Category Archives: Mystery

The Hospital (1971)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: An incompetently run hospital.

Dr. Herbert Bock (George C. Scott) is the chief of staff at a teaching hospital in New York where patients routinely die due to misdiagnosis and other blunderings. There’s also a protest by a group of tenants from a nearby apartment building that’s been annexed by the hospital to make room for a drug rehabilitation center. Bock not only must deal with these issues, but also his crumbling personal life which has turned him to both alcohol and thoughts of suicide. His only ray-of-light is meeting the beautiful Barbra (Diana Rigg) who has come to the hospital to seek treatment for her father (Barnard Hughes), but just as Bock starts to come out of his depression the place becomes terrorized by an unseen assailant who begins killing both the patients and staff.

In 1969 after his wife had received poor care at a local hospital Paddy Chayefsky set-out to write a script exposing what he felt was the corruption and incompetence going on inside the American medical institutions. He managed to get full control over his screenplay and final say over any proposed changes, which was a good thing since initially the studio felt it was filled with too much medical terminology that would go over many viewer’s heads. I’ll admit there’s an excessive amount of lingo, both with the dialogue between the doctors and staff as well as the opening voice-over narration by Chayefsky, that’s done at a rapid-fire pace and I really didn’t understand it, but I still kind of liked it. I have no medical background myself, so I and most viewers aren’t going to get the ‘medical speak’, but leaving it in helps make it sound more authentic. It also impresses the viewer with how much research was put into it and you basically trust what’s going on because it ‘sounds intelligent’.

Another complaint was the shift in tone where things start out in a darkly-humorous slap-dash fashion only to end up during the second act becoming quite serious. Normally this would’ve been a big problem, but I liked the shift here. I think the reason is because underneath the comedy there’s still life-and-death consequences going on and if you’re going to make a statement movie, which this is attempting to do, then at some point things have got to slow-down and get serious in order for that statement to get out, which this thing ends up successfully doing.

While I enjoyed the fluid pace that manages to encompass not only satire and drama, but even shades of horror without ever losing its realism I did find that it spends an inordinate amount of time telling us about all of the problems without bothering to give us any solutions. There’s no focus on what the underlying causes are nor any balance by showing an well-run hospital in comparison. One might start to believe that all hospitals are like this and become afraid to ever go into one even if they are really sick, which isn’t exactly a good thing. This may have been the reason why Chayefsky himself died at the relatively young age of 58 from cancer because he feared Dr.’s would “cut me up because of that movie I wrote about them” and thus refused surgery that might’ve saved his life.

Spoiler Alert!

There’s a few issues with the casting as well. Overall, I was impressed with the performances particular Scott who got his second Oscar nomination for his work here. Rigg is also quite good, in a part that seemed better suited for Jane Fonda, who was the studio’s choice, but Rigg’s British accent and terse style makes for an interesting dynamic. You can also glimpse young soon-to-be-stars in small bits including: Nancy Marchand and Robert Walden, who later went on to co-star with each other in the TV-show ‘Lou Grant’ as well as Stockard Channing, in her film debut, and Frances Sternhagen as an exasperated medical clerk. The main problem though comes with Barnard Hughes, who appears for some strange reason in two completely different roles. He is very funny as the surgeon who finds he’s been operating on the wrong person, but then later he reappears as Rigg’s father, which didn’t make much sense. Since the father turns out to be the mysterious killer many people thought the scene with Hughes as the surgeon was meant to be the father in disguise, but that was not the intention. Again, if there’s no specific/underlying purpose story-wise for an actor to play two different parts in the same movie then don’t do it. There’s no lack of actors out there clamoring for work, so one of the two parts could’ve easily have been filled by someone else and thus avoided confusing the audience for no good reason.

It’s possible that the reason Chayefsky had Hughes playing dual roles was to help explain how the killer was able to get away with his crimes for so long. While the killer is always shown off camera, so the viewer does not know the identity, the Dr.’s and nurses do seem to recognize him as being a colleague and are put at ease just before he kills them. Of course the odds of a patient entering a random hospital and looking similar to one of the staff is astronomically low, but if this was the underlying concept, and it very well may have been, then the film should’ve eventually made this clear by having a split screen scene where Hughes the surgeon bumps into Hughes the killer.

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My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 14, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Arthur Hiller

Studio: United Artists

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

Stone (1974)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Somebody’s killing the bikers.

Toad (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is a member of the Grave Diggers biker gang who stops off one sunny day to hear a politician giving a speech at a park. He has just taken some acid and feeling the effects of it and so goes straying from the rest when he sees a shooter hiding inside a nearby building and when the gun goes off and kills the politician the bikers gets blamed for it. Soon members of their group start getting knocked-off in bizarre ways convincing them that somebody is after them for what they witnessed. Stone (Ken Shorter) is the long-haired police detective who infiltrates the group in order to find out who the killer is, but the bikers are initially unhappy with a ‘pig’ being a part of their organization, but eventually they form a friendship and work together to nab the bad guy before he kills more.

The story was originally meant as an episode for an Australian TV-show, but when that series got canceled before this episode could air, it was then reworked into a feature film. Real Australian bikers were used as supporting players with many of them being paid with free beer for their efforts. The film eventually did quite well at the box office and has garnered a cult status worldwide although the 99 minute length, which is what is widely available, was not the original cut, which was much longer at 130 minutes, but director Sandy Harbutt did not like this version, so this became a rare occasion where the director’s cut leaves out many scenes that was originally shown in the theaters.

As a film it’s not too bad and I particularly liked it’s moody opening that has a lot of weird camera angles and freeze-frames. The funeral procession showing hundreds of bikers careening down the highway leaves a memorable impression as well. The killings are cool too, including a dangerous stunt that required a driver to ride his bike off an 80-foor cliff and into the ocean.

On the drama ends there’s some interesting moments including Stone’s initiation, but when he’s off by himself it gets boring quick especially since Shorter’s mop-top hairstyle makes him look more like a lost singer to a ’70’s Glam band than a cop. The film only works when the bikers are in it and becomes nothing more than a tepid, pedestrian drama without them. The wrap-up isn’t as interesting as the opening and I kind of wondered if the mystery angle even needed to be put in as there are long segments where the investigation isn’t even talked about to the point that it almost seems forgotten.

The much ballyhooed violence isn’t all that impressive either with the fist-fights looking like poorly staged stunt work by amateurs. They’re also quite brief and don’t take up as much of the runtime as you’d expect. However, as a character study it has an appeal as I found the bikers themselves to be a fascinating bunch and wanted to get to know them better and the plot should’ve focused on them solely.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 28, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 39 Minutes (Director’s Cut) 2 Hours 10 Minutes (Original Studio Version)

Not Rated

Director: Sandy Harbutt

Studio: British Empire Films Australia

Available: DVD

 

Games (1967)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Playing tricks on others.

Paul (James Caan) and his wife Jennifer (Katharine Ross) are an affluent upper East Side couple who are into illusion/magic trick shows and entertain their friends at posh parties that they hold inside their spacious townhome. One day Lisa (Simone Signoret) arrives at their door selling cosmetics only to fall ill when she gets inside the home. A doctor (Ian Wolfe) comes over and finds her condition to be only temporary and says she’ll recover in a day if given plenty of rest, so they decide to let her stay the night, which then becomes an extended visit as Lisa and Jennifer begin to bond. The two then start playing tricks on Paul by pretending that Jennifer is having an affair with their delivery boy named Norman (Don Stroud). Eventually Paul realizes he’s been duped, but wants to get revenge by pretending to catch Norman coming onto Jennifer the next day. This time Paul accidently shoots and kills him forcing the couple to get rid of the body without Lisa becoming aware, which they’re able to do, until Jennifer begins seeing what she believes to be Norman’s ghostly presence.

The film has potential, but consistently misses-the-mark and ultimately becomes a misfire. The games the two play are amusing, but nothing special though it’s enough to hold interest particularly at the beginning during the party scenes with all of their pretentious friends. The townhouse the two live in is ritzy and I enjoyed the design, but if you’re going to have a story take place in Manhattan then you better film it there and not on a sound stage in Los Angeles as the ambience of the neighborhood is missing and having almost all of the action take place in one setting eventually becomes claustrophobic.

The real problem though is with the characters. Signoret is fantastic and her presence helps immensely, but the way she enters into the story is ridiculous. What kind of couple would let a strange woman stay overnight in their home? If she’s sick then let her spend it at a hospital. Turning her one night visit into an extended stay is equally farfetched and where exactly did she find this wardrobe to wear when she initially just came over to peddle perfumes?

Ross’s character is a big mess too and it’s no wonder that she has referred to this film as being ‘terrible’ and it’s not her fault either. She’s quite beautiful as always and if you need an actress to give off the perfect scared expression she’s tops, but I didn’t understand why her character allowed herself to be so taken in. This was a couple used to playing tricks not only on their friends, but on each other, so why didn’t she have a more jaded reaction and presume that her husband really didn’t kill Norman and it was all some elaborate game?

Spoiler Alert!

The twist ending is a complete letdown as it hinges on Paul meeting Lisa a year earlier by chance and then springing this idea on her of scaring Jennifer to death to the point that she inadvertently kills someone, so that he can get at her fortune and split it with Lisa, but how would he know that he could trust Lisa to keep this secret and not go to the authorities, or tell Jennifer? It might’ve worked better had the third person been a lifelong friend/family member to Paul, and not just someone he met at random, and therefore not likely to betray him.

A double-ending would’ve been more satisfying as Lisa poisons Paul and walks away with the money, but Paul should’ve been cunning enough to try and poison Lisa first, or through mutual mistrust they poison each other and no one gets the money. An even better idea would’ve had Jennifer only pretending to fall victim to the ruse, so when Lisa walks outside with the suitcase full of money, after having killed Paul, Jennifer and the police squad could’ve been there waiting for her.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: September 17, 1967

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Curtis Harrington

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD-R (Universal Vault Series), Blu-ray

The Stepford Wives (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Suburban wives become robots.

Joanne and Walter (Katharine Ross, Peter Masterson) decide to move with their two children (Mary Stuart Masterson, Ronny Sullivan) from the big city to the quiet suburb of Stepford, Connecticut. While Walter immediately starts to fit-in with the exclusive men’s club that they have there Joanne feels unable to connect with the other wives who all behave in a robotic fashion and more concerned with keeping their husbands happy and cleaning their homes than anything else. She manages to find one other woman named Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) who like her find the women’s behavior in the town to be a bit odd and they team up to investigate what the cause of it may be.

When this film was first released it was met with controversy particularly by feminists who felt the storyline was misogynistic and one protester even went as far as attacking director Bryan Forbes with her umbrella. When the movie was screened to a group of feminists they all hissed and groaned at it during the viewing while some other women, like screenwriter Eleanor Perry, came to the film’s defense calling it more of a sharp satire on men and their superficial views on women than on the women themselves.

I saw it more as a trenchant take on the suburbs, which can initially seem like a quiet, safe refuge, but ultimately can become a trap with a lot of hidden strings that you don’t initially see. While the Stepford wives do behave as overly conforming to domestic roles it’s really not all that much different than what you’d find in reality making you wonder if the rest of us suburbanites all slowly getting sucked into the Stepford trap too and just don’t realize it.

While the ill-advised 2004 remake tried to turn the concept into a comedic tale the story really works best as a horror film, which is what the 1972 Ira Levin novel, of which the film was based, intended and there are some good creepy moments. I particularly liked the moment when Joanne is talking to her therapist, played by Carol Eve Rossen, about how she feels the men in town are turning the women into robots and she fears she will be next. Her therapist advises her to grab her kids and leave town, but Joanne admits her other family members are dead and she has nowhere to go, which brought out what the truly frightening aspect of this story truly is, which is that women back then were completely dependent on their husbands for everything. Many of them weren’t in the job force and simply living off of their husband’s income. If the marriage went bad they were pretty much trapped in it, so even if a woman wasn’t getting turned into a robot like these women were they still weren’t really free either.

I also enjoyed the moment when Katharine Ross stabs Paula Prentiss, Ross had grown to like Prentiss so much during the production that she was nervous about doing this so director Forbes shaved the back of his hand and used it in place of Ross’ when the scene was shot. You may have seen many stabbing scenes in your film watching lifetime, but the one here is truly unique and quite memorable and voted as one of the 100 Scariest Film Moments by the Bravo Film Institute.

The film though still does have its share of faults. I liked how the viewer initially doesn’t know anything more than the main characters about what is going on, but ultimately the viewer starts to catch onto things more quickly than the protagonist, which proves frustrating. Joanne comes upon the creepy house where the exclusive men’s club meet, filmed at the historical Lockwood-Matthews Mansion in Norwalk, Connecticut, which looks quite ominous at night, at the film’s 60 minute mark, but then doesn’t go back to it until 50 minutes later. The viewer has already connected-the-dots that the bad things are happening inside that place, but instead of Joanne investigating the place more she goes on a wild-goose-chase with Bobbie about researching that town’s water supply, thinking that may have a chemical in it that is brainwashing the other women, which is clearly just a waste of time.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s ending has a several issues as well. In the novel Joanne gets chased down by the town’s men, which should’ve been in the film as it would’ve allowed for some much needed action, but wasn’t. William Goldman’s script had originally called for Joanne to fight violently for her life when she gets attacked by her prototype robot, but Forbes decided to simply fade to black and not show the struggle, which makes it look like Joanne allowed herself to go down too easily.

When Joanne confronts the sinister Diz, played by Patrick O’Neal, he alludes to the idea that she wasn’t necessarily going to die, but would simply be ‘moving onto another phase’. He then describes to her about how nice it would be for a woman to be married to a husband who would adore her even when she grew ‘old and flabby’ making me think that Joanne was simply going to be taken away to another suburb somewhere else where the husbands would be the robots that the women controlled while the men remained in Stepford enjoying the wife robots. Seeing this scenario would’ve been a more interesting and unexpected twist and ultimately was later done in the 1986 TV-Movie The Stepford Husbands. 

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 12, 1975

Runtime: 1 Hour 55 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Bryan Forbes

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

The Gore Gore Girls (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Somebody’s killing the strippers.

Private investigator Abraham Gentry (Frank Kress) gets hired by Nancy (Amy Farrell), a reporter for The Globe newspaper, to investigate the murder of a stripper named Suzy Cream Puff (Jackie Kroeger). Abraham will get $25,000 to investigate the case and another $25,000 to solve it as long as he gives The Globe the exclusive story. Soon more strippers turn up dead and Abraham starts to have a long list of suspects including Grout (Ray Sager) a Vietnam veteran who enjoys smashing melons with faces drawn on them, similar to how the strippers got their heads smashed, in order to relieve his post traumatic stress disorder.

This was schlockmeister Herschell Gordon Lewis’ final film until 2002 and was meant to be a combination between the lighthearted nudies that he made in the early 60’s and the more graphic gore films that he did in the later part of the decade. The result though is a misguided mess where it seems more like a gag reel with tacky gore thrown in at certain intervals than a horror film.

The production values are really cheap even for a low budget production and contains basically just a few settings. One features the cramped living room of Abraham’s house that looks to be nothing more than a one bedroom apartment, which doesn’t quite make sense since the guy is a world famous detective you’d think he be living in a plush place especially with his elitist attitude. The other setting, which takes up the majority of the story, is the strip club that looks like it was filmed in the corner of somebody’s dingy basement.

The gory murders aren’t much fun and would be considered quite sick if they weren’t so tacky and fake. The jump cuts are the biggest problem as the bad guy kills the stripper one second and then in the next frame has seemingly been able to skin their heads completely and crushed their skulls, which is too quick. The ping pong ball sized eyeballs that the killer gouges from their heads are ridiculous looking too as eyes are actually oval shaped and not round as presented here.

The stripping routines take up too much of the runtime and seem put in simply to pad the anemic plotline. I’m not going to complain about watching beautiful women taking off their clothes, although to be honest the women here aren’t so hot, but I got real tired of hearing the same music played over and over again during each different set. Aren’t strippers allowed to come up with their own music and dance routines, or is that a new phenomenon that wasn’t a thing back in the 70’s?

I hate to psycho-analyze a film director and have never done it before, but the misogyny here is rampant. If there had been one strong, smart woman character present then it would’ve have been a issue, but instead females get portrayed here as being incredibly dumb and easily manipulated. The Nancy character is shown to be unable to take care of herself and needs a man present to look out for her particularly when she passes out on a city sidewalk after having only a couple of drinks. She faints and screams at the sight of a dead body too while the man remains stoic and shows no emotional reaction at all. Maybe this was supposed to be a part of the ‘comedy’, but it comes off as severely dated and out-of-touch with the times.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: September 22, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 21 Minutes

Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis

Rated X

Studio: Lewis Motion Picture Enterprises

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Savage Weekend (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: The first slasher movie.

Maria (Marilyn Hamlin), who has a very contentious relationship with her ex-husband Greg (Jeff Pomerantz), but who is now in a relationship with Robert (Jim Doerr) a successful businessman, decides to take a weekend trip with some friends to upstate New York. Robert is having a large boat built there and wants to see its progress. The quiet country atmosphere seems like the perfect spot to getaway until a masked killer shows up killing each of them one-by-one.

While Halloween typically gets credited as being the forerunner to the modern day slasher film it’s actually this one that was the first and don’t let the release date fool you. This was filmed in the summer of 1976, a full two years before Halloween came out, but was shelved by its distributors as they thought the concept of a mysterious masked killer was ‘too weird’ and wouldn’t catch on only to eventually release it to theaters once they saw the success of Halloween.

The concept for this came about completely by accident. Writer/director David Paulson was originally hired to write a screenplay for a completely different type of movie, but the investor then retracted the majority of the money he promised leaving Paulson with a mere $20,000 to work with. He decided with such little funds he’d be forced create a story that required a single setting and then came up a scenario that would make the characters stay there and thus the killer-on-the-loose idea was born.

The critics were originally not kind: TV Guide subscribed this as a ‘reprehensible exploitation film’ and ‘the gore effects are extremely gruesome’, which just isn’t true. At best the blood is quite minimal especially when compared to today’s slashers. In fact you’ll find more explicit gore in modern dark comedy films like Shaun of the Dead than you will here.

Critic Joe Baltake criticized the Nicky (Christopher Allport) the gay character stating that he ‘set gay rights activism back several decades’, which I totally disagree with. I actually liked Nicky and was impressed at the way he walked into a backwoods bar and when the rednecks tried to hassle him he single-handedly kicked their asses, which to me worked completely against the gay stereotype.

Through the years critics have become much kinder to this film and its attained a strong cult following and deservedly so. Despite being made 4 decades ago it actually comes off as fresh and inventive because it’s not stifled by the conventional ‘rules’ of the formula, which we’ve become so accustomed to now. I liked how the film opens with a point-of-view shots of our heroine running madly through the forest making the viewer feel they’re the ones being chased.

The fact that the majority of it takes place during the daytime actually makes it scarier especially with it’s weird yellowish tint that permeates every shot. I’m not sure if this was intentional or just a poor film transfer, but it helps to create a surreal look. I also really loved seeing the skeleton of the large boat that was being built inside an abandoned shed. I presume with the low budget this was not made for the story and instead simply worked into the script when the producers came upon it while scouting for locations, but the effect is cool especially when the cast walks around inside it.

The soundtrack is way different from the conventional horror film as well with a country tinged sound and at one point even a classical dance piece, but after watching soooo many scary movies with the same old Friday the 13th-like sound I was more than happy to hear something different. The characters are also multi-dimensional with distinctive personalities. Usually I more than happy to see a cardboard slasher film cast get hacked-up, but here I kind of wanted them to stay around as they were interesting. The murders also don’t work in a mechanical way, but instead start occurring suddenly to the shock of everyone else, which gives it more of a real-time feel.

The only real negative is that despite having a strong beginning and ending the middle part is slow. There’s still enough interactions between the characters to hold mild interest, but there’s no running tension. A good horror movie should be creepy to some degree from beginning to end, but the second act veers off too much making it at times seem more like a soft core porn flick, but overall for the horror connoisseur I’d still recommend this.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 14, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated R

Director: David Paulsen

Studio: Cannon Group

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region 1), Amazon Video

Blood and Lace (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Trapped in an orphanage.

Ellie Masters (Melody Patterson) finds herself an orphan after her mother, who worked as a prostitute, is found in bed with a john both dead via bludgeoning by a hammer. Since she’s still a minor she’s required to move into an orphanage run by the corrupt Mrs. Deere (Gloria Grahame) who treats the children as slaves and when any one of them tries to escape they’re met with stern justice from resident handyman Kredge (Len Lesser) who’s in complete charge of all disciplinary functions.

The film was written by Gil Lansky who wrote some interesting cult film-like stuff in the early 70’s including The Night God Screamedwhich had some offbeat touches and worth checking out. This one too has potential, but unfortunately the production values are so bad it gets virtually ruins before it even has a chance. The chief complaint is the music. Since it was produced on a budge of only $200,000 the producers decided, in an effort to save money, that they’d use music from the free library and thus the soundtrack sounds more like something out of an old monster movie from the 40’s and ends up giving the whole thing a very tacky quality. It also gets overplayed making me genuinely consider watching it with the sound turned down especially during the chase or action sequences. Had I been in charge of production I would’ve gladly spent the money to hire a composer who could’ve given it a more appropriately modern sound, which was much needed, and would’ve felt that any money spent to get it would’ve been worth it.

The scenes in the orphanage don’t elicit much tension either and this is mainly because it looks like it would be very easy to escape from it and not as much of a prison-like atmosphere as you’d expect. The kids are able to walk freely about and not locked in their rooms or chained to their beds, which would’ve made more sense. Kredge looks too middle-aged, Lesser was 48 when it was filmed, and not necessarily in good enough shape to physically bully the kids the way he does. There needed to be more guards present who had guns and knives to keep the kids in line. Grahame also looks to thin and frail and I felt Melody, who appears much older than 18, could’ve easily overpowered her and was quite frankly frustrated that she didn’t. Her character is sassy and worldly-wise for the most part, but then also a bit too pathetically complaint to Grahame’s authority when she really didn’t have to be.

I did though like Patterson’s performance overall, she’s best known for playing Wrangler Jane in the 60’s TV-show ‘F-Troop’, but here shows an edgier side and coupled with her cute face could’ve gone on acting in many more movies, but instead after filming this she married actor James MacArthur and put her career on hold in order to move to Hawaii to be closer to him and this ultimately ended up being the last movie she did. I was also impressed with Lesser. It’s always interesting to see which actors remain professional and put in a strong acting effort even when the production is of a low grade level and in that regard he deserves accolades. I was not however as impressed with Grahame as she comes off a bit too one-note and the part would’ve been better served had it been played by a bigger bodied actress such as Shelley Winters, who would’ve been better able to convey a more imposing presence.

The film has become most famous for its opening bit, which shows a mystery assailant holding a hammer and killing their victim’s with it, but all done from his point-of-view similar to the opening bit from Halloweenwhich came out 7 years later. For the most part I liked how it gets done here, it’s the best part of the whole movie, and in some ways enjoyed this version better. My only caveat would be that I wished it hadn’t shown the hammer striking the victims as too much stop action camera work and fake blood gets used, which makes it look amateurish. The camera should’ve simply focused solely on the hammer going up-and-down and only cutting briefly to the blood-soaked victims for a brief shot after they had already been dead.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: March 17, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 27 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Philip S. Gilbert

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: Amazon Video

The Silent Scream (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Family’s dark secret exposed.

Scotty (Rebecca Balding) is a student away at college who finds nearby housing at a large stately mansion owned by Mrs. Engels (Yvonne De Carlo) and her son Mason (Brad Reardon). When Scotty moves in she meets three other college students (Steve Doubet, Juli Andelman, John Widelock) who are also living there, but during the next couple of day those other students start turning up dead. Scotty fears she may be the next victim and suspects the killings may have something to do with the mysterious person that’s hiding in the attic.

In the summer of 1977 Denny Harris, who was at that time a successful commercial director who owned his own studio, decided to take a try at directing a horror movie and he put down $450,000 of his own money to do it. Unfortunately when production wrapped the footage shot was deemed unreleasable, so Jim and Ken Wheat, two brothers, were brought in to try and salvage it, but instead decided to completely rewrite the script and reshoot almost the entire film leaving only 12 minutes of the original footage in the final cut. This includes a scene where the Mason character watches what looks to be a soft core porn flick on his TV in his bedroom, but was actually a scene from the original version with Susan Backlinie, the lady who got attacked by the shark in the opening bit of Jawsplaying one of the characters.

It would be interesting if a Blu-ray could be issued that would show the version that Harris shot alongside the Wheat brother’s one because I suspect it might not have been any worse than what we end up getting here. For one thing the plot is too skimpy and the pacing slow. Too much extraneous footage of Scotty looking for an apartment and conversations she has at a bar with friends, and even her making love with Jack that doesn’t help build the tension at all and should’ve been cut out.

When the ‘scares’ do come they’re not all that great. The stabbing sequences are particularly annoying because the same Bernard Herrmann-like score that was used in Psycho gets played here making it all seem quite cliched. The blood is another issue as it conveniently collects on a hanging white sheet as the victim gets pummeled with a knife as well as a pool of it on the floor, which our protagonist somehow misses seeing when she goes to investigate. Yet I’ve watched enough true-life crime shows to know that blood splatter doesn’t work that way, but instead sprays out all over with droplets of it splattering on the walls, ceiling, and other appliances until it would be quite obvious to anyone entering a room that a murder had occurred there and unlike what happens here.

Spoiler Alert!

The flimsy plot gets played-out too quickly. In a matter of just two days of staying there the dark family secret and all the ugliness behind it gets completely revealed, which makes for an anti-climactic feeling when it’s over. The protagonists seem to be nothing more than dressing with have very little to do as they ultimately stand helplessly on the sidelines while the bad guys kill-off each other, which isn’t very gripping.

A better idea would’ve been to have the villainous family, which are far more interesting and better acted than any of the college kids, be the stars of the film. Then having the film show how they bring in tenants through the years to help defrays costs, but reluctantly forced to kill them when they get too noisy, only to ultimately meet their match with one of them similar to how What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? was structured.

The only riveting moment in the movie comes when a young woman, played by Tina Tyler, tries to hang herself via a noose hung from a light fixture in her bedroom. Most of the time hangings in films are either shown from the waist up or down, but here we get a bird’s eye shot where her feet clearly leave the floor with the rope around her neck and nothing else to support her making it seem like she really is hanging herself especially as her body begins to struggle, which is impressively graphic.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: November 16, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 27 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Denny Harris

Studio: American Cinema Releasing

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Road Games (1981)

road games 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Truck driver pursues killer.

Quid (Stacy Keach) is an American working as a trucker in Australia and hauling a frozen shipment of pigs through the outback and into Perth. Along the way he becomes menaced by a strange man (Grant Page) driving a black van who has a penchant for picking-up prostitutes who then end up dying. Quid is convinced that the man is the serial killer that is being reported about on the news, but before he can go to the police he gets tabbed as the killer himself forcing him, with the help of Pamela (Jamie Lee Curtis) a hitch-hiker he picks up along the way, to find the real killer before he gets arrested for crimes that he did not do.

One of the coolest aspects of this film is its voyeuristic quality where visual clues are a requirement for the viewer to pick up on to figure out what’s going on.  Too many other movies don’t take enough advantage of this idea and usually sell-out by having everything explained through dialogue, but here director Richard Franklin, a major devotee of Alfred Hitchcock, who tried to model the story after Rear Window, keeps the viewer feeling like they’re an active participant.

The film’s drawback, and most likely one of the main reasons it didn’t do well at the box office, is that the tension  ebbs and flows. Too much labor gets put into dressing up the plot with a lot of quirky side stories. This includes having Quid  coming into contact with the same motorists through his travels, which I didn’t think was realistic that these same drivers would be taking the exact same route as him while maintaining the same speeds as he over a several day period, so that no matter where he went they were never far away. I have traveled extensively by car on long road trips similar to this one and have never kept passing the same motorists like Quid does here.

The film also lacks, with the exception of a surprise double ending that comes at the very end,  any type of actual scares. There is a running build-up making you believe that a shock is just around-the-corner, but ultimately it’s a letdown. People watch these things with the anticipation they’ll be jumping-out-of-their-seats at some point, but this is too tame and at certain points it’s almost more like a comedy.

The killer, who was played by a stuntmen and not a professional actor, lacks any type of presence to distinction. For things to get really intense, which it never does, the bad guy has to stand out and make the viewer feel on edge every time they see him, which this transparent guy is unable to do. It would have also been more interesting had his face not been shown until the very end instead of Quid seeing what he looks like early on when he spots him through his binoculars.

I was surprised why the two lead characters were played by Americans since the setting is the down-under and the story better served by performers who were native born. That’s not to say that Keach or Curtis don’t give engaging performances because they do, but I don’t believe there’s too many American truck drivers working in Australia, so there needed to be some explanation for why Keach was there and why, being that he was not from the region, he was so educated about the history of the area, as evidenced when the two camp-out overnight and he tells her the back story of an abandoned telegraph station that sits nearby.

The romantic undertones that are lightly introduced does nothing but sap away the tension. I also found it curious why Curtis would be trusting of Quid upfront as she’d have no idea whether the serial killer could’ve been him and therefore she should’ve been more guarded, which she isn’t.

The climactic sequence features a unique car chase where three vehicles follow each other around the back alleys of Perth late at night, but at very slow speeds, which surprisingly is effective. However, the script should’ve been tighter and the editing quicker. The film’s leisurely pace and colorful supporting characters works against it. There needed to be more shocks, more of a confrontation between Quid and the killer, and basically just more of a conventional thriller-like approach.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 26, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 41 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard Franklin

Studio: Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

The Long Goodbye (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: His cat is hungry.

One night detective Phillip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is visited in his home by his long time pal Terry Lennox (Jim Boulton), who informs Marlowe that he’s had a fight with his wife and asks him if he can have a ride to the Mexican border, which he obliges. When he returns home he is met by two cops (Jerry Jones, John S. Davies) who bring him into the station with questions about the whereabouts of Lennox whom they insist has just killed his wife. When Marlowe refuses to divulge anything he gets put into jail only to released 3-days later when it’s reported that Lennox has killed himself. Marlowe becomes suspicious about the suicide and determined to do his own investigation while also getting involved with Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) and her alcoholic, writer husband Roger (Sterling Hayden) both of whom may hold the secret to Lennox and what really happened.

By the early 70’s only two of Raymond Chandler’s novels had yet to be filmed, this one and ‘Playback’. United Artists agreed to finance the film and commissioned Leigh Brackett, who had been the screenwriter for another Chandler novel turned into a movie 1946’s The Big Sleep, to write the screenplay for this one. Robert Altman was later approached to direct it and while he was not a fan of the Phillip Marlowe character, whom he labeled as being a ‘loser’, he agreed to take on the project due to the unexpected ending, which had not been in the novel, but that Brackett had added into the screenplay.

While Altman may have seemed an odd choice, he never even read the source novel of which the film is based, the eccentric little sidelights that he adds into the proceedings make it worth it. Some of the movies that he did towards the late 70’s became a bit too undisciplined where his films would go off on tangents with stuff that had very little to do with the main plot, but here the story is strong, so the little detours that Altman adds in helped to playfully accentuate the plot instead of drowning it out.

Some of my favorite Altmanisms included  Marlowe looking for food to feed his hungry cat, who I might add for an animal gives a spectacular performance, and how a stocker that he meets at the grocery store while searching for cat food he ends up meeting again at random at the police station. The next door female nudists, who are also into yoga and attract the attention of both the police and the bad guys who come to Marlowe’s place, are fun too.

There’s some marvelous framing by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond including capturing Roger and Eileen having an argument inside their home, which was filmed at Altman’s Malibu residence, through a glass patio door while at the same time in the reflection you see Gould walking along the beech. Later while Eileen and Marlowe are having a conversation by an open window you can see in a distance, which the other two are unaware of, Roger walking into the ocean in an attempt to kill himself.

Spoiler Alert!

The film also features what I feel is one of the most shocking and disturbing scenes that I’ve ever seen put into a movie and that’s a statement that I don’t use lightly. I’ve seen hundreds of gory horror films, but what happens here I’ve found far more unsettling. I think the reason is because it’s completely unexpected as it features the character played by film director Mark Rydell smashing a glass coke bottle onto the face of his girlfriend who just seconds earlier he had stated that he was deeply in-love with. Hearing her scream out in unending pain while cupping her hands over her face as blood spews out makes it come-off as very real. Even more amazing is that the part of the girlfriend was played by an amateur named Jo Ann Brody who never appeared in any other film and was a waitress that Altman and Brackett met when they went out to dinner while working on the script and who they asked on-the-spot if she’d like to be in their movie.

Altman admitted that he knew this violent scene, which had not been in the book, would upset some fans, but he felt it was important to bring the viewer back to the reality that these were violent characters at heart. This could also be seen as a foreshadowing to the surprise ending when Marlowe finds Lennox still alive in Mexico and then unexpectedly shoots him. In the novel Marlowe allows Lennox to walk away unharmed, but Altman liked the violent twist.

Personally I was ambivalent with the ending here and might actually have preferred the way it was done in the book. My main issue though with it is that Eileen spots Marlowe leaving the place where Lennox was just shot and since she was in a relationship with Lennox and also had strong criminal connections I’d think she’d end up, one way or another, going after Marlowe once she realized he had killed her lover causing the ending to leave open too many potentially interesting tangents that should’ve been followed through on.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 7, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 52 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Altman

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video