Category Archives: Movies with a rural setting

Murder Elite (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sisters feud over estate.

The story centers on Diane (Ali MacGraw) who moves in with her sister Margaret (Billie Whitelaw) at the family’s estate in England. Diane has frittered away her inheritance while living in America and now comes to Margaret in a near penniless state. Margaret expects Diane to ‘earn-her-keep’, but Diane resists doing any farm work and instead schemes at how to take control of the family’s fortune while having a fling with one of the farmhands named Ron (Ray Lonnen). She realizes that if Margaret dies then the estate will go to her, so she convinces Ron to kill Margaret when she goes out for one of her late night walks and then blame the death on a mysterious lady killer who has been terrorizing the countryside. However, things don’t go as planned as Diane and Ron soon find themselves being the ones in danger.

The film works as a weird hybrid between a slasher flick and an old-fashioned Agatha Christie-like mystery. The only interesting element is MacGraw’s presence who seems completely out-of-place in the English setting. This could easily be described as her career swan song as she never starred in another theatrical film after this one. In fact she only did four more movies, two of them being TV ones, and no film appearances at all since 1997. Usually when someone’s acting career has nosedived they turn to overseas projects, which is exactly what this was as she hadn’t had a hit movie in 13 years and was well over 40, so in many ways she had no choice, but to take it.

It might’ve worked had she had genuine acting talent, but it becomes painfully clear in her scenes with Whitelaw that she’s being seriously upstaged by a far more superior actress. Casting MacGraw as antagonist doesn’t gel as she’s unable to convey the necessary evilness. As sisters the two look nothing alike and Whitelaw is supposed to be ‘way older’ than MacGraw, but in reality they look practically the same age. During the early ‘70s Ali had long hair that came down to her waist and it looked great, by the later part of the decade she had cut it real short and it was okay, but her she wears it shoulder-length, which isn’t sexy at all.

The plot is only mildly intriguing and all the action takes place on the drab estate, which quickly becomes dull visually. There are a few twists to keep it watchable, but the one that comes at the end, which reveals who the true killer is, is full of loopholes making this little known mystery excursion come-off as flat and pointless.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 13, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Claude Whatham

Studio: Tyburn Entertainment

Available: VHS 

Motel Hell (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Farmer Vincent’s tasty fritters.

Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) run a motel out in the sticks, but their main income comes from Vincent’s delicious meat fritters that he sells to the community. No one knows that the meat is made from humans who he gets by setting traps on a nearby road that sends the vehicles of unsuspecting motorists careening out of control. Once the cars have crashed Vincent removes their bodies from the wreckage and plants them in his hidden garden while also severing their vocal chords, so they cannot yell for help. Then once they are ‘ripe’ he slices up their bodies and uses them for his product.

This is yet another rendition of Ed Gein, the Plainfield Wisconsin farmer who dug up dead bodies from a nearby graveyard and used them for all sorts of sick purposes. While there have been many other films on the topic this one nicely steps back from the shock angle and instead injects dark humor that manages to make the story both funny and involving.

The original script, which was co-written by two brothers, was darker and intended for Tobe Hooper to direct, but when he pulled out of the project and Kevin Connor was hired he insisted that all of the ‘crudeness’ be excised. The result is an agreeably quirky take on the Gein legend that lacks scares, but makes up for with style and atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed the bird’s eye view of Vincent’s and Ida’s backyard lake as well as the surreal-like hum of the sunlamps that Vincent shines on his human victims at night.

Aging cowboy star Calhoun does quite well and out of all the actors who’ve attempted to play Gein it’s Calhoun that actually comes closest to the way he really looked and spoke. The only problem was that he was clearly much older than both Parsons and Paul Linke who play his siblings and no explanation for why the parents would have kids so far apart, or even if that would be possible as in reality Calhoun was 20 years older than Parsons and 26 years older than Linke.

The climatic chainsaw duel, which was thought up at the last minute and took 5 12-hour days to film, is fun. The kinky couple (Elaine Joyce, Dick Curtis) who visit the motel under the mistaken impression it’s a hotbed for swingers and allow themselves to get tied-up thinking it’s all a part of a sex game are funny too in a film that manages to be quirky without ever getting too campy.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 24, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Kevin Connor

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Grizzly (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Grizzly bear attacks campers.

Inspired by an encounter that the film’s screenwriter Harvey Flaxman had with a grizzly while on a family vacation, the story centers on park ranger Michael Kelly (Christopher George) and his attempts to kill a giant grizzly bear that is attacking campers at a National Park in Georgia. Unfortunately his efforts are thwarted by park supervisor Charlie Kitteridge (Joe Dorsey) who refuses to close the place due to fear of negative publicity and invites in amateur hunters to find the bear that does nothing but create more chaos.

This is a blatant Jaws rip-off and follows the theme of that story quite closely including having three men team up to go after the bear just like the three men who hunted the shark and the impediment of a local political figure, which was a mayor in the Spielberg film and park supervisor here, whose concerns for lost revenue overshadows the obvious dangers to the tourists. At least in Jaws the characters were multi-dimensional while here they’re cardboard and Kelly’s confrontations with his supervisor are strained to the extreme.

The worst part is the killings which are some of the cheesiest you’ll ever see. A bear will attack someone and then in the next shot you’ll see an arm or leg flying through the air, or in Richard Jaekel’s case the head of the horse that he was riding on and then in the next shot a red paint splattered mannequin with a missing plastic limb. The tacky gore sends the film spiraling to such an amateurish level that the filmmaker’s would’ve been wise to have skipped these scenes altogether and simply kept things from the park ranger’s perspective who comes upon the bodies long after they’ve been attacked.

The story has no beginning, middle or end, but instead is just one long mechanical bombardment of pathetic special effects looped around the exasperated expressions of park rangers in their pursuit of the bear. The film also fails to sufficiently explain why the bear was in the forest when supposedly all had been removed, why he was so much larger than a regular bear or why one from the supposedly Pleistocene era would appear in this day and age and why he was behaving so strangely.

The park scenery, which was filmed in the autumn of 1975 near Clayton, Georgia is picturesque and probably the only good thing about the movie. It’s also nice that they used a real bear although he is clearly not a part of the actual attacks and much smaller than 15 feet, which is how the characters in the movie describe him, or 18 feet as he’s described in the film’s publicity poster. None of this though makes up for the film’s many lame elements, which are so bad it should be considered an extreme embarrassment to all those who were involved in the project.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: May 21, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: William Girdler

Studio: Film Ventures International

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region B/2), Amazon Video, YouTube

Death Valley (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kid tangles with psycho.

Before Peter Billingsley played Ralphie Parker he was Billy Stanton a 10 year-old-kid who gets shipped off to Death Valley with his mother (Catherine Hicks) and her new boyfriend (Paul LeMat) for a vacation. Once there he spots a sinister man (Stephan McHattie) driving around in a creepy old car. The man has just committed double homicide and fears Billy may have been a witness. Now he proceeds to silence the kid who proves to be surprisingly ingenious.

The screenplay was written by Richard Rothstein who later went on to write the script for Universal Soldier as well as producing the HBO anthology series The Hitchhiker. Apparently he came up with the concept for this story after vacationing in Death Valley and seeing a mysterious old car, the first car they had seen in miles, driven by an odd looking man. The story though is quite one-dimensional and offers little intrigue. It might’ve worked better had the killer’s identity and motivations been kept a mystery, or the viewer made to question whether Billy was just making the whole thing up.

Everything seems strangely sanitized particularly the killings which amounts to nothing more than a quick slash to the victim’s throats and it’s over. It was almost like they were trying to make a horror movie that was ‘kid-friendly’ or something that the ‘whole family could watch together’, which was a mistake. Having the protagonist as a kid instead of an adult doesn’t add any interesting perspective and the twist that comes at the end is not clever and something that I had actually predicted.

Hicks, in her film debut, is wasted and LeMat has about as much screen presence as your local garbage collector. Billingsley is cute, but he’s always put into a situation that he can figure his way out making the tension quite minimal.

The film was shot in Death Valley National Park, which allows for a stark ambience that doesn’t get taken advantage of enough. Director Dick Richards who burst onto the movie scene in the ‘70s with The Culpepper Cattle Company seems to have lost his way here. It could’ve been that after the financial failure of March or Die, which lost over 5 million at the box office, he was happy to get any film opportunity at all, but his heart was clearly not into this one and the result is a flatly told Hitchcock-like misfire .

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: January 22, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 24 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Dick Richards

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

The Evil (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Victor Buono is evil.

While cleaning out an abandoned mansion that Dr. Arnold (Richard Crenna) hopes to convert into a drug rehab center he opens up a trap door, which inadvertently spews out evil spirits that locks both him and his wife (Joanna Pettet) inside the place as well as the four volunteers who had offered to help him. Now, all six must find a way out of the place while avoiding getting killed by the evil that lurks about.

The film was directed by Gus Trikonis who was at one time married to Goldie Hawn and spent a decade making humdrum low budget flicks that had tantalizing plots, but only so-so results. This one is no different from his others, which amounts to a flat telling of a very pedestrian ghost story. Although I did enjoy the on-location shooting done at an abandoned hotel that since 1982 has been the home to the United World College of the American West.

The cast of familiar B-actors may interest some although Crenna’s stiff and overly rehearsed delivery is for an acquired taste. The beautiful Pettet is better and since she’s the one who sees the spirits and reacts to them while Crenna simply walks around spewing out platitudes she should’ve been the sole star. The rest of the supporting players weren’t needed although Cassie Yates’ clear blue eyes are always a pleasure.

The special effects are virtually nonexistent and all that gets shown are shots of the characters being physically thrown around by some invisible force, which isn’t exciting or creative. The only times there is a diversion is at the end when Victor Buono appears as the devil incarnate. Some consider this sequence hokey, but whole thing is so sterile anyways that it really doesn’t hurt it. If you do end up watching it the only thing you’ll really have to fear is boredom.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: May 5, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Gus Trikonis

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD

Devil Times Five (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Children terrorize the adults.

Two couples (Sorrell Booke, Shelley Morrison, Taylor Lacher, Joan McCall) visit the winter retreat ranch run by rich businessman Papa Doc (Gene Evans). They are expecting a pleasant wintry getaway, but instead find terror when a group of five children arrive (Leif Garrett, Gail Smale, Dawn Lyn, Tierre Turner, Tia Thompson). The children state that they were lost in the cold wilderness and simply there to seek refuge, but in reality they are psychotic and have escaped from a nearby asylum after the van they were riding in overturned on the icy roads. Now the adults find themselves getting mysteriously bumped off one-by-one. At first they think it’s only an accident and then realize it’s by some ‘unforeseen predator’, but fail to realize it’s actually the ‘innocent-looking-kids’ until it’s too late.

This cheaply made production has problems right away starting with the van accident. To a degree I thought it was cool seeing it overturn several times in slow-motion after it slides off the road, but I found it preposterous that none of the kids were injured and escape from the wreckage without a single scratch despite the adult driver getting badly banged up. In retrospect it would’ve worked better had this scene not been shown at all and left the viewer in the dark about what the true intentions of these kids were only to slowly unfold the truth to the audience just like it does to the adult characters.

The killings are pretty tacky as well. The scene where one of the victims gets set on fire is disturbing, but the rest doesn’t add up including when one child manages to somehow hold their adult victim underwater by using only one hand. There are also several instances where the victim dies right away when in reality they would’ve most likely only been injured including a fall through a window and another one dealing with a stabbing by a small ax. In both cases I think the person could’ve survived the initial blow and simply be writhing in extreme pain, but I presume the filmmakers felt that watching someone squirming around on the ground screaming in endless agony would be considered ‘too horrifying’ for most audiences so they went with the ‘clean-kill’ option, but unfortunately the one-blow-and-then-they’re- immediately-dead concept looks fake.

The pacing is also poor and the tension badly botched. One bit has the kids killing a man in slow motion and done through a black-and-white filter, which despite going on a bit too long is effective. Yet whatever tension gets achieved by watching that is immediately sapped when the next scene shows a drawn out session of one of the adult couples making love, which looks better suited for soft corn porn flick. The music is equally screwed-up as it sometimes sounds creepy while at other points like something heard in an elevator.

I found it interesting that it was directed by Sean MacGregor, or at least for the first three weeks of production before he got fired, as he had previously written the screenplay for Brotherhood of Satan, which had the same ‘creepy kids’-like theme. There’s also the novelty of seeing Dawn Lyn, who was 10-years-old at the time, taking part in her own mother’s murder, who plays one of the adults. Although overall it’s pretty spotty with majority of it being rather flat and forgettable.

Spoiler Alert!

I was also confused at how during the final credits it says ‘The Beginning’ instead of the usual ‘The End’. I presume this was the filmmakers attempt at being ‘clever’ by intimating that these young kids would now go on to murder many more people throughout the countryside, but since they had already killed quite a few it would’ve been more apt to say ‘The Middle’.

End of Spoiler Alert!

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Alternate Titles: Peopletoys, The Horrible House on the Hill

Released: May 31, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sean MacGregor, David Sheldon (Uncredited)

Studio: Cinemation Industries

Available: DVD-R, Amazon Video

The Kindred (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hybrid brother in basement.

On her deathbed genetics researcher Amanda Hollins (Kim Hunter) tells her son John (David Allen Brooks) to destroy her latest experiment as well as his ‘brother’ Anthony. John had no idea that he ever had a brother, but when he and some of his friends go to his mother’s home they find a monstrous being dwelling in the basement that proceeds to attack them.

The first part of this movie I actually liked as it thankfully manages to underplay things. The concept is certainly farfetched, but the filmmakers envelope it within a realm of believability, which kept me mildly intrigued. They also don’t show the monster right away and instead reveal only his tentacles sticking up through the floorboards, which allows the viewer to use their own imagination in trying to figure out what it is. This is something that a lot of modern horror films in their effort to impress audiences with the latest dazzling effects have lost and I wish they would go back to. Pulling back a little and letting the viewer create their own personal dark images to the horror is always more effective than having it spelled out for them with some overdone concoction.

The acting is surprisingly solid too especially for an ‘80s horror movie. The leads are bland, except for the beautiful Amanda Pays who plays her duplicitous role well, but they at least manage to convey their lines in a reasonably convincing fashion. It’s also nice to see screen veterans like Hunter in the cast, but she goes away too quickly. Rod Steiger is enjoyable as the evil doctor and I’m sure in his mind starring in these low budget things would have to seem like a major career downturn, but his intense eyes and expression are perfect for this type of material and his hideous wig is hilarious.

The climactic sequence though is a disappointment. The monster, once he does finally get revealed, reminded me too much of the creature in Alien, or just some giant bug. Watching the pesky little baby creatures dwelling in some lab jars was more effective although even here they started to become reminiscent to the Gremlins.

In either event the ‘horrific’ finale is too formulaic and redundant to be either exciting or interesting. I wanted the same minimalistic approach present at the beginning to have been retained in all the way through. Sometimes less is more, but unfortunately instead of walking away from this feeling like I had been treated to something new and original I felt more like I had been bombarded with the same-old tired clichéd crap that I had already seen a hundred times before.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: January 9, 1987

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jeffrey Obrow & Stephen Carpenter

Studio: FM Entertainment

Available: VHS (Upcoming DVD has been announced, but not yet released)

Rituals (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Nightmare in the woods.

Five middle-aged doctors (Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell, Ken James, Gary Reineke) take a trip into the Canadian wilderness in what they hope will be a fun weekend retreat, but soon bizarre things begin to occur including having all of their hiking boots stolen from them in the middle-of-the-night. It eventually becomes clear that they are being stalked by an unforeseen adversary who’s intent on playing mind games with them while slowly picking them off one-by-one.

This was Canada’s answer to Deliverance and while great effort was made to lift it above the usual mindless slasher film level it still doesn’t work and remains flat and predictable all the way through. One of the things that I really liked about Deliverance was that it was filmed on-location in the Georgia backwoods and this film takes the same approach by being shot in the dense forests of northern Ontario, but the result isn’t as satisfying. In Deliverance the location becomes like a third character while here it amounts to being just a backdrop.

The film has too much of a creepy musical score that makes it clear that it wants to mold it into a horror film and only helps to give it a formulaic feel. Deliverance was never mechanical and instead came off more like a drama that suddenly turns ugly without warning, much like life sometimes, while this thing seems more staged and rehearsed.

The cast is top-notch and puts great effort into their roles and the rigorous requirements of doing all of their own stunts. Yet the result is shallow as there’s no distinction between the characters who come off as stereotypically jaded middle-aged businessmen. Watching their personalities unravel as the grueling journey proceeds isn’t riveting since they seemed broken from the beginning and the viewer doesn’t care if any of them survive it or not.

The tension is minimal and the nemesis never gets revealed until the very end. At points I felt that having a bad-guy wasn’t needed and the story could’ve been stronger had it focused around the men getting lost in the woods through no one’s fault but their own and then their ultimate struggle with the elements. The mountain man (Michael Zenon) is much too crafty anyways and pulls off things that no normal person could making the culprit seem like a mysterious enigma that transcends the bounds of reality and makes the film too unbelievable to take seriously.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: July 21, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Peter Carter

Studio: Canart Films

Available: None at this time.

Curtains (1983)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review A very deadly audition.

Well-known movie director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon) is producing a new film and aging actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) presumes she’ll get the starring role like with all of his other productions, but this time Stryker has a catch. He tells her that to prepare for the part she must commit herself to a mental institution to better understand the character she is to play. The desperate Samantha agrees, but then realizes Jonathan has no intention of getting her out once she is inside, so she escapes and seeks revenge at Jonathan’s secluded wintertime mansion where he is auditioning six younger actresses for the role. Now suddenly everyone starts dying off at the bloody hands of a masked assailant. Is the killer Samantha in disguise, or could it be one of the other actresses willing to kill in order to get the part?

The film starts out okay. I liked that we are shown a brief background to these actresses before they get to the mansion, which helps make them seem more like real people and less like caricatures. The mansion where the action takes place has an interesting exterior/interior and I loved the pristine winter time landscape, but that is pretty much where the good points end.

The narrative is horribly disjointed and most likely a result of a lot of rewrites and reshoots that had the production shelved for up to three years before it was finally released. The opening sequence done inside the asylum is clichéd to the extreme and makes the film come off as a complete campfeast. The idea that someone would intentional try to get themselves committed simply to get a movie role is stupid and overall there are no scares or frights at all.

The killings are mechanical and unimaginative. I couldn’t understand how this killer was able to sneak up on people and literally magically appear at the most in opportune times. For instance a victim, played by Lesleh Donaldson, manages to escape the clutches of the bad guy and proceeds to make more distance between her and him by running through a snow capped forest. She briefly stops to catch her breath by a random tree and wouldn’t you know that’s the one tree that the killer is hiding behind.  Another segment has a victim (Anne Ditchburn) dancing by herself in a big empty room where the killer somehow sneaks up right behind her, which I would argue couldn’t happen. Everyone has a sense when someone else starts getting too close to them, especially in a room devoid of anyone else, and she would’ve detected the killer’s presence long before he got right behind her.

The ending in which the killer chases the final victim through an array of old stage props inside the mansion’s basement gets overly prolonged. The young women end up looking too much alike, so it was hard to have any empathy for them because they weren’t distinctive enough and the story would’ve worked better had it taken the concept of Dead of Winter where just one woman goes to the isolated place for the audition and thus allow the viewer to create more of a connection to the protagonist.

The only bright spot is Eggar. Her starring movie roles from the ‘60s and early ‘70s were now long gone and much like the actress she portrays was forced to take cheap low budget horror offers to remain busy, but she still gives it a 110% effort. What impressed me was how different her character was from any of her others. In those earlier films she was mainly a young, sensitive and idealistic woman, but here she is cold, conniving and bitter proving that she must be a great actress if she is able to play such opposite personalities in the same convincing way. It’s just unfortunate that the filmmakers didn’t share that same type of professionalism as the sloppy execution destroys any potential that it may have had.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: March 4, 1983

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Guza Jr.

Studio: Norstar Releasing

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

The Milagro Beanfield War (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Small town fights developer.

Milagro, New Mexico becomes the centerpiece to controversy when a rich developer (Richard Bradford) decides to build a resort, which cuts off the water supply to the rest of the struggling inhabitants of the nearby town. Joe Mandragon (Chick Vennera) is one of those farmers who is frustrated with the current situation and in a fit of rage kicks a water valve, which allows water to flow into his field where he soon begins to grow beans. Kyril Montana (Christopher Walken) is then sent in by the rich tycoons to ‘settle-the-score’, which only helps to make the town’s resistance to the development even stronger.

The film is based on the 1974 novel by John Nichols and was directed by Robert Redford eight years after he helmed his first feature the very successful Ordinary People. From a completely technical standpoint the film shines in all areas as it delightfully mixes whimsical comedy with harsh real-world issues and manages to keep the tone consistent throughout. My favorite element was the difficulty the activists had in getting the townspeople  ‘on-the-same-page’ and organized to fight their mutual enemy, which illustrated one of the biggest challenges to fighting for social change where just trying to convince and mobilize others is sometimes the toughest part.

John Heard has the film’s best character arch playing a former political activist who dropped out of trying to change-the-world years ago, but after sufficient prodding finally gets back to his old form in one very fiery and memorable moment. Walken is quite good in reverse playing a man sent to initially squash the rebellion only to eventually soften a bit (just a bit) on his stance. Carlos Riquelme is delightful as the elderly Amarante who despite being weak with age fights-the-good-fight including a hilarious scene where he precariously tries to drive a bulldozer.

I wasn’t quite as crazy about Daniel Stern’s inclusion. He plays his part well and the character is likable, but I didn’t understand the need for him in the story. It almost seemed like the filmmakers didn’t trust that the Hispanic cast alone could carry it and a white guy needed to be added in in order to usher in a more mainstream demographic. Vennera is weak only because he constantly reminded me of Bruno Kirby Jr. and could’ve easily passed off as his twin in both his looks and voice.

The only argument I would have against the film, which is otherwise a charmer and does not in any way deserve the outrageous R-rating that it was given, is the addition of Robert Carricart as the Coyote Angel that only Riquelme’s character can see. To an extent this cheapens the struggles that the townspeople go through because it gives what is otherwise a serious problem too much of the fable-like treatment. I would’ve preferred a grittier approach focusing solely on the efforts of the people to create the change, which would’ve left a stronger emotional impact and avoided telegraphing the idea that it was all going to work-out due to this extra magical force.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: March 18, 1988

Runtime: 1 Hour 57 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Redford

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Amazon Video