Category Archives: Movies with a Hotel setting

Insignificance (1985)

insignificance2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Celebrities in a room.

Inside a New York hotel room is a professor (Michael Emil) working on some calculations until he gets interrupted by The Senator (Tony Curtis) who tries to get him to appear before the committee trying to expose communists inside the U.S., which will be held the next day. The professor refuses and sends the Senator away, though the Senator says he’ll be back. Outside the hotel is a film shoot where the Actress (Theresa Russell) is performing a scene where a gush of wind blows up the white blouse she is wearing while standing over a street grate. After the shoot she has her chauffeur (Patrick Kilpatrick) take her to a toy store where she picks up some gadgets, which she takes to the hotel room for a visit she has with the professor where they discuss the theory of relativity. Later her husband the baseball player (Gary Busey) shows up and the two argue while the professor leaves. The next morning the senator returns to find the actress alone in bed, who he mistakenly thinks is a prostitute made-up to resemble Marilyn Monroe. When he threatens to seize the professor’s papers she agrees to have sex with him as a bribe, but the senator has a violent outburst just as the professor and the baseball player return to the room.

The film is based on the stageplay of the same name written by Terry Johnson that was performed onstage at the Royal Court Theater in London in 1982. The inspiration for the play came when Johnson found out that amongst Marilyn Monroe’s belongings that were retrieved after her death was a signed autograph picture of Albert Einstein and the idea of what the meeting between these two would’ve been like intrigued him enough to write a whole play around it. Director Nicholas Roeg saw the play and thought it would make for a great movie, but he wanted to expand it by entering in the character of Joe DiMaggio, who was Monroe’s husband at the time as well the senator, which represented Joe McCarthy.

Roeg’s superior use of visuals and non-linear, dream-like narrative is what keeps it interesting. I also liked the way Roeg had flashback scenes, which were not a part of the play, but added into the screenplay at Roeg’s request, showing traumatic moments in each character’s childhood that had an emotional impact on them and ended up defining who they ultimately became. These moments, as brief as they are, end up leaving the most lasting impression.

The acting is quite good particularly from Curtis whose career had waned considerably by this point, but his perpetual nervousness and the sweat that glistens off of his face is memorable. Busey is solid as a man who initially comes-off as a bully, but ultimately reveals a tender side. The lesser known Emil, who is the older brother of director Henry Jaglom and mostly only appeared in movies that were directed by him, completely disappears in his part until you can only see the Albert Einstein characterization and not the acting.

The only performance I had a problem with was Russell’s who goes way over-the-top with her put-upon impression of Monroe and comes-off like a campy caricature. Her breathless delivery sounds like she’s trying to hold in her breathe as she speaks and is quite annoying. Johnson had wanted Judy Davis, who had played the role in the stage version, to reprise the part for the movie, but Roeg, who was married to Russell at the time, insisted she be cast despite the fact that Russell really didn’t want to do it. While I never saw the stage play and have no idea if Davis would’ve been good I still feel anyone could’ve been better, or for that matter couldn’t have been any worse.

While the film does have its share of captivating elements it does fail to make the characters three-dimensional as they play too much into the personas that we already have of them while virtually revealing no surprises. It’s also a shame that the four are never in the room at the same time. There is one moment where the senator, the baseball player, and the professor meet in the front of the room, while the actress remains in the back behind the closed sliding glass doors, but this doesn’t count because she never interacts with the others during this segment, which is something that I had wanted to see. Overall though as an experimental, visual time capsule, it still works and the unexpected, provocative montage that occurs at the end makes it worthwhile.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 11, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 49 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Nicholas Roeg

Studio: Island Alive

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (The Criterion Collection)

Telefon (1977)

telefon1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Spies hypnotized to kill.

Grigori (Charles Bronson) is a KGB agent ordered to investigate a rash of terrorist activities being done inside the US. All of the crimes are being committed by Russian sleeper agents who are hypnotized to carry-out acts via a call on a telephone where they are read a line from a Robert Frost poem, which  triggers them to act upon preordained instructions. The calls are made by a rogue agent named Nickolai Dalchimsky (Donald Pleasence) and it’s up to Grigori to stop him before it becomes an international incident. While in the US Grigori works with lady agent named Barbara (Lee Remick), who Grigori thinks is on his side, but she’s a double-agent ordered to kill Grigori once the mission is completed.

While Leonard Maltin in his review describes the plot, which is based on the novel of the same name by Walter Wager, as being ‘ingenious’ many others felt it was far-fetched. There actually has been one case in the history of crime, which occurred on March 29, 1951 in Copenhagen,  Denmark, where a man by the name of Palle Hardrup was apparently hypnotized by Schouw Nielsen to carry-out a bank robbery and this lead to two people getting killed. Both men were later convicted and the story was made into a 2018 movie called Murderous Trance. Since then though there has been no other cases on record of this type of thing occurring and many experts in the hypnotic field insist that it couldn’t making what transpires here highly speculative at best.

The issue of Grigori having a photographic memory and able to memorize the names and personal details of all the sleeper agents is questionable too. Many researchers say that this type of phenomenon is only temporary and cannot be retained over a long period. There are others that say the photographic memory is a myth altogether and like with the hypnosis angle, forces the viewer to complete shut off their skeptical side right from the get-go in order to have even a chance of enjoying the movie at all.

The only interesting aspect is Lee Remick and Bronson learning to deal with each other’s contrasting personalities, which makes great use of Chuck’s gruff and brash manner, but I felt Remick as an agent wasn’t believable. When she’s ordered to kill one of the sleeper agents inside a hospital by injecting him with a drug she gets quite nervous, but if she’s killed before, then I’d think it would be like second-nature to her and she’d be cool and calm under pressure. I also felt the film should’ve showed her fully carrying-out the killing instead of cutting away without ever seeing the actual injection.

I didn’t get why she would’ve fallen in love with Bronson as the two had nothing in common and really didn’t get along. The film seems to act off the theory that putting a man and woman together will automatically elicit romance and sexual tensions, but members of the opposite sex work together on jobs sometimes for many years where sex and romance never occurs, so having these two end up getting the hots for each other seemed forced and mechanical. Also, the fact that Remick is a double-agent and Bronson becomes aware of this would make me believe that he, being a professional spy, would never trust her enough to let down his guard to expose his softer side to begin with.

I was disappointed too that several scenes are supposed to take place in Texas, including the city of Houston, and yet ultimately all of  these get shot in either California, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in San Francisco, which was the same one used in High Anxiety, or on a studio sound stage. Yet there are plenty of other scenes that were shot on-location like New Mexico , Montana, and even Finland, so if they could make it to those places then why not to Texas too?

The climactic sequence, which takes place in a backwoods bar and features a humorous performance by Helen Page Camp, as the wife of the bar owner, gets wrapped-up in too tidy of a way and doesn’t take full advantage of Pleasence, who has been very creepy in his other villainous roles, but here doesn’t make much of an impression. While the film is entertaining on a non-think level it compares poorly to other movies in the spy genre and certainly does not come close to matching many of the better ones.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 16, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Don Siegel

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive)

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

lasttango2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sex without knowing names.

Paul (Marlon Brando) is a middle-aged American man living in Paris who’s despondent over his wife Rosa’s recent suicide. Feeling alone and without direction he meets up with Jeanne (Maria Schneider),a much younger woman, while both are looking to rent the same apartment. Jeanne is dating Thomas (Jean-Pierre Leaud) a filmmaker who wants to film her life and make it into a movie, which Jeanne is not so keen about. Despite not knowing Paul’s name, as he wants their identities to remain a mystery, she gets into a torrid sex affair with him and finds Paul’s evasive manner to be both frustrating and intriguing. However, after he rapes her he disappears and Jeanne considers their relationship over, but Paul meets her on the street a few days later, but this time he tells her all about himself, but hearing the sad details of his lonely life makes him less appealing to her. She tries to get away from him, but Paul continues to pursue her, which ultimately leads to tragedy.

The film is probably better known for the controversy and scandal it caused upon its release than anything else. While some of its sexual aspects will seem somewhat tame by today’s standards back in 1972 it became a hotly contested commodity where the government in Italy openly banned the film and ordered all copies of it seized and destroyed while also revoking director Bernardo Bertolucci’s right to vote for 5 years. Residents of Spain, where the film was also banned, would travel hundreds of miles to the French border just so they could see the film that everyone was talking about. In the US the controversy was no different with conservative pundits labeling it ‘pornography disguised as art’. In Montclair, New Jersey residents tried to physically block movie goers from going in to see the film by forming a human chain in front of the theater and those that were able to break through got labeled as being ‘perverts’.

Today the most controversial aspect are Maria Schneider’s accusations that the infamous ‘butter scene’ where Brando rapes her anally while using butter as a lubricant was not planned nor scripted and the she was taken by complete surprise. In a 2013 interview Bertolucci admits that Maria did not know the details of the scene ahead of time and this was intentional in order to capture the genuine look of shock on her face. While Bertolucci says he does not regret doing the scene he still felt bad for Maria, who maintained up until her death in 2011, that she had been both ‘violated’ and ‘humiliated’ and never spoke to Bernardo afterwards.

As for the film itself it’s interesting on a technical end, I particularly enjoyed its fragmented/dream-like narrative, but it also comes-off as being a bit overrated. It was based on Bertolucci’s own sexual fantasies regarding his desire of picking-up a young, beautiful woman off the streets and having a passionate sexual affair with her without ever knowing her name, or having any responsibilities or obligations attached to it, which is certainly an intriguing idea for a script, but the way the two come together seemed just a bit too rushed and unrealistic. Brando, who never bothered to memorize his lines and ad-libbed most of it, seems to be playing himself as he displays the same moody, self loathing quality that he also conveyed in every interview I’ve seen him in making it less about creating a character and more just him showing his true nature. Schneider is the best thing about the movie, as is the scene where the two disrupt a tango dance contest, but ultimately the film leaves one with a dark, depressed, and dismal feeling after it’s over.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 14, 1972

Runtime: 2 Hour 10 Minutes

Rated NC-17

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Studio: United Artists

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

Lovers and Other Strangers (1970)

lovers1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Marriage: Pros and Cons.

Mike and Susan (Michael Brandon, Bonnie Bedelia), who have been living together for a year and a half, have decided to get married, but as the wedding draws near Mike begins to have second thoughts. Meanwhile Susan’s parents, Hal and Bernice ( Gig Young, Cloris Leachman) have issues of their own as Hal is having an affair with Kathy (Anne Jackson) who is Bernice’s sister. Their other daughter, Wilma (Anne Meara), who is already married, but starting to regret it since her husband (Harry Guardino) seems more interested in watching old movies on TV than having sex. Mike’s parents, Frank and Bea (Richard S. Castellano, Beatrice Arthur) also have problems as they try to convince Mike’s older brother Richie (Joseph Hindy) to stay married to Joan (Diane Keaton) even though they’ve grown incompatible. Then there’s wedding usher Jerry (Bob Dishy) who spends his time trying to ‘score’ with nervous, nebbish bridesmaid Brenda (Marian Hailey) who can’t seem to decide whether she’s into Jerry or not.

While the film, which was based on the hit Broadway play of the same name written by real-life couple Joseph Bologna and Renee Taylor, who adapted it to the screen, was a major success at the box office and received high critical praise it does in retrospect come-off like just another episode of ‘Love American Style’ or even ‘The Love Boat’. There are certainly some funny lines of dialogue and interesting insights at how the younger generations view marriage differently from the older one, but besides the very brief wedding scene, we never see the cast come together and interact as a whole making the movie and characters seem more like a collection of non-related vignettes than a cohesive story. It’s also quite talky with no action to speak of, so unless you’re really into conversational comedy you may get bored.

Mike and Sue, who act as the main characters, get overshadowed by the supporting players and become almost like an after thought the more the movie progresses. The opening sequence with them in bed together and contemplating marriage, which at the time was meant for shock effect since it was still considered taboo to have sex before marriage, will be lost on today’s audiences where living together is now by far the norm. I also found it hard to believe that they’d be able to fool both sets of parents for a whole year by pretending they were rooming with same sex roommates, Sue told her parents she had a roommate named ‘Phyllis’ and Mike told his folks he lived with ‘Nick’, but after awhile I’d think the parents would get suspicious especially when they’d never meet or speak to these other roommates even after a year’s time.

The segment where Mike tells Sue he doesn’t want to get married because he still likes hitting-on other women and then proceeds to pinch the ass of some lady on the street, all while in front of Sue, won’t go over to well with today’s viewers and for that matter shouldn’t have gone over well with Sue either even though she takes it all in stride like it’s no big deal while most other wives/girlfriends would’ve been highly upset. Having Mike inform Sue that he she has ‘fat arms’ could really upset a lot of women as many can be insecure about their bodies and dwell on these types of comments for a long time and not take it so casually like Sue does here. I thought she should’ve brought it back up later, out-of-the-blue in a non-related scene with something like ‘do you really think my arm’s are fat?’, which could’ve been funny.

There’s problems with the casting too especially Anne Meara playing Cloris Leachman’s daughter even though in reality she was only three years younger than her and looked it. I was also baffled why Meara’s real-life husband and longtime comic partner Jerry Stiller, who does appear very briefly in a minor role, wasn’t cast as her husband here. Harry Guardino does a fine job in the hubby role, but Stiller and Meara had a special chemistry and that would’ve shined through with the two onscreen. I also felt that Anne Jackson and Cloris should’ve switched roles. Having the very dynamic Cloris stymied in a boring bit of a clueless housewife was a waste of her immense talents and she would’ve been better able to display the anxiety of Anne’s character in a funnier way.

Bea Arthur and Diane Keaton, who both make their film debuts here, are quite good as is Richard S. Castellano whose repeated line of “So what’s the story’ became a popular catchphrase though the numerous close-ups of his face does make his fat bottom lip too pronounced. Marian Hailey, who left the acting profession in the 80’s and became children’s book author who now goes by Marian Hailey-Moss, is excellent too and perfectly conveys the persona of a single woman who is quite intelligent and well read, but also painfully insecure and indecisive. My favorite though is Gig Young as a philandering husband who tries to make everyone happy, but ultimately fails. This was his last great performance before alcoholism killed his career and his conversation with Jackson at end as they sit in two adjoining toilet stalls in a public bathroom is the film’s funniest moment though the house that his character owns, which is supposed to nestled in the rich swanky suburbs looks like a shambles, at the least exterior, as it’s painted with a watery white color that has spots where it completely exposes the red brick underneath looking like a rundown place that has been poorly maintained, which I don’t think was the intention.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 12, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Cy Howard

Studio: Cinerama Releasing Corporation

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

Under the Rainbow (1981)

under1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Drunk dwarfs vandalize hotel.

In 1938 an audition is held at the Culver Hotel in Hollywood for Little People to play the part of Munchkins for the upcoming movie The Wizard of Oz. Studio assistant Annie (Carrie Fisher) is put in charge of casting 150 dwarfs for the part. Meanwhile German secret agent Otto (Billy Barty), who is also a dwarf, has been sent by Hitler to California to seek out a Japanese spy who will supply him with top secret maps of American defense systems. Also coming to the hotel is secret service agent Bruce (Chevy Chase) who has been assigned to protect an Austrian Royal Duke (Joseph Maher) and his wife (Eve Arden) from assassination and when all these different forces come together in the same place massive calamity ensues especially as the dwarfs get drunk and proceed to tear the place up.

Director Steve Rash and screenwriter Fred Bauer gained a lot of critical success with The Buddy Holly Story and it got them a contract with Orion Pictures where they signed on to direct a movie that would star Chevy Chase. Inspired by a long-running rumor that dealt with dwarfs getting drunk and rowdy while auditioning for the Munchkin roles at the Culver Hotel, where this film was actually shot, and they decided this would make a funny idea for their next project. The concept might’ve worked had they centered it around the dwarfs, but instead they’re treated as secondary players with no discernable personalities, who behave more like children instead of adults with a physical growth handicap.

Throwing in Chase was a bad idea. He had just signed a three picture deal with the studio, so was obligated to take the part when it was given, but he has later described this as ‘one of the worst movies ever made’ and in interviews, most notably on ‘The Tonight Show’, so has Carrie Fisher. I didn’t understand why the three different story threads were needed as it dilutes the plot, but apparently director Rash didn’t think people would come to see a movie that starred dwarfs, so Chase was added in to compel audiences to the theater, but he’s aloof and not funny and looking genuinely uncomfortable the whole way through.

The spy/espionage angle needed to be thrown out and instead everything centered around Fisher and her struggles in maintaining order throughout the audition. The dwarfs needed more of a dramatic presence too with some serious undertones put in showing the challenges of being a small person, which would’ve given the movie some depth that is otherwise missing. I did enjoy Billy Barty, but everything else is a shambles, which justifiably caused it to do poorly with both the critics and box office.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: July 31, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Steve Rash

Studio: Orion Pictures

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

Lookin’ to Get Out (1982)

looking1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hiding out in Vegas.

Alex (Jon Voight) is a high stakes gambler in debt for $10,000. Joey and Harry (Allen Keller, Jude Farese) work with the syndicate and when they come around to collect their debt from Alex he escapes out of the city with his pal Jerry Feldmen (Burt Young) where they go to Las Vegas in hopes of recouping the money by playing blackjack. Alex employs the services of Smitty (Bert Remsen), an expert card counter, to help him at the dealer table, but just as he and Jerry think they’ve got their situation solved Joey and Harry reappear and chase the two through the hotel demanding that the debt be repaid immediately.

The script was written by Al Schwartz who based it on some of his own life experiences as he struggled to make it in the entertainment world. While working as the business manager to singer/songwriter Chip Taylor he showed him the script to get his opinion and Chip suggested that Al send it to Jon Voight, Chip’s brother, and when Jon read it he purportedly ‘fell in love with it’ within the first 30 pages. The story is a bit different as the situations itself aren’t necessarily funny, but instead it relies on the desperate nature of the characters and the way they interact with each other for its humor.

It was filmed at the MGM Grand Hotel, which at 6,852 rooms is the largest single hotel in the United States and third largest in the world. The ambience of the place is well captured and reminded me of the atmosphere of a lot of casinos I’ve stayed at where everyone is looking to ‘get lucky’ while in the process living very much on the edge. Having the plot that place over only a two-day period nicely reflects how gamblers live for the moment without any concern for either the past or future. It’s all just about the risk and excitement of beating the odds, which on that level, the film captures admirably well.

The acting helps, particularly from Voight who gives a souped-up rendition of his more famous Joe Buck character from Midnight Cowboy, playing a clueless schmuck who believes he can con his way out of anything and it’s also great seeing him share a scene with his real-life daughter Angelina Jolie, who at age 4 makes her film debut, appearing briefly as Alex’s daughter near the end and to date has been the only project that the two have done together. Young is also quite good as his more sensible friend and to an extent that he becomes the person the audience connects with. Remsen has a few key moments too playing a character that initially seems insignificant to the story, but slowly begins to have a much more meaningful presence by the end. As a buddy formula it works, but throwing in Ann-Margaret as Alex’s former girlfriend who comes back into his life, doesn’t gel and she should’ve been left out.

The foot chase where Alex and Jerry try to outrun Joey and Harry by dashing throughout the hotel is the film’s single best moment and I was impressed with how unlike other movie chases scenes there were no jump cuts and you can visually follow the action even as it shifts between different rooms. The other segments though get overly drawn-out. While his trademark was a slower, more subtle pace, which worked in his previous movies, director Hal Ashby would’ve been wise to have paired this one down. The plot isn’t intricate enough to justify the long runtime and a 90-minute version would’ve been ideal. The original theatrical cut was 105 minutes, which had issues too, but the longer director’s edition isn’t perfect either and in this instance less definitely would’ve been more.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 8, 1982

Runtime: 2 Hours (Director’s Cut)

Rated R

Director: Hal Ashby

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Payday (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: A self-destructive singer.

Maury Dann (Rip Torn) is a popular country singer who performs at many clubs throughout the southeast. While he is loved by his many fans he routinely takes advantage of those around him including sleeping with married women while openly seducing the others even when it’s right in front of his current girlfriend Mayleen (Ahna Capri). When Maury is confronted by the father (Walter Bamberg) of one of the young women he’s seduced they get into an ugly fight and Maury accidently ends up killing him, but since he’s so used to exploiting others he asks his loyal limo driver Chicago (Cliff Emmich) to take the blame for him.

The film, which was directed by Daryl Duke, is a masterpiece in penetrating drama to the point that I’m surprised that Duke, who had only directed TV-shows before this, didn’t go on to have a long career in making Hollywood movies instead of going right back to doing episodic TV-work after this. The script though, which was written by Don Carpenter, is completely on-target as it paints a very trenchant, no-holds-barred portrait of the seamier side of show business life and most importantly the people who work in it.

The atmosphere of the smoke-filled bars/nightclubs is vividly captured and the dialogue has a nice conversational quality that makes its point, but never in too much of an obvious way. The characterizations though are the most revealing and include Maury’s loyal manager Clarence (Michael C. Gwynne) who secretly despises Maury and is well aware of his many faults, but does whatever he can to cover them up to the adoring public.  Cliff Emmich as the faithful limo driver, who secretly aspires to be a gourmet chief, is terrific too. He doesn’t say much, but when he does it’s always quite interesting and his facial reactions are great.

My favorite characters though were Maury’s two girlfriends particularly the young, wide-eyed Rosamond (Elayne Heilveil in her film debut) who excitedly jumps into bed with Maury as his new star crush groupie only to become more apprehensive about things, which get revealed through her wonderfully strained facial expressions, the ugliness that goes on around her. Since her character has the most obvious arc I thought she should’ve been the story’s centerpiece.

Capri is quite enjoyable as well playing on the opposite end of the spectrum as a jaded woman who’s been in the groupie scene too long, but desperate enough to stay in it. The film’s most memorable moment is when Maury kicks her out of his limo, without any money, in the middle of a cornfield. She’s able to find another ride quickly, but I would’ve liked seeing a scene later on showing where she ultimately ended-up, or having her return to the story near the end where she could’ve had a climactic final confrontation with Maury, which is what her character deserved.

The only thing that I didn’t like was Maury himself. Torn plays the part in a masterful way, although his singing over the opening credits, which he insisted on doing himself, isn’t so spectacular, but his acting is. The only problem is that his character is just too much of a jerk. Supposedly it’s loosely based on Hank Williams and I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to it, but it would’ve been nice had there been at least one fleeting moment when he did something redeeming as his constant jerkiness becomes almost an overload for the viewer making it border on being too obnoxious to watch, but it’s so well crafted in every other aspect it’s still a worthwhile view.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: February 22, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Daryl Duke

Studio: Cinerama Releasing

Available: DVD

Eaten Alive (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Feeding a hungry crocodile.

Loosely based on the exploits of serial killer Joe Ball, who owned a bar in the 1930’s in Texas that had a alligator sideshow connected to it and it was rumored that he fed some of his victims to the beast though it was never proven.  The story here centers around Judd (Neville Brand) a backwoods redneck who owns a rundown hotel in the swamp lands where he brings in unsuspecting guests that he feeds to his Nile Crocodile that he has swimming in a pond behind the building.

This film was director Tobe Hooper’s third full-length feature and the first to be financially backed by a studio after the success of The Texas Chain saw Massacre although the bigger budget doesn’t help. I didn’t like that everything gets filmed inside an indoor studio, in this case The Raleigh Studios in Los Angeles as the outdoor scenes look artificial, and the strong red glow, which I couldn’t figure out if it was supposed to be from the sun or a neon sign, gives it too much of a surreal look. Hooper stated that this is the effect he wanted, but it causes the viewer to feel that this is something that is happening in some other planet and for something to be scary one should feel that what there seeing could happen here and to them instead of in a bizarre world far removed from this one.

I had issues with the rundown Starlight Hotel too. It certainly looks spooky, but in a cliched way and that’s the problem. Nobody in their right mind would ever stay overnight there. It looks like a place that might not even have indoor plumbing or electricity. This coupled with Judd the owner, who looks creepy and acts weird, would immediately scare anyone away and the fact that the characters here aren’t bothered by any of this makes them seem too stupid to be believed.

The acting helps especially Brand. He burst onto the film scene in 1949 with many good performances including an acclaimed one in the landmark drama Riot in Cellblock 11, but his rugged appearance made it hard for him to find leading man roles relegating him to supporting parts. By the mid-70’s he admitted in interviews that  he had spent most of the money he had made and was suffering from alcoholism, which forced him to take any role that was offered including some really bad ones. This film though was an exception and a good example of how to make a killer more interesting by not having him behave in a one-dimensional threatening way, but instead show at various times some unexpected traits like fear, confusion, and even sadness.

The supporting cast is great too especially Carolyn Jones as a brothel owner. She looks light years removed from her most famous role as Morticia in ‘The Addams Family’ TV-Show as she walks around with a noticeable hunch and has make-up on her face, which gives her a very wrinkled appearance. William Finley and Marilyn Burns, who famously starred in Hooper’s earlier hit film, are intriguing too as this freaky couple who check into the place, but it’s never sufficiently explained why her character is initially seen wearing a wig, or why Finley talks about losing one of his eyeballs when he clearly hasn’t.

My favorite part though was that of Kyle Richards who plays this 6-year-old girl who manages to escape from the killer and hide underneath the property in a crawlspace. Watching her being chased through the crawlspace by Judd is intense and if the film had focused solely on her it could’ve been a winner.

Unfortunately the other characters aren’t likable and elicit no emotion from the viewer. The plot is thin and offers no unexpected twists or surprises. Hooper seems to be going too much to the same well as his chain saw flick including a foot chase sequence that gets choregraphed in the exact same way as the one between Leatherface and Marilyn Burns. Too much emphasis on atmosphere and grisly violence while an interesting plot-driven story gets forgotten, which is the reason why this production only halfway succeeds.

Alternate Titles: Death Trap, Starlight Slaughter, Legend of the Bayou, Horror Hotel

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 26, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Tobe Hooper

Studio: Virgo International Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

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

Death in Venice (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Man obsesses over boy.

Based on the Thomas Mann novel of the same name, the story centers around Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) a composer in the decline of his career and suffering from ill health. To recuperate he travels to the Grand Hotel des Bains in Venice, Italy, but finds his relaxation cut short when he becomes infatuated with Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen) a 15-year-old Polish boy who’s staying with his family. Gustav can’t seem to keep his eyes or mind off of him, but never physically approaches the teen or makes any attempt to communicate with him. While his fixation grows so does the cholera epidemic that is gripping the city, which may end up taking both of their lives.

Like with most of director Luchino Visconti’s films the pace may be too slow for some viewers, but I found it to be fascinating right from the get-go. One of the aspects that really stood out is Visconti’s ability to recreate a period atmosphere. Nothing seems stilted or rehearsed. Visconti wisely pulls the camera back and allows things to happen naturally. The people in the background don’t seem like film extras at all, but real people going about there lives that Bogarde just happens to be in. It’s also really cool that it was shot at the Grand Hotel des Bains where author Mann stayed in 1911 when the real incident that the story is based on occurred.

I liked too that Gustav does not play-out is mental fantasies and remains at a comfortable distance from the boy at all times. Too many other movies give off this impression that everyone who obsesses over somebody else immediately goes after the person they’re attracted to when in reality many don’t. For some they realize things would never work out with whoever they’re attracted to as well as the legal ramifications, or because of the fear of rejection they prefer to keep it at a fantasy level. While they may still figuratively stalk the person, or observe them intently, it never goes beyond this point. In fact the ones that do aggressively go after their target are more the exception than the rule although in the movie world you’d think the opposite was true, so it’s nice to have at least one film that takes this topic in a different direction.

The fact that its based on a true story that Mann eventually fictionalized in his novel makes it all the more interesting. According to Mann’s wife Katia in a 1974 memoir she describes how her husband kept staring at a young boy he saw at the hotel whom she described at being 13 and was portrayed in the movie as being 15, but in reality was only 11. She stated that he kept gazing at the boy the whole time and always thought about him during their vacation.

The actual source of Mann’s attraction was later discovered to be Baron Wladyslaw Moes who was on vacation with his three sisters and had no idea that he was being observed. In fact Moes only became aware that he’d been the inspiration for the book when he saw the film upon its released in 1971. The biggest irony is that Moes looked nothing like the Tadzio character in the movie as evidenced by the below photo of him (blue circle) taken in 1911 the same year as when Mann spotted him.

The biggest issue that I had was seeing Tadzio making eye contact with Gustav like he’s aware that he’s being watched. Initially when I saw this in the theaters many years ago I took this eye contact thing to being a point-of-view fantasy of Gustav, but upon second viewing it seems the intention was different. Personally I don’t like this idea because at the age of 15 I don’t believe the teen would’ve been able to handle this behavior from an older man and would’ve either confronted him about it, or told someone else. Maybe if Tadzio had been older, like in his 20’s, and use to being seen as an object then maybe, but since he was so young this would’ve been all new to him and thus making him very uncomfortable very quickly and causing him to ultimately unravel.

Andresen’s performance is rather poor to boot. There were other good looking young actors who could’ve easily played the part in a more interesting way, but apparently Visconti was looking for a very specific type of look, but Andresen  appears uncomfortable throughout and has stated in interviews that his experience on the set was not a happy one. Bogarde in turn does quite well as he’s able to create a riveting performance despite having very little dialogue.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 5, 1971

Runtime: 2 Hours 10 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Luchino Visconti

Studio: Warner Brothers

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