director: William Asher

Studio: Royal American Pictures

Available: VHS

Footloose (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: A town bans dancing.

Ren (Kevin Bacon) is a teenager from Chicago who moves with his mother (Francis Lee McCain) to a small town in Utah where he finds that dancing has been banned by the town’s fiery minister (John Lithgow). He becomes determined to try and change that and convinces the other kids including his new found friend Willard (Chris Penn) that dancing really isn’t all that bad. He also falls for the minister’s daughter Ariel (Lori Singer) who is far more liberated than you’d expect someone from a religious upbringing to be.

I remember when this film came out and I intentionally refused to see it as I felt that the plot was too absurd to be believable. I was born and raised in a small Midwestern town of about 7,000 people and the idea that some lone minister could overtake it and start making extreme rules that everyone would follow especially in the modern era of the 80’s is just not realistic. If the town was really small and isolated with a population of like 200 then maybe but the one portrayed in the film comes off as being fairly big and was filmed mostly in American Fork, Utah, which in the 1980 census had a population of 13,606. Having a scene dealing with a literal book burning makes the thing even campier and made me believe this would’ve worked better had the setting been the 1950’s.

There is also no explanation to what the penalty would be if one is caught dancing. Everyone acts like it would mean jail time or something like that when most likely it would just be a small fine and since when have teens ever been that compliant when it comes to rules? There are several scenes where they are seen with joints, so if they’re willing to fudge the law in that respect then why not do it with the dancing too?

The concept is loosely based on an actual incident that occurred in Elmore City, Oklahoma in 1978 where the local teens challenged a city ordinance that banned dancing. However, the incident there made more sense because it was an ordinance that had been on the books for over 90 years. Many cities and towns have old ordinances and laws that are no longer relevant, or followed, but just haven’t been officially removed as opposed to some minister coming into a town and implementing a new law that everyone is forced to comply with. The town was also much smaller (population of only 653 in 1970) than the one portrayed in the movie, so religious sentiment would be more able to oppress the rest of its citizens.

The drama for the most part is limp and does not justify its runtime as there are long segments that have nothing to do with the main story including cringe worthy scenes where we watch Singer dangerously trying to leap between two moving cars and a game of chicken between tractors with Bacon and another teen driving them. There’s also a B-storyline dealing with Bacon trying to teach Penn how to dance, which gets corny.

The most annoying aspect though for me was Singer’s character as she doesn’t seem like a minister’s kid at all. She behaves in too much of a free-spirited way and I would think someone raised in such a repressed environment would reflect some religious traits and yet Singer conveys none. Having her religious at the start and even opposed to dancing and then become tolerant to it after she meets Bacon would’ve created an interesting character arch. Also, if she behaved in a cult-like manner due to her strict upbringing then it would’ve made the minister character more menacing because the viewer would be made to feel that was what he wanted to turn the rest of the town into.

Lithgow is a great actor, but he’s not right for this type of part as he is too young and was only 12 years older than Singer who played his daughter. A much older actor would’ve better illustrated how the older generation was desperately trying to cling onto their old way of life in an ever changing world and how completely detached they were from modern teens. Also, the character here doesn’t seem threatening enough as he is unable to control his own daughter so then how is he expected to control the rest of the town?

The opening bit done over the credits showing the different types of dancing feet is the best thing in the movie although some may take a liking to Bacon’s dancing inside an abandoned warehouse although much of that was done with the help of body doubles.  Otherwise this empty-headed movie, which was remade in 2011, has very little to recommend.

I did want to mention too that recently there was an 80’s podcast that I listened to where they reviewed this movie and one of the critics complained that the town had only white kids and acted like somehow that was not politically correct, but having grown up in a small town during the 70’s and 80’s I can vouch for the fact that there were little if any minorities there and therefore having an all-white cast, whether it is politically correct or not, was realistic.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: February 17, 1984

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Herbert Ross

Studio: Paramount

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

Class (1983)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Teen fucks friend’s mother.

Jonathan (Andrew McCarthy) is a new student at a prep school who rooms with Skip (Rob Lowe) and almost immediately gets mocked by the other students for being geeky. To help bolster Jonathan’s reputation Skip has him sent off to Chicago where he can meet-up with a woman, have sex with her, and then bring back her panties as a souvenir. Jonathan does that when he hooks-up with the beautiful middle-aged Ellen (Jacqueline Bisset) whom he meets at a bar and the two begin a relationship. The problem is that Ellen is also Skip’s mother.

The film was written and directed by Lewis John Carlino who had done several highly acclaimed films previously both as a writer and director so having him churn out what amounts to being just another crude ‘80s teen T&A flick is genuinely shocking. My belief is that Carlino wanted to do something that had a little more depth to it, but due to the success of movies like Porky’s the studio pressured him to incorporate raunchy humor, which creates an awkward narrative that jumps precariously from broad comedy to clumsy drama.

The film’s low point comes when Virginia Madsen, in her film debut, gets her blouse torn off and has her breast exposed that has nothing to do with the main plot and just a shameless excuse to throw in some nudity. Madsen has described her experience on this film as being unpleasant and if anything despite some ‘serious’ moments later on this scene really cements the movie as being mindless lowbrow tripe at its worst.

My biggest beef though was with Bisset’s character. It’s never explained why this sexy middle-aged woman would become attracted to a boyish guy that was young enough to be her son. Just saying she was in an unhappy marriage wasn’t enough. She could’ve attracted many eligible men that were her age, so why does she end up going to bed with a teenager that looks like he isn’t even old enough to shave?

Bisset complained in interviews that the film cut out many crucial scenes that would’ve given her character’s actions more subtext. One included having Lowe visit her after she checks herself into a hospital. This scene was needed as the film essentially has her ‘disappear’ and only mentions in passing where she’s gone while seeing a scene with Lowe visiting her would’ve given the characters and movie better closure.

I also thought it was weird that Lowe and McCarthy continue to room together even after the awful revelation of the affair comes to light. I would think that the awkwardness of the situation would have both boys clamoring to be transferred to a different dorm room. They also end up getting into a physical altercation, which gets pretty extended and one of the film’s best moments, but I sided with Lowe, which I’m not sure was the filmmaker’s intention, as I felt McCarthy deserved to get his ass kicked since he continued to have sex with Bisset even after he knew she was Lowe’s mother.

The film only works when Lowe and McCarthy are together and in fact Lowe’s engaging performance is a highlight, so a better scenario would’ve had both boys going to Chicago for a road trip and to get laid. At a bar they’d meet an attractive middle-aged woman and bring her back to a hotel room for a threesome. Afterwards both boys would compete for her affections only to later realize that she was the wife of the principal of their school. This situation would’ve allowed for more consistent comedy while not seeming like a poor rip-off of Summer of ’42 and The Graduate, which is essentially what this movie becomes.

The plot, as dumb as it is, can’t even sustain the film’s entire runtime as the third act consists of Stuart Margolin  investigating students cheating on their SAT’s that goes nowhere and put in solely as filler. Overall the film is a pointless excursion and worth seeing only if you’re into Bisset or for catching John Cusack, Lolita Davidovich, or Virginia Madsen in their film debuts.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: July 22, 1983

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated R

Director: Lewis John Carlino

Studio: Orion Pictures

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

Bless the Beasts and the Children (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kids free the buffalo.

Six adolescent boys (Barry Robins, Bill Mumy, Miles Chapin, Darel Glaser, Robert Jayson Kramer, Marc Vahanian) room together during summer camp and become known as the ‘bedwetters’. Through flashbacks we learn that the six children have difficult times at home with their individual parents and are routinely picked on by the other kids at the camp. Their camp counselor Wheaties (Ken Swofford) decides to take them to a buffalo corral where the boys witness to their horror the buffalo being shot by various hunters in an effort to ‘thin the herd’ from the weaker or more sickly ones. The boys decide to sneak off one night and free the herd from their corral, but various complications inevitably ensue.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout and one might expect from the movie’s poster, for another topical, preachy, dramatically charged production from director Stanley Kramer, but instead the film is amusing and breezy. If you went to summer camp as a child then this will be sure to bring back a flood of memories. Some of the pranks that the other kids play on our six protagonists are cruel, but there’s also fun moments that effectively recreate the carefree summer days of youth.

In a lot of ways this could be described as early version of The Bad News Bears as these ‘losers’ decided to show everyone who doubts them up and to a degree you could say this one does it better. In the bears film we never saw how the kids related to their parents and their family background, but here we do in a nice fragmented style, which allows the viewer to connect to the kids in a deeper and more emotional level, which makes us root even more for them to accomplish their mission.

The dialogue is banal and Sammy, played by Chapin, is annoying.  He’s supposed to be ‘funny’ with his lame impressions of famous celebrities, mostly those of a very bygone era that viewers today won’t even know, and the fact that he continues to do them throughout the movie made me think he should’ve been ostracized by the others just for that and it would’ve been justifiable. The on-location shooting though shot throughout Arizona helps, and Robins who plays Cotton their leader is a standout especially given the fact that he was 24 when this was filmed, but looked to be only about 14 like the other kids.

The only issue that I had with the movie is the music particularly the opening song sung by the Carpenters. Richard and Karen Carpenter were a terrific brother and sister duo, but they represented the conservative establishment. This is a movie about junior high boys and they most likely would never listen to the Carpenters or like their music. A film’s soundtrack should reflect the attitude and personality of its protagonists and the songs selected here really don’t as the boys represented rebellion while the Carpenters were all about conformity. It’s possible that director Kramer, who was nearing 60 at the time, didn’t know the difference. The Carpenters were getting chart toppers at the time, so from his generation’s perspective that made them ‘hip’ and the ‘in-thing’, which shows how out-of-touch he was to his subjects, which becomes a bit of a drawback.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: August 1, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Stanley Kramer

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD-R, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Todd Killings (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Pied Piper of Tucson.

Skipper Todd (Robert F. Lyons) is a 23-year-old man who hangs around his local high school and dates many of the teen girls who are mesmerized by his ‘rebel image’. He has no ambitions to work and instead sponges off of his mother (Barbara Bel Geddes) who runs a nursing home while he also dreams of one day becoming a rock star. For kicks he convinces some of his friends to get in with him on murdering a 15-year-old girl just so he can see ‘what it feels like to kill someone’ and they oblige, but then the fear that the others might turn on him causes him to murder even more people.

The plot is based on the true story of Charles Schmid, who like the character here hung around a local high school in Tucson, Arizona dating many of the teens there before murdering 15-year-old Aileen Rowe as a ‘thrill-kill’ on the night of May 31, 1964. However, the film does not touch on the extreme eccentricities of Schmid including the fact that he wore cowboy boots filled with flattened cans in an attempt to make him appear taller (and explained the resulting limp as simply a product of getting shot at by the mafia). He also wore make-up to make his nose seem larger, created a large mole on his face so he’d appear more intimidating and even stretched his lower lip with a clothes pin so he would resemble Elvis Presley.

The film though shows none of this and instead tones the character down to the point that he becomes boring. Not only does Lyons look nowhere near as scary as Schmid did, but he plays the part like he was just some lonely kid looking for attention giving the viewer no sense of the allure that he had over the teen girls who flocked around him. Instead of being bigger-than-life the central character becomes flat and forgettable, which is hardly the right ingredient for a riveting drama or thriller.

The murders are not shown, so the viewer doesn’t get a true sense of the horror that went on. The scene where he strangles his girlfriend by gently placing his hands around her neck, which lasts for less than 3 seconds before she falls softly down dead is a perfect example of how overly restrained the whole thing is. The real-life events were shocking, so why create a sanitized film about it when if anything it should’ve been played-up.

The film also begins with the first murder having already occurred, so we get no insight about how he was able to convince his friends to kill the girl. The way he was able to get these otherwise seemingly good kids to do nasty things for him is the most frightening aspect of the case and yet the film glosses over this like it’s no big deal.

Richard Thomas gives a strong supporting performance as Billy Roy who befriends Lyons initially only to eventually turn-on-him. Belinda Montgomery seems quite sincere as his Lyons’ frightened girlfriend and I enjoyed Bel Geddes and Gloria Grahame as the two mothers, but the film’s tepid approach creates a movie that leaves no lasting impression at all.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 20, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R

Director: Barry Shear

Studio: National General Pictures

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive)

Hairspray (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Integrate the dance show.

Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers) audition for ‘The Corny Collins Show’ a local teen dance contest. Penny isn’t able to make the cut, but Tracy is much to the infuriation of the snotty Amber (Colleen Fitzpatrick) who was the show’s reigning dance queen. The rivalry between the two heats up even more when Tracy tries to integrate the show with black performers which incites Amber’s racist parents (Sonny Bono, Debbie Harry) to resort to desperate and violent means in order to keep the show segregated.

This was the movie where John Waters became a legitimate filmmaker who could use his craft to create a story instead of making a movie that was simply a foray into crude humor. When he first broke into the underground scene his films such as Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingoes, and Female Trouble where refreshingly trashy and daring to show things other movies wouldn’t. The stark frankness and complete disregard of who it offended were both hilarious and groundbreaking, but by the time it got to 1981’s Polyester the formula had gotten stale and hearing campy characters shout incessantly at each other was becoming derivative while also exposing Waters as possibly being just a one-dimensional talent who was sadly losing his edge.

This film though was a complete change-of-pace with each shot and scene a loving tribute to his days growing up in Baltimore during the 50’s and early 60’s. The film has a lot of dance numbers that normally could bog the pace down, but here I got into the energy of it and it helped me to feel even more like I had been transported into a different time period. The musical soundtrack is filled with a lot of lesser known songs which most viewers will have never heard of and thus helping the film’s soundtrack avoid sounding like just another generic playlist from an oldies radio station.

Divine’s presence is much less crucial to the story’s plotline than in Waters’ past films. Sadly by this time his/her appearance was looking even more like just some fat guy wearing wig and no longer coming off in any way as being an overweight woman even though in the past films it was at times hard to tell. His physique looked so out of shape here that it should be no surprise that he died of a sudden heart attack just three weeks after the film’s release. In fact as the mother he really isn’t funny or engaging at all and only in a brief few scenes where he plays the station’s cantankerous owner Arvin Hodgepile does he show actual energy and gets a few laughs.

The original idea was to have Divine play both the roles of the mother and daughter, but fortunately that got nixed and Ricki Lake was brought in. She has a genuine, honest presence about her that creates instant empathy and it’s nice having a film showing an overweight person where her body type did not impede her from achieving her goals nor work as a detriment at keeping her down.

The supporting cast is eclectic, but unfortunately most are wasted particularly Jerry Stiller and Sonny Bono as the two fathers. Debbie Harry is great with her increasingly outrageous beehive hairdos, which become the most memorable and imaginative thing about the film. Lesser known actress Joanne Havrilla is quite funny as Penny’s racist mother especially the scene where she panics when trapped in a black neighborhood. John Waters himself gets some good comic bits playing Penny’s quack psychiatrist and Pia Zadora is engaging as a pot smoking beatnik.

The film is full of comical highlights that playfully runs the gamut between subtle, over-the-top and crude that somehow works to form a cohesive whole culminating in a very funny ‘race riot’ at the end. If the film has any fault it is in the fact that it treats racism in a little too much of a trivial way like it is just some silly thing that can be easily fixed instead of the serious and deep-rooted issue that it really is.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 16, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 32Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Waters

Studio: New Line Cinema

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Almost Summer (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: A high school election.

Bobby DeVito (Bruno Kirby) schemes to get even when Christine (Lee Purcell) is able to get high school hunk Grant (Robert Resnick) knocked out of the race for class president and thus allowing her to run unopposed. For revenge Bobby decides to nominate a shy new kid Darryl (John Friedrich) as her challenger. Darryl is initially unsure about taking on the challenge, but eventually gets into it only to eventually drop-out himself when he realizes Bobby has used some underhanded tricks in order to help him win.

The script is too simplistic and better suited as a ‘life lesson’ film that teachers show to kids in grade school. The action gets too locked into the students and the high school scene instead of broadening the situation out to include the school’s faculty like it did in Alexander Payne’s Election, which was far superior because it took the central scenario and connected it not only the foibles of teens, but adults as well. In fact very few adults get seen here making it seem like they were sucked away to some distant cosmos and the teens were left to run everything.

The film is refreshing to some extent because unlike most other teen flicks there’s no crude humor or sexual innuendos and the kids behave like young adults in the making instead of delayed adolescents, which is nice. However, the story is so boringly basic and told in such a straight-forward manner that after a while I actually wanted a sex joke or two to pop-in simply to have given the thing some life.

The situation needed to be played-up a lot more. Lee Purcell, who portrays a teen here only to ironically portray the mother of one just five years later in Valley Girl, is dull, but only because the part is painfully underwritten. The character is not mean enough for the viewer to really hate her. She is also too easily broken as evidenced by the scene where she breaks down into tears because she arrives at a debate with her hair still wet.

The Darryl character is equally benign. At first he comes off like a truly awkward teen, which could’ve been fun seeing this dopey geek upend a beauty queen at her own game, but the guy slides into the noble hero role too quickly. He becomes too-good-to-be-true making him nothing more than a transparent, good-guy cliché.

Some other reviewers have commented on Didi Conn and how her goofy, supporting presence helps enliven the film. Personally I’m not a fan of the actress as her geeky looks and squeaky voice gets on my nerves, but when a film is as bland as this one I suppose she does help it, which just prove how really bad it is. I also thought ‘Almost Summer’ was a weird title as everything that goes on here happens during the school year. A better title would’ve been ‘Almost Over’ because the whole time I was watching it I kept asking ‘Is this thing almost over?’

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Runtime: 1Hour 23Minutes

Released: September 22, 1978

Rated PG

Director: Martin Davidson

Studio: Universal

Available: None at this time.

I Start Counting (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: She suspects her brother.

Wynne (Jenny Agutter) is an adopted 14-year-old teen who begins to have romantic feelings for her 32-year-old stepbrother George (Bryan Marshall). However, she finds some troubling signs, like scratches on his back and blood on a shirt she gave him, which makes her believe that he may be the killer that has murdered several teen girls in the area.

This is one of the earlier films directed by the gifted David Greene who went on to helm some amazing films including the TV-movies Roots and Fatal Vision, but here he still seems to be searching for his rhythm. The story, which is based on the novel of the same name by Audrey Erskine Lindop, has some potential, but the pacing drags and there’s too much emphasis on a panning camera that seems to want to pan to different points on the screen in literally every shot. The soft, melodic music is more liable to put the viewer to sleep than create any tension.

Not enough emphasis is put on the murders or the investigation. We see the face of one dead body underneath the water and then that’s it. The killings become almost like an afterthought that gets briefly mentioned here and there, but fails to build up any fear in the viewer and at times becomes almost forgotten. The story instead focuses on the inner thoughts and feelings of Wynne and meanders between her fearing her brother to being in-love with him until she seems weirder than he is.

Agutter gives a great performance and helps hold the thing together, which would’ve become a limp, unfocused bore otherwise. Simon Ward, especially with his facial features makes for a good creepy bus conductor, but Marshall’s flat performance as the brother does not help to the point where the viewer doesn’t particularly care if he is the killer or not.

The only time that there is any true tension is at the end when the killer’s true identity gets exposed and he tries to kill Wynne in a dark, isolated building, but even here things get botched as the film makes it too obvious who the killer is too soon, which then lessens the film’s final twist. Certain other aspects like a flashback sequences dealing with Wynne’s troubled childhood doesn’t add up to much. In fact the only thing that I found even mildly diverting was Wynne’s relationship with her competitive best friend Corinne (Claire Sutcliffe), which brought to mind the old adage: with friends like these who needs enemies.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: November 27, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Not Rated

Director: David Greene

Studio: United Artists

Available: None at this time.