Category Archives: Black Comedy

Stroszek (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Germans relocate to Wisconsin.

Bruno (Bruno S.) has recently been released from prison and while warned to stop drinking as a condition for his parole he immediately goes to a local bar. It is there that he meets Eve (Eva Mattes) a prostitute in an abusive relationship with her husband (Burkhard Driest). Bruno offers to allow her to move into his apartment, but this angers her husband and her pimp (Wilhelm von Homburg)  who break into the apartment and terrorize Eva and Bruno making them believe that the only way they can escape the harassment is by moving to America, which we they do along with their elderly neighbor Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz). They presume everyone is the USA is rich and life will be easy, but find that not to be the case.

The story was based loosely on the real-life experiences of its star and the script  written specifically for him by director Werner Herzog as a conciliation for not casting him in Woyzeck as originally intended. Since Bruno had already taken a leave of absence from his job at a steel mill to star in that one Herzog decided to make it up to him by writing this script in a matter of 4 days and then filming it on-location in Plainfield, Wisconsin because that was where the notorious serial killer Ed Gein had lived.

The story should’ve been a complete downer as it focuses on some very depressing realities, but instead, thanks to the genius of Herzog, one comes away from it feeling almost upbeat at all the quirky humor that gets incorporated in. The most memorable moment, which the rest of the crew found highly offensive and refused to film forcing Herzog to do it himself, happens near the end when Bruno travels to North Carolina and uses the last of his money to insert coins into arcade exhibits featuring chickens inside cages that dance and play the piano. The amusing element from this comes when the police finally arrive on the scene and are more concerned with getting the chicken to stop dancing than with the welfare of Bruno.

I also enjoyed the moment when an auto mechanic (Clayton Szalpinski) decides to do his own oral surgery by using the same pliers that he fixes cars with to remove a painful tooth in his mouth. While more blood was needed, as there should’v been streams of it coming out of his mouth, but isn’t, it’s still quite darkly funny and was ‘inspired’ by a true-life scene in the  1972 documentary Spend it All in which a Cajun in Louisiana does the same thing to his teeth, which amazed Herzog so much when he saw that movie that it compelled him to work the scene into one of his stories.

The jabs at America are expectedely negative and to some degree are on-target while at other points goes too far. Watching the trio become overly excited at seeing their new trailer home driven onto a vacant lot and acting like this was a sign that they had finally ‘made it big in America’ is certainly sardonically funny. Yet the scene with two farmers holding rifles as they plow a field in their tractors ready to shoot the other one if either dared touch a small strip of disputed land played too much into the stereotype that Europeans have of Americans and really wasn’t needed especially since it had nothing to do with the main story.

Bruno S.’s performance, who was never formally trained as an actor, is boring as he conveys the same facial expression all the way through where a more seasoned actor could’ve given the role more needed nuance. Scheitz was an amateur actor as well, but his short stature and overall goofy appearance made him a fun part of every scene he’s in while with Bruno that same quality doesn’t exist. If anything Eva has the widest character arc and the film should’ve evolved around her instead.

Herzog casts a lot of non actors in secondary roles as well. I’m not sure if this was done for budgetary reasons, or just played into his long-standing desire to be experimental, but the results aren’t completely effective. I did however enjoy Scott McKain, an auctioneer in real-life, who plays the part of a bank employee that comes to visit the trio in their trailer home to inform them of their delinquent payments and yet no matter how bad the news is that he must convey he always manages to remain upbeat and peppy when he says it.

The film, which has been rightly placed in Steven Schneider’s ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’ is original in so many ways that it deserves to be seen just for the oddity it is and I really have no complaints with its avant-garde style, which even today comes off as fresh and inventive, but I was confused about why the Glen Campbell song ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ got played so much. The lyrics are never heard, but the melody is and yet there’s no connection to the city of Phoenix in the story, for awhile I thought that was where they’d ultimately end-up, but they never do, so hearing it played so much is out-of-place.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 20, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 48 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Werner Herzog

Studio: New Yorker Films

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Die Laughing (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cabbie accused of murder.

Pinsky (Robby Benson) works as a San Francisco cab driver during the day, but aspires to being a professional singer and attends numerous auditions, but to no avail. One day he picks up a passenger who gets shot and killed while in his cab and Pinsky is mistakenly tabbed as being the killer. Feeling he has no other options he takes the briefcase that the victim was carrying and hides out at his girlfriend Amy’s (Linda Grovenor) apartment. Inside the box they find a live monkey who has apparently memorized the secret formula for turning atomic waste into the plutonium bomb and it’s now their job to keep him away from Mueller (Bud Cort) and his cohorts who want to kidnap the monkey and use what he knows for nefarious purposes.

The film starts out with some potential as it uses Benson’s wide-eyed, deer-in-headlights persona to good comical use, at least initially. Unfortunately by the second half it pivots too much the other way and the minor laughs at the beginning get completely lost when he suddenly becomes this seasoned spy who can quickly think on his feet and outsmart the bad guys at every turn.

Again, this is just an ordinary Joe whose main drive is to make it into the music business, so why get so emotionally invested in a spy case that does nothing but get him deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation? Why not just give the bad guys what they want, hope it appeases them enough that they’ll set you free and then go to the authorities, who are much better positioned to handle this situation, and let them do the rest?

I also thought it was ridiculous that when the couple are tied up and thrown into some dark backroom that they do not respond to the predicament, like any normal person would, with fear and panic, but instead use the moment to become romantic! The fact that they manage to untie each other by biting down on the thick ropes that bind them is absurd as the only thing that would accomplish is a lot of broken-off teeth.

Benson’s musical interludes are a bore and he ends up singing the same damn song three different times. He also performs at a concert when just a little while earlier he was being surrounded by spies ready to push him off of a ship, which would be such a traumatic experience for most people that it’s doubtful he’d be able to emotional calm down enough to focus on singing, or do anything for a long time afterwards.

The story also suffers from having too many villains, Cort is the main one, but he’s seen only intermittently while a bunch of others busily chase Benson around until it becomes dizzying trying to keep track of them all. The plot itself is overblown, relies heavily on worn-out spy genre cliches making it come off like a cheesy parody of James Bond that will cause many viewers to be rolling-their-eyes almost immediately at the campy, strained gags.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: May 23, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 48 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Jeff Werner

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), Amazon Video, YouTube

The Ninth Configuration (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Insane man runs asylum.

Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach), a former marine who is suffering from demons of his own, is selected to head a psychiatric institution built inside a converted castle that specializes in military personal who fought in the Vietnam war and now feign insanity. The challenge is to find if these men are truly mentally ill, or just faking it and Kane’s technique, which allows the patients to openly act out their darkest fantasies, is considered unorthodox. He begins to have an unusual friendship with one of them, Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) a former astronaut who bailed out of an important mission with a nervous breakdown just before lift-off. The two begin to debate the existence of God and the correlation between faith and sacrifice.

The film has a rocky tone in which part of it delves into campy humor while the other half is more serious. The reason for this is that when William Peter Blatty first wrote the novel of which this movie is based in 1966 it was called ‘Twinkle, Twinkle “Killer” Kane!’ and told in a darkly humorous vein. In 1978 he rewrote the story with a more serious tone and that version was published with the same title as this film.

For me I found the humor off-putting and not funny at all. The whole first hour becomes a complete waste with comical bits that rely too much on mental hospital stereotypes and overall campiness from the performers. There’s also long drawn-out segments dealing with the patients barging into Kane’s office and going on long circular rants that are quite boring.

The second half improves when the tone becomes dramatic, which is what I wished it had been all the way through. It also features a wild barroom fight, which is a bit over-the-top with the way the biker gang dress and behave, but also features some great choreographed violence and a creepy performance by muscleman Steve Sandor as the head of the gang that torments both Keach and Wilson. The second act also features a few surreal, dreamlike sequences, which are the best moments of the film.

The eclectic cast is interesting, but many of them, including Robert Loggia and Moses Gunn, gets wasted in small roles and little screen time. Wilson and Jason Miller are good as two of the patients, but Neville Brand is the best as a drill sergeant that at times seems to be channeling R. Lee Emery and at other moments a confused, overwhelmed man with a deer-in-headlights expression. Blatty, who casts himself as one of the patients is good too, not so much for anything that he says or does, but for his unique facial features, especially his eyes making him look like a guy possessed and the fact that he wrote The Exorcist is even more ironic.

Keach is also excellent, in  a role that was originally meant for Nicol Williamson, but who got fired from the production early-on. Keach manages to be both creepy and hypnotic at the same time. A guy you fear one minute and feel sympathetic for by the end and he does it here without his usual mustache allowing the cleft lip that he was born with to be on full display.

The setting, which was filmed at Castle Eltz in Germany and done there because Pepsi financed the film under the condition that it had to be shot in Europe, is an impressive site. Yet it’s hard to believe that such a Gothic styled fortress, which began being built before 1157, could ever exist inside the USA, which is were the setting is supposed to take place.

The discussions that Keach and Wilson have in regards to the existence of a supernatural being are fascinating and help push the film forward, but the ending, which features a mystical twist, was not needed. The tone, even with the humor, was quite dark, so having it suddenly finish with an ‘uplifting’ moment doesn’t click with everything else that came before it and comes off like it’s selling out on itself.

Alternate Title: Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 29, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 58 Minutes

Rated R

Director: William Peter Blatty

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Sweetie (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sister is mentally ill.

Kay (Karen Colston) has begun a relationship with Louis (Tom Lycos) and things seem to be going smoothly as they move into a home together, but it quickly unravels when he sister Dawn ‘Sweetie’ (Genevieve Lemon) shows up with her boyfriend Bob (Michael Lake). Sweetie has been institutionalized in the past and her wild mood swings and erratic behavior quickly cause turmoil particularly with Kay. She asks her parents (Jon Darling, Dorothy Barry) for help, but her dad refuses to recognize Sweetie’s tragic current state and instead continually hearkens back to her childhood years when she was a cute kid with budding talent who would perform songs and dances to the family’s entertainment and delight.

This is a hard film to critique  as it starts off as a quirky comedy, but by the midpoint it becomes more dramatic and filled with a lot of uncomfortable even cringe worthy scenes as Sweetie’s mental decline becomes achingly apparent. Not only do you feel sad for her, but also for how it causes such a severe strain for the rest of her family, which accurately illustrates how mental illness isn’t just a one person issue as their behaviors will adversely affect those around them too.

The fact that the film’s tone switches halfway through, which would be considered a major no-no by Hollywood standards, is part of the reason why it works as it replicates real-life where sometimes you can have a touching, humorous moment only to suddenly get thrown into a troubling one.  This also shapes what life is like living with a mentally-ill individuals who may seem ‘okay’, but can turn erratic sometimes without warning and this ongoing tension vividly comes through for the viewer until they feel the same way as the characters.

I found the father though to be the most entertaining and interesting. One minute he’s scheming to get Sweetie out of the family car, so they can leave on a trip without her and then the next minute he’s driving back to pick-her-up, so they can be ‘one happy family’ again. While this may sound overly contradictory to some I felt it brought out  the inner turmoil many parents feel in dealing with their grown children where at times they can’t stand them, for whatever reason, but at other points can’t stand to be without them either.

Director Jane Campion, in her feature film directorial debut, adds in interesting touches like having the camera frame the characters off-center where instead of seeing them captured in the center of the screen they are shown in the right-hand corner, which helps accentuate the tone of the subject matter. There’s also an odd time-lapsed cutaways detailing a seedling tree pushing its way through the dirt and above ground, which wasn’t exactly necessary to the main plot, but kind of cool nonetheless.

Campion also wisely doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence with pat answers to a complex problem. Mental illness cannot be cured or even  always stabilized with medications, so leaving the viewer with a feel-good ending where everything works out and everybody is happy would be a cop-out and thankfully gets avoided here. Instead the we’re left pondering troubling questions, which stays with you long after it’s over and makes this a far better movie than most because of it.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: September 28, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jane Campion

Studio: Filmpac Distribution

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Criterion Collection), Amazon Video

Repo Man (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Alien in the trunk.

Otto (Emilio Estevez) has trouble accepting authority, which causes him to get fired from many of his jobs. He eventually gets courted into the car repossession business, which he at first resists, but then, especially with its lure of quick cash, he grows into. This then leads him in pursuit of a Chevrolet Malibu with a $20,000 bounty on it driven by a very strange man (Fox Harris) who harbors a glowing radioactive substance in its trunk that kills anyone who comes into contact with it.

The film’s best selling points is that it gives one a gritty feel of what being stuck in society’s poor underbelly is really like as it traps the viewer inside the inner-city of Los Angeles with its almost non-stop capture of its rundown buildings, which becomes like a dominant third character. The viewer then begins to share the same anxiety, anger and frustrations of the people in a place they don’t really want to be, but with no idea of how to get out of it. The only time the film shows the more vibrant area of L.A. is during a brief shot of the skyline from a distance making it come off like a far away place that’s out-of-reach.

The rebel mystique gets better explored and examined here than in other 80’s films where the term ‘rebel’ seemed to apply exclusively to mouthy suburban teens who didn’t like their parent’s rules and would wear punk attire because it was ‘trendy’. Here you get a much more authentic feeling of being an outsider and the unglamorous, desperate qualities that comes with it.

Writer/director Alex Cox also examines the thin, merging line between being a conformist and non-conformist and the ironic/contradictory results that can occur. This gets best captured with the character of Duke (played with gusto by Dick Rude) who is an in-your-face-I-don’t-like-any-rules street punk one minute only to turn around and tell his girlfriend at another moment that he wants to get married and have kids because ‘everybody else is doing it’.

Estevez gives his signature performance here though his excessive cockiness becomes a bit of strain, which fortunately gets tempered in the scene where he gets shot at and panics showing that even a streetwise brash kid like himself has  his limits, which makes it all worth it. Harry Dean Stanton as his partner is terrific and the vast 40 year age difference between the two isn’t apparent at all. Olivia Barash is quite good too without even trying. Her likable unrehearsed quality makes for a refreshing contrast to all the rest who are more compelled to put on a facade and for the this reason I wished she had been in it more.

Honorable mention should also go to Fox Harris who plays Parnell the driver of the much sought after car even though in real-life he couldn’t drive and he got the vehicle in a few accidents and even damaged other props on the set in the process. Normally this would’ve gotten him fired, but because he had been the only actor who was nice to Alex Cox when he worked as a lowly security guard at the Actor’s Studio and before he became a director, he choose to stick with him despite the problems, which shows that if your nice to everybody even those that have very little social standing it can come back in rewarding ways in the long term.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 2, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Alex Cox

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Criterion Collection), Amazon Video, YouTube

Big Trouble (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Insurance agent commits fraud.

Leonard (Alan Arkin) is an insurance agent who does not have enough funds to put his three sons through Yale, which causes him a lot of stress. During a random sales call he meets Blanche (Beverly D’Angelo) who has a sick husband named Ricky (Peter Falk) who has only a week to leave. They hatch a scheme to write-up a life insurance policy that has a double indemnity clause that offers a big payout if Ricky dies by falling off a moving train. The plan starts out fine only to ultimately backfire when Leonard realizes he’s been double-crossed.

At the outset one might assume that this is a sequel to The In-Laws since it has the two stars from that film as well as the same screenwriter, though done under the pseudonym of Warren Bogle, but that’s not the case because Andrew Bergmen got the bright idea of trying to do a parody of Double Indemnity instead. This became a complete disaster for its studio Columbia Pictures because after the script was completed it was deemed a remake of the original film, which Universal Studios still held the rights to, forcing Columbia to give up the rights to Back to the Future and given to Universal as compensation who made a ton of money off of it while this film flopped badly.

A lot of the problem is that unlike in The In-Laws the two stars don’t play off of each other enough and in fact for most of the film they seem to be adversaries. The tone is also inconsistent seeming at times that it wants to be a parody/farce while at other moments it comes off more like a surreal comedy. It doesn’t help matters that John Cassavetes took over directing the production when Bergmen dropped out and his forte was more in drama with a cinema vertite approach causing many of the scenes here to go on longer than necessary while lacking a good comic pace. I also thought it was ridiculous that the plot features many twists, but then ends up telegraphing to the viewer well ahead of time that they’re coming, which takes away any surprise.

Arkin’s character is particularly problematic. Part of why he was so funny in The In-Laws is because he played this sane man thrown into an insane situation, but here he allows himself to get swept up into the nuttiness too easily until he seems almost as crazy as the rest. There’s also no way that a seasoned insurance agent, such as the one he played, would be dumb enough to think he could pull off such a poorly thought out scheme. Being an agent he would know that an autopsy would be done on the dead body and they would find that the victim had been strangled well before he fell off the train and the fact that this all occurs less than 24-hours after the policy was signed would send off massive red flags to anyone working in the industry.

While there are a few funny moments which includes Arkin trying to disguise himself as Falk and even speak in his voice as well as Arkin’s reaction when he takes a sip of Falk’s very exotic liqueur, the rest of it falls depressingly flat. The worst of it is the ending, which throws in a wild coincidence that has no bearing to the main plot nor any forewarning or connection to anything else that came before it, which helps to cement this as a big mistake that should’ve never have been given the green light.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 30, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Cassavetes

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Old lady kills housekeepers.

After the death of her husband, Claire (Geraldine Page) is shocked to learn that there is no money in his will. Fearing a life of destitution she plots to hire old lady housekeepers who she’ll manipulate to give her their life savings in which she’ll invest into stocks through her broker (Peter Brandon). Once these stocks start making money she’ll murder the housekeeper and keep all the profits for herself. After killing off her fourth housekeeper, Miss Tinsley (Mildred Dunnock) and burying her dead body in her backyard, she hires Alice (Ruth Gordon). Alice though has a secret, she was at one time the former employer for Miss Tinsley, who wants to investigate what happened to her and is suspicious that Claire may hold the secret. Claire though becomes aware of Alice’s scheme and decides to try and make Alice her fifth victim.

This marked the third of Robert Altman’s trilogy featuring old lady killers with the first two being What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. This was the first one to be filmed in color and the harsh dry desert landscape setting works as a great metaphor to Claire’s barren, evil soul. I also enjoyed the winding plot, which is based on the 1961 novel ‘The Forbidden Garden’ by Ursula Curtiss that has many offbeat twists including a memorable scene featuring the two old ladies rolling around on the floor during a furious fight that you’ll most likely never see in any other movie.

Page’s performance is the main reason why the film is so entertaining. Watching all the various characteristics that she gives to her haughty character is fascinating and she helps make Claire, as nasty as she is, quite memorable. I especially liked the part where after she kills one of her victims she displays for a split second a shocked expression like even she can’t believe what she has just done and this helps to make her character multi-dimensional, like there’s still some semblance of a tortured conscious somewhere within her and she isn’t just a robotic, evil person.

Gordon is okay in support, but I felt her character should’ve had some backup plan that she would use in defense when things got ugly. She keeps assuring her nephew (Robert Fuller) that she can handle things, but when Claire turns on her she becomes almost like a deer-in-headlights. I also didn’t like the wig that she wears and have to agree with one critic who said it makes her look like a giant, walking-talking peanut. I realize that the wig does eventually come into play as part of the plot, but I felt in the brief segments where she’s shown not wearing it she could’ve been seen with her real hair and not just in another wig, which looked just as dumb.

Honorable mention should also go to Spike who plays a stray dog named Chloe. Spike was a well trained animal who was in many films and TV-shows between 1956 and 1971 and the parts where he bares his teeth and growls at Claire every time he sees her, as she attempts to harm him, are amusing.

Spoiler Alert!

The script by Theodore Apstein, fortunately avoids a lot of loopholes, but I did feel at the end they should’ve shown or explained how the characters played by Rosemary Forsythe and Micheal Barbera were able to escape from their burning house. I also found it hard to fathom why Robert Fuller’s character, upon learning that his Aunt had been killed in a suspicious car accident didn’t immediately accuse Claire of doing it. He had pretended not to have any connection to Alice during the majority of the story as that was part of their scheme, but once she was dead I didn’t see why he still needed to pretend. I would think he’d be so emotionally distraught at that point that he would let out his true emotions without even thinking and possibly even tried to attack Claire while having to be restrained by the others.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The film’s promotional poster, as seen above, is a bit problematic as it features a young model looking like she’s been buried, but in the movie it was only old ladies that were killed and buried. Showing a beautiful lady may have been more visually appealing, but it’s not authentic to the film that it’s trying to promote.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: July 23, 1969

Runtime: 1 Hour 41 Minutes

Rated M

Director: Lee H. Katzin (Bernard Girard for the first 4-weeks of filming)

Studio: Cinerama Releasing Corporation

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Paying women to kill.

Hazel (Carroll Baker) runs a beauty parlor out of her home that specializes in unwanted hair removal, but secretly on the side she hires beautiful women to carry out contract killings of which she gets a part of the take. L.T. (Perry King) is a vagabond in desperate need of money who’s looking to get into the business, but Hazel prefers her killers to be women and is reluctant to take him, but eventually decides to hire him on a trial basis, but then everything starts to go wrong.

One of the best things about this movie is how truly dark it gets. Too many movies that proclaim to be dark comedies always pull back and never get as deliriously twisted as they initially convince you they will, but this film proudly takes things to the darkest extremes becoming a measurement to what true underground filmmaking once was where pushing the envelope was the only goal.

For the most part, depending on one’s sense of humor, it’s outrageously funny. Some of the more wicked moments feature twin sisters (Geraldine and Maria Smith) setting a movie theater on fire and then going home to watch the coverage of it on the TV. There’s also Warhol alum Brigid Berlin as an overweight woman with flatulence issues who’s obsessed at getting brutal revenge on anyone that she perceives as making fun of her weight.

The film also takes satirical jabs at the American obsession of making money and how one’s social standing hinges on how much they have without any concern with what exactly they had to do to get it. This come to a perfect hilt when Hazel throws L.T. out of the house when he refuses to go through with a hit but still somehow feels she’s the morally superior one by taunting him with “At least I pay my own way”.

Due to this being the biggest budgeted film that Andy Warhol produced they  were able to hire some well-known faces into the roles. Baker though was not their first choice as they originally wanted Vivian Vance, whose presence would’ve made this even more of a gem than it already is, but she turned it down fearing it would ruin her reputation with her fans. Shelley Winters, who was their second choice, also rejected the offer, which was rare as she usually accepted anything that came along and she would’ve been brilliant, but I’ll give props to Baker, who took the role simply in an attempt to resuscitate her career, for not holding anything back here and giving it her all.

King is also superb and I enjoyed seeing his character arch as he’s the only in the film that has one, but was disappointed that there was never a final, fiery confrontation between him and Hazel as the film spends the whole time priming you into believing that there will be. Tyrrell is also memorable in a rare sympathetic part where she becomes the only one with a conscious although I have no idea where they got the baby that she is seen constantly carrying around as he’s one of the stranger looking tykes I’ve ever seen.

The cinematic quality though is lacking with almost all of the action taking place inside the drab house. The basic concept isn’t completely well thought out either. While I appreciated the bad cop character, played by Charles McGregor, who gets paid to look the other way, which helps to explain how Hazel is able to get away with these killings for as long as she does, I was still confused with how she was able to bully people. Everyone adheres to her authority, which is never challenged, but you’d think someone running a dicey operation would have some sort of backup plan and weapon on hand should someone get out-of-line, which she doesn’t and for me this seemed questionable.

The film is notorious as well for a scene showing a young mother throwing her baby out of a high story building and watching it go splat on the ground. Supposedly Baker, King, and Tyrrell refused to do the film unless they were promised that this scene be taken out of the script and director Jed Johnson complied only to end up filming it once the rest of the production had wrapped. Years ago when  I first saw this I thought it was pretty funny especially as another mother walks by and says to her young child “that’s what’s going to happen to you if you don’t behave”. It’s clearly a doll anyways and no real baby was harmed, but when I viewed it this time around I found it unsettling, so like with a lot of things in this movie, it’s up to a person’s age and perspective on how much of it they may or may not enjoy.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Release: May 4, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 45 Minutes

Rated X

Director: Jed Johnson

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD

Alligator (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Reptile in the sewer.

In 1968 a young girl (Leslie Brown) brings home a baby alligator, which she stores in her small aquarium, but her father decides to flush the thing down the toilet where in the sewer it feeds off the carcasses of dead animals which were given an experimental growth formula from a nearby clinic. 12 years later the alligator having ingested this formula for years has grown to massive lengths and escapes from the sewer where he now terrorizes the citizens of the city.

The screenplay was written by John Sayles and has a nice blend of comedy and scares. In most other horror films there are usually some long boring segments in between the shocks that get filled with awkward drama or banal dialogue, but here these same segments convey a playful sense of the absurd and are some of the best moments in the movie including showing all the street vendors who come out and try to cash in on the alligator scare by selling alligator related merchandise at the river where the police are searching for the beast. I also enjoyed the ad-libbed lines by the supporting characters mentioning Robert Forster’s receding hairline, which become the movie’s running joke.

The scares are still present and for the most part effective although the scenes inside the sewer work best. I liked the way the beams from the flashlights reflected off of the tunnel walls and created a surreal look as well as how quiet it would get when the police and S.W.A.T. went into the underground caverns, which helped accentuate the tension.

When the gator breaks out of the sewer is when the thing starts to go south especially when it attacks guests at a dinner party, which is too graphic and ghoulish and destroys the film’s otherwise playful tone. I also didn’t like when the alligator breaks through sidewalk having the camera shake, which is something directors would do in old movies to create an earthquake-like visual effect, but comes-off as quite tacky looking. Having the gator roam the city for as long as it does and not get caught seemed implausible as something that big would attract lots of attention no matter where it went and most likely would get cornered by the authorities a hell of a lot sooner than it does.

The film also suffers by not effectively conveying the size of the beast visually. We see a lot of quick shots involving its open mouth, but not much else. An animatronic one was built, but it malfunctioned and was little used and then later donated to the Florida Gators as their mascot. An actual gator got used in some shots, which they superimposed onto a miniature set to make it look bigger, but the final result of this looks awkward.

The truth is alligators are by nature very timid towards humans and will usually swim away if approached by one and only attack if they feel threatened. They prefer much smaller prey that they can eat with one gulp and thus avoid people altogether. It’s actually the crocodile that  is much more dangerous and in fact the saltwater and nile crocodile kills hundreds of people each year, which for the sake of accuracy should’ve been the species that got used.

I also thought it was a bit bizarre that someone could keep an alligator as a pet like the young girl does at the beginning. Now don’t get me wrong watching them flush the baby gator down a toilet is one of the best parts of the movie, but what would’ve happened had the gator been allowed to grow into an adult? How would they be able to house or control him, which only makes the father, who gets portrayed here as being obnoxious, look smart by getting rid of it when it was small and he still could.

The cast though still makes it worth watching. Forster is great in the lead as he plays against his stoic tough guy image by conveying vulnerabilities with his finest moment being the horrified expression on his face when his partner gets attacked and he’s unable to save him. I also liked Jack Carter as the corrupt Mayor and Dean Jagger, in his last film role, as the nefarious animal clinic owner. Angel Tompkins can be seen briefly as a news reporter as well as Sue Lyon in her last film appearance to date.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 14, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Lewis Teague

Studio: Group 1 International

Available: DVD

Mother’s Day (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Rednecks murder for mama.

Trina (Tiana Pierce), Abbey (Nancy Hendrickson), and Jackie (Deborah Luce) are three friends from college, who are now in the adult world but still enjoy getting together one weekend of the year for a ‘mystery trip’ where they go to some place they’ve never been before. This year they decide to take a camping trip into the dense woods of New Jersey. It is there that they come into contact with a redneck family consisting of two grown sons: Ike (Frederick Coffin, but billed as Holden McGuire) and Addley (Michael McCleery, but billed as Billy Ray McQuade) who kidnap the girls and bring them back to their secluded home where they torture and rape them all for the amusement of their twisted mother (Beatrice Pons, but billed as Rose Ross in order to avoid losing her actor’s union membership for starring in a non-union film.)

The film is loosely inspired by the true story of Gertrude Baniszewski, a single woman with 7 children living in Indianapolis in 1965 who got her kids to torture and murder a 14-year-old girl who was boarding at their home while her parents went off to work in a carnival. This same story was done in two other films: An American Crime starring Ellen Page, and The Girl Next Door with Blanche Baker. While both of those movies took a more serious approach this film tries to spin in goofy satire which kind of works and kind of doesn’t.

I enjoyed the graffiti sprayed painted on the walls inside the mother’s home and the silly TV references as well as the two sons arguing over the merits of  whether ‘Punk sucks’ or ‘disco’s stupid’, but the opening bit where the mother attends a weekend encounter group, which was a parody of The Erhard Seminars Training, which was popular during the 70’s, should’ve been cut. For one thing there’s no logical reason why this reclusive old woman would be motivated to attend this group. It also telegraphs too much of the plot by having her car break down and her two sons then jump out of the forest to kill two of the people that she had met at the seminar. Not having the mother and her boys introduced right away but waited until after the girls were kidnapped would’ve created more tension and mystery.

Spoiler Alert! 

The women characters are better fleshed-out than in most other slasher films and a great deal of time is spent showing their backstories. They’re also not made to seem like bimbo party girls, but portrayed more like everyday women who are smart and more average looking, which was a refreshing change of pace.

However, the ending, which consists of them turning-the-tables on their captors and savagely killing them doesn’t work. Had they still been held hostage and forced to kill in order to escape then it might’ve been more believable, but instead they successfully escape and then decide to come back and murder the family for ‘street justice’  after one of them dies. This though was too wide of arch as nothing is shown before hinting at this violent streak that harbors within them. Screenwriter Warren Leight tries to justify it by having the redneck mother remind Abbey of her obnoxious mother back home and thus letting out all of her pent-up frustrations that she with her own mother onto the old woman, but it’s all still too extreme and heavy-handed.

End of Spoiler

Despite all of these issues I still felt this was a step above most other slasher flicks. There’s enough interesting elements to it that I was convinced that director Charles Kaufman, who is the brother of Troma President Lloyd Kaufman and not to be confused with the famous screenwriter with the same name, had the potential of being a good cult film director, but since 1988 he is no longer in the filmmaking business and instead runs the successful bakery Bread & Cie in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: September 19, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Charles Kaufman

Studio: United Film Distribution Company

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube