Category Archives: Cult

The Night, The Prowler (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Victim turns into prowler.

Late one night Felicity (Kerry Walker), who is an adult woman still living at home with her parents (John Frawley, Ruth Cracknell), finds that a prowler (Terry Camilleri) has invaded her bedroom. After getting into a conversation with him she is surprised to learn that he’s a married man with kids, who enjoys prowling as a side gig to make up for the monotony and stresses of his home life. Felicity then realizes that the suburban lifestyle that her parents want her to live does not fully satisfy the individual and therefore decides she doesn’t want it. She breaks off her pending engagement with her fiancé (John Derum)  and turns into a prowler herself breaking into men’s homes late at night and learning to enjoy the underbelly of society by socializing with the homeless and other people that her parents always told her to stay away from. She soon finds a sense of empowerment by thumbing her nose at the elitists that make her her suburban community and doing all the forbidden things that her former cloistered lifestyle never allowed.

The film was directed by Jim Sharman best known for having done The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The basis for this project comes from his collaboration with playwright Patrick White and the many plays of his that he directed while doing experimental theater in Sydney during the 70’s. White wanted to expand one of his short stories into a screenplay and Sharman suggested this one had the best chance of working. The two had both grown up in the eastern suburbs of Sydney and wanted to create a film that showed their inner disdain for the arrogant, privileged people that populated the neighborhoods there and how the sterility of those environments may have been a comfort to the adults, but stifling and alienating to the teenagers.

To some level the film is interesting, but the fragmented narrative becomes an intrusive turn-off. Normally I like films that to get away from the mainstream approach and use different cinematic styles to tell a story, but the presentation here never allows you to get emotionally invested into the characters or their situations. There’s too much cutting back and forth between the present day, the past, and even some dream-like segments that ultimately makes the whole thing confusing and off-putting. That’s not to say that there aren’t some provocative moments as there are, but the non-linear approach never allows it to catch its stride, or feel like its progressing forward.

I did enjoy though the scenes with Felicity in the park late at night talking to the homeless while inadvertently scaring off a gang of young hoodlums by chasing after them and demanding that they assault her. When she breaks into a rich couple’s home and systematically destroys it and their subsequent over-the-top facial reactions when they come home to witness it is a hoot too. There are though some very disturbing moments too including Felicity’s conversation with a naked, starving homeless man (Harry Neilson) that she finds lying inside the filthy squalor of an abandoned building.

The one thing that holds it all together is the acting. Walker is perfectly cast in the lead as her plain looks and perpetually despondent expression visually signals her inner angst and alienation. Cracknell though completely steals it in a campy send-up of the suburban housewife/ mother that is at times both comically absurd and over-the-top funny. Her odd behavior keeps the interest going even as the story and direction at times lull and in fact it was enough to have nominated for the Best Actress Award by the Australian Film Institute.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 2, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 25 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Jim Sharman

Studio: New South Wales Film Corporation

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Cisco Pike (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blackmailed into dealing drugs.

Cisco Pike (Kris Kristofferson) is a down-on-his-luck singer who once was playing to sell-out crowds, but finds his popularity declining and resorting to selling drugs to maintain a living, but under pressure from his girlfriend Sue (Karen Black) has stopped. Leo Holland (Gene Hackman) is a police detective looking to retire and needing enough money to do so. He steals a sizeable quantity of high-grade marijuana from a gang leader and then tells Cisco he must sell it within 59 hours while giving Leo $10,000 of the profits and Cisco can keep anything that he makes beyond that. At first Cisco resists knowing it will interfere with his relationship with Sue, but eventually gives in when Leo threatens to kill him unless he complies.

While this film has achieved a cult status in recent years critics at the time of its release were not kind. Many felt it promoted drug use just as the nation was starting its war on drugs, which caused the film to get a limited release and eventually bombed at the box office. Personally I found it to be a riveting look at the drug dealing culture and a fabulous directorial/screenwriting debut for Bill L. Norton the son of William W. Norton who was also a successful screenwriter.

What I liked most was the cinema vertite style that made it seem almost like a documentary. I enjoyed the camera following Cisco around in a non-stagy way and revealing the variety of people that he sold to with not all of them being hippies either, but also middle-aged suburbanites and even business executives. The film nicely shows how some of the encounters would be non-eventful while others could ended up being a trap and eventual police chase. The unpredictable quality of the transactions replicated the anxiety the dealers would face and how hyper observant they needed to be to the immediate environment around them.

Many films try to recreate things that the filmmakers themselves haven’t gone through, but here I got the feeling that the director and much of the cast had experienced the same situations as the characters which in-turn makes the viewer feel, when it’s over, that they’ve lived it too. The dialogue is excellent as well with a conversational style that doesn’t overexplain things and allows the viewer to read in a bit to what the characters are saying.

Kristofferson, who had been a singer up to that point, makes an outstanding acting debut and all the more impressive when you realize that he had no acting training before he was given the part. Many of his friends advised him not to take the role fearing his lack of experience would hurt the movie and cause him not to be given any more roles, but after reading the script he felt he could relate to the character by simply being honest with his emotions, which he does splendidly and it’s nice too seeing him in a rare appearance without any beard or mustache.

Hackman is excellent as well playing a character that was not in the original treatment, but added in later by Robert Towne when he wrote the revision. It’s unusual seeing him in such a relatively small part with large chunks of time, especially during the second act, where he’s not seen at all, but when he is onscreen he’s effective. It was fortunate that this was filmed just before he won the Academy Award for The French Connection as that turned him into leading man material and it’s unlikely that he would’ve accepted this part had it been produced any later.

Black is interesting, she usually always is, despite, like with Hackman, not having all that much screen time, but she makes the most of what she has particularly her physical reactions to Hackman when he invites himself into her apartment late at night and begins rambling on about his heart condition. Honorable mention too needs to go to Joy Bang, an attractive supporting actress during the early 70’s who later retired from show business to get into nursing. Her toothy smile always looks sexy, at least to me, and I loved when she gives her female companion, played by Viva, an open-mouth kiss while riding in a car and then turns around and gives Kristofferson, who is sitting on her other side, the same treatment.

Harry Dean Stanton, as an aging musician, doesn’t appear until near the end, but has some of the movie’s most profound moments particularly his exchange with Kristofferson were he laments about no longer being sexy enough for the stage while Kristofferson reminds him that it’s not his body that the music business wants, but his soul instead.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: November 2, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bill L. Norton

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD

Fight for Your Life (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Racist thugs terrorize family.

Three escaped convicts (William Sanderson, Daniel Faraldo, Peter Yoshida) find an isolated home in a woodsy are of upstate New York where they barge in on a black family headed by Reverend Turner (Robert Judd).  Jessie, the gang’s leader, is quite racist and uses the opportunity to spew out his hateful side forcing the home’s occupants, particularly the father, to do all sorts of humiliating things all to the amusement of the three men, but the family remains stoic determined to turn-the-tables on their captors the moment they get their chance.

The film could best be described as a variation on the Last House on the Left theme and in some ways does it much better. There’s none of the campy ‘comic relief’ humor here that almost ruined that one and the film is unrelentingly violent and grim. So many exploitation flicks from the 70’s would usually sell-out and never be half as provocative as advertised, but on that regard this movie delivers in ways that would still be considered jaw-dropping today and most likely not have any chance in this modern PC-era of getting filmed.

However, with that said, it’s still quite obnoxious and even repulsive to watch. There seems to be no other reason to have made this then to shock and appall and I’m genuinely surprised why anyone would’ve agreed to act in this particularly the black performers, who get forced to go through some truly tasteless and degrading acts.

The directing at times comes off as amateurish. It’s supposed to take place in the fall with leaves having turned color and almost fully off the trees, which is what we see when the thug’s car pulls up to a toll booth on a cloudy day and yet when the camera cuts to show the car leaving the toll booth the sky is now sunny and full green foliage on all of the trees. The music is also too loud, gets in the way of the action where natural ambience would’ve created more tension, and seems like a soundtrack better suited for a blaxploitation flick.

I wasn’t real happy with Sanderson’s presence either. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a gifted character actor, who’s best known for having played Larry in the ‘Newhart’ TV-show where he’d enter every scene by introducing himself as well as his two brothers named Darryl. In the comic realm as a backwoods hick his accent and talents are perfect, but here I could never take him seriously. His voice is too high pitched to be menacing and his wiry physique isn’t imposing. This might’ve been the intention at showing how without a gun he wasn’t much of man, but for the film to be truly scary there needed to be someone with a very intimidating look running the show.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending just about destroys what little potential this production had as it features an entire police force coming to the home, but instead of rescuing the occupants they choose to instead just stand outside and do nothing even as two of the women get raped. Supposedly this wasn’t for racist reasons, but more because they feared the victims might accidently get killed should they rush in to save them, but what’s the use fitting a police department with weapons and training if they’re going to be too timid to use it when they need to?

The idea that the black family would become aware that the police where outside, but stall them simply so they could enact their own revenge on the bad guys was too much of an overreach. The ending would’ve worked better, and been more believable, had the police not arrived at all and thus forcing the victims to use their own wits and ingenuity to overtake the brutes and then allowing their anger to spill over causing them to become far more vindictive than anyone could’ve imagined.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: October 1, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 26 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert A. Endelson

Studio: William Mishkin Motion Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Thunder Run (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Aging trucker hauls plutonium.

Charlie (Forrest Tucker) is a former trucker who spends his retirement working an old cobalt mine, but finds few prospects. He’s then given an offer by George (John Ireland) an old friend of his to haul some plutonium from Nevada to a top secret installation in Arizona. George warns Charlie that it could be dangerous as they’re terrorists after the cargo and willing to resort to violent means to steal it, but the $200,000 payout is too much for Charlie to refuse. With the help of his grandson Chris (John Shepherd) and his other teen friends the truck gets fitted with high tech gadgetry in order to fight off the bad guys when they attack.

The film starts out okay although it has all the signs of being a low budget direct-to-video 80’s venture complete with stock characters and generic music. The presence of Tucker, whose last movie this was, really helps. He’s the kind of actor who can give a performance that seems effortless and like he’s not acting at all just being himself and his persona is quite engaging allowing the viewer to become attached to him quite quickly and rooting him on in his challenge. There is some nifty stunt work too with my favorite moment being when a backhoe loader crushes a car that it literally runs right over and then also a trailer office. The scene has little to do with the main plot, but it’s still fun to see visually.

The film though starts to falter when it gets out onto the open-road. What should’ve been excited actually isn’t. There’s just too much high tech nonsense with rig equipped with stuff no other 18-wheeler has ever had. There’s very little intrigue at seeing the bad guys chase the truck when Tucker is able to just blow them all away with a press of a button. The truck seems almost indestructible as the villains aim a flame thrower right at the tires, which should’ve easily melted the rubber, but instead it doesn’t. The film is famous for a stunt that has the truck jumping over a train, but when it came back down onto the pavement it should’ve jostled the intricate parts of the rig in a way that would’ve most likely disabled it and the fact that the truck is able to continue on just fine starts to make the whole thing too ridiculous to be believed.

Having Tucker paired with Shepherd, who was 24 at the time, but looked more like he was only 18, is not interesting. Initially I thought this would allow the story to take advantage of the generation gap, but Shepherd is so squeaky clean and All-American that his presence allows for no nuance. I realize that in order to attract teen viewers a younger actor needed to be cast in a co-starring role, but the film would’ve been far better had Tucker been the sole driver, manning a rig that was just a regular truck without any of the techie jazz and forced to use his wits and cunning to fight off the terrorists instead of stuff dreamed up by a special effects wiz with an over active imagination.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 30, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Gary Hudson

Studio: Cannon Film Distributors

Available: DVD (Region 2), VHS

Tourist Trap (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Mannequins come to life.

A group of college kids go driving through the countryside in two separate vehicles. When one of the vehicles breaks down, Woody (Keith McDermott), the driver, decides to go off looking for a replacement to his flat tire. He finds an abandoned gas station and when he enters the backroom gets attacked by mannequins and flying objects. Later the young adults in the other car also have their vehicle break down near an old museum that features wax dummies and an eccentric owner named Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors). Soon the same fate that befell Woody starts to occur to them one-by-one.

With the critical success of director David Schmoeller’s first film, the movie short The Spider will Kill You, which will be reviewed tomorrow, he managed to find enough funding to expand the idea into a feature film. The film though did not do well when first released and sat in virtual obscurity until Stephen King lauded it in his book ‘Danse Macabre’, which brought new attention to it and eventually garnered it a strong cult following. Now, I know everyone has their own unique ideas of what’s scary, but honestly I can’t see what King found about this that was so great.

To me it comes off as just another cheesy low budget slasher flick with very little that is original or interesting. Having the bad guy able to use telekinetic powers I thought was dumb. Why would this backwoods hillbilly be able to harness special powers that 99.9% of the rest of the world’s population doesn’t have? The original version of the script did not have the telekinetic powers present, but the filmmakers were forced to incorporate it at the behest of producer Charles Band, who refused to give the money for the project unless they did.

Chuck Connors, best known for his starring role in the TV-show ‘The Rifleman’, is a bit annoying and was the third choice for the role as the part had been offered to Jack Palance and then Gig Young first, both of whom would’ve been much better, but they turned it down. It’s not like Connors is necessarily bad, but he’s too campy and comes-off like just another tired rehashing of Ed Gein. The ultimate reveal of who the masked killer is offers no surprise at all and most if not all viewers will easily predict who it is long before you finally find out.

The cast of victims are boring too and I didn’t like the sexist undertones where the women, with the exception of the very end, never really fight back at all and almost seem to surrender to their fate and it’s only the men who show any gumption to escape and be aggressive. It would’ve been nice too had their been some nudity, as the females, particularly Tanya Roberts sporting a brunette hairstyle instead of her usual blonde one, look great. Most of these types of films would usually show some skin to help keep things interesting during the slow parts and when they all decided to go skinny dipping I was fully expecting this to happen, but instead you get nothing. Apparently Schmoeller, being a first time director, was too shy to ask them to remove their clothes, but it would’ve helped the film get the coveted R-rating as Schmoeller felt the PG-rating is what ultimately hurt it at the box office.

The only time things gets even slightly creepy is when the mannequins come to life, but that doesn’t happen enough. In retrospect the Mr. Slausen character should’ve been scrapped completely and instead featured a surreal storyline where the college kids find themselves trapped inside a warehouse filled with animated mannequins and forced to single-handedly battle them one-by-one in order to escape.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: March 16, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: David Schmoeller

Studio: Compass International Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

The Comeback (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Singer hears weird noises.

Nick Cooper (Jack Jones) is a successful singer trying to revive his career after a 6-year hiatus. He travels to London to work on a new album under the guidance of his manager Webster (David Doyle), where the two share a hot-and-cold business relationship. Meanwhile his ex-wife Gail (Holly Palance) goes to their former apartment to collect her things, but is attacked by someone dressed as an old lady and brutally killed. After the murder Nick begins to hear noises at the mansion he is staying in that is owned by an older couple (Bill Owen, Sheila Keith) in which he hears the sound of a woman crying, but can’t detect where it is coming from.

This is another Pete Walker production who has in recent years received a strong cult following for the long line of British horror films that he directed during the 70’s and early 80’s before leaving the profession in order to start up a business where he bought and refurbished old movie theaters. While I’m not a big fan of some of his early work, which seemed kind of hooky, I felt this horror outing managed to deliver for the most part.

What impressed me most was the brutality of the murder where Gail not only gets stabbed many times, but has her hand cut off, which goes flying down the stairs. This was in the era of the Video Nasties, where the British government was banning all sorts of horror films brought in from other countries, so I was surprised why this one got a pass. What made it even more gruesome is that the camera keeps cutting back to the dead body at different intervals where the viewer vividly sees the decaying process. It starts by showing a close-up of the dried blood that covers the victim’s face, real blood was used that had been donated from a local hospital, then later on it cuts back to show maggots’ inside her eye sockets and mouth  and eventually even rats eating away at her face.

Having singer Jack Jones, who’s best known for crooning the theme song from the TV-show ‘The Love Boat’, cast in the lead seemed an odd choice. Apparently Walker was determined to get a singer for the part and first approached Cat Stevens and then Ringo Starr who both declined, so he had to settle for Jones, who isn’t bad. It’s refreshing to see a protagonist in a horror flick that isn’t a teen or college aged and instead in his 40’s, but since there is an element of teen idol worship in the story it would’ve made more sense having a younger singer cast that would’ve appealed more to the youth of the day.

David Doyle, best known for playing Bosley in the TV-show ‘Charlie’s Angels’, is surprisingly effective too and given a big role. Usually he would be relegated to small supporting parts in comical films, but here does well in a dramatic one and even seen at point putting on women’s make-up and wearing a dress, but the film never follows-up with this potential story thread, but should’ve.

The murders aren’t too prevalent, there’s only two and spread far apart, but they’re gory enough to leave a strong impression. The story moves a bit too slowly and while there is tension at times it’s not consistent. The wrap-up though is a complete surprise and pretty much comes out of nowhere, but I didn’t mind.

Spoiler Alert!

While the script is satisfactory there were a couple of moments that didn’t make much sense. One has Nick returning to the mansion after he’s seen the decapitated head of his ex-wife in a box there and tormented each night by her cries and screams, which is enough to send him to the mental hospital for awhile. If it were me I’d never go back to that place again and yet Nick does and just casually turns up the music on his radio when he again starts hearing the ghostly cries instead freaking out like anyone else would’ve. The scene where he takes an ax out of a victim’s body, who had been killed by someone else, and then is seen holding it over the dead body as someone else enters the room, made me believe he was going to be accused of committing the murder, but it doesn’t work that way, but probably should’ve.

Alternate Title: Encore

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 16, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Pete Walker

Studio: Enterprise Pictures Limited 

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Criminally Insane (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: She has to eat.

Ethel (Priscilla Alden) suffers from a eating disorder that has caused her to gain a massive amount of weight. After being sent to a mental hospital she is eventually released into the care of her grandmother (Jane Lambert) with strict orders to keep Ethel away from food. However, her grandmother’s attempts to lock-up the food only gets Ethel hungrier to the point that she goes on the attack and kills her grandma with a knife and then hides her body in an upstairs room. Rosalie (Lisa Farros), Ethel’s sister, shows up and brings along her boyfriend (Michael Flood), but they start to smell the body decay and threaten to investigate what is causing it, so Ethel continues her murder spree in order to hide her secret and have the ability to eat as much as she wants.

These days if even just one person gets offended by something that they see in a movie the filmmakers are obligated to go down on their knees and beg forgiveness while in the 70’s director’s were scurrying to find the next taboo that they could topple. Not only were they unconcerned if they offended anyone, but actually relished the prospect and this movie in many ways goes even further with the shocks than the others. The result, despite the vulgarities, is quite funny and I found myself laughing-out-loud at more than a few places.

The gore is effective too. This was filmed in the Spring of 1973 long before the slasher genre was a thing making this into what’s called a prototype slasher, but the results are the same. In fact I’d say this thing is even gorier than the horror films that play-it straight and I liked the special effects showing the bodies decaying. The second-half also gets rather disturbing including scenes of one victim with a crushed skull still alive enough to try and crawl away while Ethel stands over him and laughs. She even sleeps with her victims, eats in front of them and ultimately does even worse. If you watch this thing for the sick, twisted content you should not be disappointed.

The extremely low budget does create issues though including way too much choppy editing that mainly occurs at the beginning as well as moments where the actors voice is not in sync with their lips. However, Alden’s excellent performance helps and I liked how everything gets filmed in this snazzy house in a nice, sunny neighborhood of San Francisco showing how behind-closed-doors bad things can happen anywhere even in the nice neighborhoods.

In 1987 writer/director Nick Millard and star Alden reteamed for a sequel titled Criminally Insane 2, but this reused a great deal of footage from the first film and was universally panned. Then in 2013 a new director did a remake of this film, titled Crazy Fat Ethel, with a new actress playing the part of Ethel since Alden had already died by that time. That film got shelved for many years when the producer inexplicably died during the production, but eventually it got released in 2016 to genuinely favorable reviews.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 12, 1975

Runtime: 1 Hour 1 Minute

Rated R

Director: Nick Millard

Studio: I.R.M.I. Films

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Unhinged (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Girls trapped in mansion.

Terry, Nancy, and Gloria (Laurel Munson, Sara Ansley, Barbara Lusch) take a trip to rural Washington in order to attend a musical festival. Along the way they run into a freak rain storm, which causes their car to crash into a ravine. They are rescued by Norman (John Morrison) who works as a groundskeeper for the Penroses who live in an isolated mansion. He takes them to the mansion where the girls meet Marion (Janet Penner) who lives there with her elderly mother (Virginia Settle). However, the girls start to sense that there’s someone else on the grounds that also lives there that the daughter and mother aren’t telling them about. Terry hears the heavy-breathing of this person late at night and sees him going into a nearby shed. She tries to investigate only to unearth the family’s deep dark secret the puts all three girls in terrible danger.

The film’s main claim to fame, something it even advertises on its DVD cover, is that it was on one of the 72 films to appear on the U.K.’s video nasties list during the early 80’s. However, if you’ve watched some of the other movies that appeared on that list you’ll realize most are rather tame, especially by today’s standards, so getting put on that list isn’t as notorious as it used to be. The film is also known for having been filmed at the Pittock Mansion, an impressive 46-room estate that sits in Portland, Oregon.

Unfortunately the majority of the movie gets plagued by a low budget/amateur feel and look. The scenes are transitioned by cutting to black and then staying that way for several seconds until you start to worry that picture has gone out, or you’ve gotten stuck with a bad DVD. The dialogue is also too descriptive, or as some critics would say too ‘on-the-nose’. The characters speak in long, full sentences when in reality people don’t talk that way. Instead of having a conversational quality it comes off more as explanatory and in many cases too much so. There also isn’t any need for five minutes of footage showing the girls car driving along a road for us to get the idea that they’re on a trip.

The logic is quite loopy. The girls wake-up to find themselves inside this big home, but are told there are no phones even though these people own this gigantic place that is filled with expensive wines and just about every other luxury. One of the girls is forced to hike through the forest to find help making it seem like this big, beautiful place is not connected to any type of road even though the most rural of homes will still have at the very least a dirt road that will lead to the residence and then be connected at some point to a main road.

I found it odd too that Terry goes to investigate the strange sounds that she is hearing in the attic, but does not bring anything with her for protection. Grabbing a small lamp, or some other heavy, sharp object that she could find, that she could whack over the head of someone should they jump out to attack her would seem to be a no-brainer for anyone else in a similar situation. Yet she chooses to walk into this dark, strange place and go snooping around virtually defenseless.

During the first 75 minutes there are only 2 killings and they’re spread way apart and in between you get stuck with a lot of stilted drama. The only other chills come from seeing a close-up of a guy’s eyeball as he observes the girl’s through a hole in the wall. There’s also a couple of moments where the old lady sits at the dinner table and looks at two glass cups in front of her in a sort-of spooky way that I guess is supposed to be scary, but I could never quite figure out why she was doing that, or what it was supposed to mean.

Fans of this film will tell you that the ending makes sitting through the rest of it worth it. The finale is quite grisly and violent and even has an unexpected surprise, so for some that may be enough. It does have a certain tinge to the more popular Sleepaway Camp even though this one came out a full year before that one.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: October 15, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 19 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Don Gronquist

Studio: Megastar Films

Available: DVD

Shanks (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Mute manipulates dead bodies.

Malcolm Shanks (Marcel Marceau) is a deaf-mute who lives with his cruel sister (Tsilla Chelton) and her alcoholic husband (Phillipe Clay). Malcolm’s puppeteer skills attracts the attention of an aging, eccentric inventor named Mr. Walker (Marcel Marceau) who hires Malcolm to come work with him inside his gothic castle. It is there that he learns of Mr. Walker’s newest invention, which allows him to animate the dead bodies of animals through electronic shocks. Malcolm uses this new found knowledge to animate Mr. Walker himself after he dies and then his sister and her husband when they die by accident, but when a biker gang invades the castle Malcolm is afraid they’ll misuse the invention for bad purposes.

Usually I enjoy offbeat movies, but this film, which was the last one to be directed by William Castle, is never able to catch its stride. It becomes hard to tell whether to even categorize it as a horror movie at all, even though it does have some dark elements, but it’s not inventive enough cinematically to consider it an experimental film either.

Marceau’s presence doesn’t help things. His character never says anything, only when he’s playing the role of Mr. Walker, but even then it’s only a few words. His facial expressions are good, so you pretty much know what he’s thinking, but after awhile his quietness makes him too transparent and he’s just no longer interesting at all and overshadowed by his teen co-star Cindy Eilbacher who does virtually all the talking and could’ve easily been made the star especially since her acting is really good.

The plot is thin and an excessive amount of time gets spent with Malcolm having the dead bodies, which he controls via remote control, dance around and at one point even go shopping, but after awhile this gets one-dimensional and repetitive. Dead bodies can also decay and start to smell real bad, but this reality never gets touched on. I was also confused because Phillipe Clay’s character is killed when he gets attacked by a chicken who bites into his face and makes a bloody mess of it, but when he’s a dancing dead body that injury mysteriously disappears completely.

I thought the introduction of the biker gang, who enter into the story way too late after the film also already become seriously boring, would enliven things, but it really doesn’t. I also didn’t like the visual approach, which is all mixed-up. During some scenes it looks to have been shot in the modern day suburbs and then at other points, especially when inside Mr. Walker’s castle, more of a medieval/gothic look. The inside of Malcolm’s sister’s place is all off too looking like the interior of a home during the 1930’s versus the 1970’s. The title cards that get thrown in at various intervals to help narrate what is going on, much like what you’d see in a silent movie, was not necessary.

I wished I could’ve liked this more, the idea certainly has potential, but there needed to be an added subtext. It’s just too simple and straightforward the way it is and unclear what audience the producers were aiming for.  Children may enjoy parts of it, but will become frightened at other points while adults will find some of it to be clever, but become impatient with the slow pace.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: October 9, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: William Castle

Studio: Paramount

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

Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1983)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Crazy lady kills guests.

Evelyn (Anna Chappell) has just been released from a mental institution and gone back to running a rural motel. One day she finds her daughter Lori (Jill King) practicing witchcraft in their basement. Evelyn becomes so enraged by this that she ends up killing her daughter with a garden sickle. The police believe her story that it was simply an accident that happened outside in their garden and do not arrest her, but the voices inside Evelyn’s head convince her that everyone else is out to get her. This madness sends her on a killing spree at her hotel in which she is able to enter each person’s room through a trap door in their bathrooms that is connected to an underground tunnel.

The film did only moderately well when it was released to regional theaters and then ultimately nationally in 1986 and a lot of the problem could reside around its promotional poster seen above, which seems to imply that this is a campy horror comedy, which it is not. It also features a completely different woman posing as Evelyn that is not the same one who plays her in the film.

As for the film itself it starts out okay. I liked how it comes up with this very offbeat premise about an old lady killer, but then approaches in a realistic way. Nothing gets jazzed-up for the sake of horror and everything gets handled with a slow deliberate pace including a drawn out scene showing an ambulance crew trying to resuscitate her daughter. The on-location shooting, which was filmed in an around Oil City, Louisiana in March of 1983 gives the viewer an authentic view of the winter landscape in the south and the hotel itself, which was shot at an abandoned fishing camp that sat on Cross Lake in Shreveport, helps add a rustic flair.

The cast of victims are much more diverse than in most slasher movies and fortunately doesn’t just feature teenagers or college kids. I was especially impressed with Major Brock, who plays Crenshaw, who had worked for 31 years as a baggage handler at Delta Airlines, but was convinced by the film’s director to take on the role despite having no acting experience, but he does really well, he even sleeps convincingly, and I enjoyed the character’s no-nonsense attitude and wished he had remained in it the whole way.  I was actually disappointed to see any of them die and instead wanted to see how they could get past their contrasting personalities to work as a team to overcome the crazy lady, but that doesn’t happen.

The killings though are quite boring and the idea that a sickle would be able to kill people so easily with just one swipe after spending most likely years being used in the garden, which would’ve dulled its blade, is just not believable. The victims are also too passive and just stand there when the lady attacks them instead of fighting back. The killer is after all an elderly woman, so you’d think these younger people could’ve overpowered her by even just kicking at her, which would’ve slowed her advance.

The climactic battle inside the underground tunnel offers some tension, but it seemed weird that when the people would open up the trap door that lead to the tunnel there would be this bright ray of light that would spew out making it seem like the tunnel was well lit, but then when they’d get down there the only source of light would be their lanterns, so if that’s the case were was the initial ray of light coming from?

The film would’ve worked better had it not given it all away right at the start. The identity of the killer should’ve been kept a secret until the very end and Evelyn should’ve initially been portrayed as this sweet old lady who you’d never suspect. The tunnel should not have been made known until later either and thus made it more intriguing for the viewer in trying to figure out how the dead bodies of the victims were disappearing out of their rooms.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: July 15, 1983

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jim McCullough Sr.

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube