Category Archives: Obscure Movies

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 

Fatal Games (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Javelins can be deadly.

Student athletes with promising futures are suddenly turning up dead at the hands of a mysterious killer who pierces their bodies with a javelin that he is able to expertly throw from a far distance. Authorities fear that time is running out as more of them are killed and no witnesses or clues to identify the culprit.

Many consider this to be a rip-off of Graduation Day and while both films aren’t very good this one at least starts out better. I enjoyed the lighthearted comedy used at the beginning and how a formal dinner meeting turns into a big food fight and then a group tug-of-war. The film also keeps it realistic by showing the athletes actually training and conditioning.

In fact it really doesn’t start to go downhill until it reverts into a horror movie mode and dwells almost religiously in all the formulaic clichés seen in every other ‘80s slasher flick. The killings aren’t as novel as they sound and eventually become quite redundant. They are also lightly sprinkled in-between long, drawn out dramatic segments dealing with the characters relationship struggles and pressures to perform until you almost forget that this is supposed to be a slasher film at all. Most ‘80’s horror movies will have boring extraneous dialogue at the start to help create ‘character development’, but once the killings get going they will usually drop the other stuff and stick just to the scares while also picking up the pace, but this one just keeps the stale drama going, which along with its synthesized music score gives it a very amateurish quality.

The acting by the young cast isn’t as bad as the adult actors who speak like people under a trance. The film’s director Michael Elliot who plays a doctor who secretly gives them team members some ‘retardation shots’ (no joke that’s what they call it) and the movie’s screenwriter Christopher Mankiewicz who plays the coach give the two worst performances in the movie. Even Sally Kirkland, who plays the team trainer is bad and seems to be playing down to the level of the material.

The female cast is attractive and there is an abundance of nudity including one segment where the killer chases a fully nude Angela Bennett down the darkened hallways of the school. However, the film’s cute and perky star, Lynn Banashek, was too shy to take off her clothes and so in the scene where she gets a rub down by Kirkland scream queen Linnea Quigley was used as her body double.

The identity of the killer was a bit of a surprise and something I hadn’t expected and I’m pretty good about guessing these things, so in that regard it’s kind of original, but it’s still not worth sitting through as everything else is by-the-numbers.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: March 13, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Elliot

Studio: Impact Films

Available: VHS

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.

Somebody Killed Her Husband (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Searching for spouse’s killer.

Jerry Green (Jeff Bridges) is a frustrated, would-be crime novelist who spends his days working as a clerk at a toy store while dictating to himself crime scenarios he plans on using in his stories that no one ever reads. One day he spots a beautiful woman named Jenny (Farah Fawcett) and he starts up a conversation with her, which quickly leads into a relationship. The problem is that she is already married, but that doesn’t stop the two from pledging that they’ll get married anyways until the husband turns up dead and they go on a mad search to find who did it before the police find out and accuse them of the crime.

This film was supposed to be Fawcett’s break-out role that was going to lead her into big-screen stardom, but it was such a disaster that it pretty much killed her aspirations before they even began. A lot of it is her fault as she got out of her ‘Charlie’s Angels’ contract after only one season, which enraged the show’s producer Aaron Spelling who threatened to sue any studio that offered her a film role, so she lost out in getting the starring part in Foul Play and was forced to accept this uninspired thing on the rebound.

She comes off looking like someone not ready for the big-time and in serious need of more acting training. Bridges is the far better performer and the only one that breaths any energy into it to the point that it would’ve been more entertaining had he been alone and Fawcett not appeared at all.

The romance itself is so corny and clichéd it’s embarrassing. Bridges falls in love with her the second he sees her and then after only a few minutes into their first date the two are already expressing their undying love for the other. I was also confused about why the Fawcett’s character would have married her husband (Laurence Guittard) to begin with as he is an arrogant prick of the highest order. My only guess is she did it because he had a lot of money and if that is the case then she shouldn’t act all that surprised or dismayed with what she ended up with.

Director Lamont Johnson had done some reasonably competent stuff in the past as did screenwriter Reginald Rose, who in better times penned the screenplay for Twelve Angry Men, but this thing looks like it was done by clueless amateurs. The first half-hour is so flatly photographed that I was surprised it didn’t immediately raise alarm bells from the studio heads while they watched the daily rushes.

The mystery angle allows for modest interest, but it ends up getting overly convoluted and culminates in a chase through a department store that is too dark and shadowy it’s hard to follow what is going on. Apparently the industry execs thought Fawcett’s celebrity status at the time, as she was coined as being ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ by one mag, would be enough to smooth over the film’s glaring faults and still attract moviegoers, but in hindsight it should’ve never have been released as the box-office-bomb red flags are quite apparent right from the start.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: September 29, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Lamont Johnson

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: None at this time.

Special Delivery (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Stolen loot in mailbox.

Jack Murdock (Bo Svenson) manages to pull off a daring bank robbery, but in an effort to elude the police he stashes the bag of money inside a mailbox and then waits for the late night mailman to open it up, so he can retrieve it. In the meantime he must deal with ditzy Mary Jane (Cybill Shepherd) who resides in an apartment just across the street from the mailbox and witnesses what Jack has done. She agrees to help him, but only if she can get a part of the take. They also must deal with a local bartender named Graff (Michael C. Gwynne) who is also aware of what Jack did and becomes determined to get at the cash before they do.

Although the film is labeled as a comedy it really isn’t. There are a few quirky conversations between Jack and Mary Jane, but it’s not much and most of the movie is quite gritty and tense. Watching the men trying to escape from the police by precariously climbing up the side of a building using nothing but a rope is realistically done and had me on the edge-of-my-seat. The scene where Mary Jane gets surrounded by a gang of bikers who try to rape her borders on being quite unpleasant and should’ve been excised as it adds nothing to the story, but in either case it solidifies this has being a hard-edged action flick that is anything but funny.

The plot is solid for the most part with my only complaint being that I’ve never seen, in any city that I’ve lived in, an outdoor mailbox with a late night mail pick-up of Midnight, or in this case 11:45 PM. Most mail boxes list 5 or 6 PM as the latest pick-up time and it would’ve worked better had it been earlier anyways as the darkness takes away a bit from the action. I also wanted the mailbox location to have been on an actual street corner and not a studio backlot as it would’ve given the film a more genuine atmosphere.

Svenson is amiable in the lead and seeing this really big, physical guy being so relatively soft-spoken creates a likable character. I also enjoyed the line he says to a group of bikers that he decides to single-handedly take on: “There’s one of me and only three of you.”

Shepherd is also quite good. I know I’ve bashed her in some of other film roles, but here her personality fits the part as she creates a kooky lady with a nice balance between being both eccentric and conniving.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending though is the one time that the film sells itself out as it features the two driving in a van that goes off a cliff and bursts into flames. The bad guys think Jack and Mary Jane were killed, but they managed to somehow escape it before it went over, but the film never shows us how this was done, which is a cop-out.

There is also a tacked-on twist that features the couple, having now successfully eluded both the bad guys and authorities, vacationing on a cruise ship where they catch the attention of two women, one of whom is the wife of the manager (Sorrell Booke) of the bank that Jack robbed. The women plot to make a play at Jack because they can tell from the outfit that Mary Jane is wearing that they are rich and therefore want to get at their money, but why reintroduce a character like the bank manager into the story when he was only seen briefly at the beginning and had very little to do with the main plot? And for that matter why should a wife of a bank manager plot to rob somebody else as she should be living an affluent lifestyle to begin with?

End of Spoiler Alert

Overall I found this to be a surprisingly fun movie that enters in just enough offbeat ingredients to make it original, but keeps the action consistently coming, which should be enough to please those that like excitement.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 12, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Paul Wendkos

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: VHS

Three (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Two guys one chick.

Taylor (Sam Waterston) and Bert (Robbie Porter) are two college chums spending their summer traveling through Europe. When they get to Italy they come upon a free-spirited young woman named Marty (Charlotte Rampling) who agrees to become their traveling companion, but underlying sexual tensions soon rise to the surface. Both men want to make a play for her, but resist because they fear it will ruin their friendship yet as the trip progresses the temptations get too strong to ignore.

Normally I enjoy a film with a laid back pace as I feel American movies tend to be too rushed and leave the viewer no time to allow the characters, story, or imagery to sink in. However, here it’s too slow with plot and character development at a minimum. The extraneous dialogue is not interesting and too much footage is given to capturing the Italian countryside, which makes this seem more like a travelogue.

Waterston is transparent as usual, which makes me wonder how he has managed to have the long career that he has had. Porter, who is better known as a composer, is better looking and much more dynamic and I was surprised that Rampling’s character doesn’t just gravitate towards him immediately as Waterston is dull and wimpy and not what most attractive women would want to consider.

Rampling is great and gives each scene an extra kick, which makes sitting through this meandering production slightly worth it, but the sexual tension is lacking. Supposedly this is what it’s all about, but for the most part it shies away from examining it even though it should’ve been constantly reinforced either through imagery, flashback or dialogue instead of being largely forgotten until the very, very end when it no longer mattered.

This was writer James Salter’s one-and-only foray behind the camera and it’s no surprise he never directed another one as he clearly shows no ability or understanding for pacing.  The characters are not unique enough to be captivating and one eventually begins to wonder why they’re bothering to watch it or what point the filmmakers had for even making it.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 23, 1969

Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes

Rated M

Director: James Salter

Studio: United Artists

Available: None at this time.

Circle of Power (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Weekend retreat becomes brutal.

Executives of a company spend a weekend at a hotel where they’re a part of a large group awareness training that will better prepare them to achieve their full potential in both their business and personal lives. The encounter group is headed by Bianca Ray (Yvette Mimieux) who implements disturbing activities for the participants to go through that become increasingly more abusive and degrading.

This film is based off of the non-fiction novel ‘The Pit: A Group Encounter Defiled’ by Gene Church which documented a 1972 four day encounter group of top executives from the Holiday Magic company and many of the outrageous activities they were required to go through all under the cloak of learning to ‘bring out their inner dynamic’. Many of the activities that the characters in the film are forced to perform are similar to the ones depicted in the book, but amped up for the sake of drama. Some definitely get disturbing including having one participant, played by Walter Olkewicz, forced to strip naked in front of the group and then told to stand on a chair while the others mock his overweight body before having him locked into a cage and feed scraps of food that he must eat up directly from the floor.

Unfortunately the shock value gets muted by having characters that are too cardboard.  The viewer ultimately has no emotional bond to any of them and therefore the increasingly degrading circumstances that they go through achieve no profound impact. It also happens much too quickly as right from the start they are asked to do crazy things. I have no doubt that these encounter groups can sometimes go too far and there have been documented evidence of some even resulting in deaths, but it occurs gradually. A level of trust needs to be achieved to the point that the participants let down their guard and then the darker and twisted stuff gets introduced instead of just having it from the beginning like it gets played here, before any of the people have been psychologically ‘neutered’.

There is also no background given, or at least not a sufficient one, to the people who run the encounter group who are portrayed in a very one dimensional, creepy way that quickly becomes boring.  The issues of how did they decided to get into this line of work and what makes them so brazen to think they can get people to do these outrageous acts and get away with it is never addressed.

The ending is limp. What happens to the employees once they return to work is never captured nor the fate of the people running the retreat and whether they were ever sued or arrested. The idea is an intriguing one and there’s a potential for a really interesting movie to be had, but the plot needed more context and the characters to be better fleshed out.

Alternate Titles: Brainwash, Mystique, Naked Weekend

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: November 19, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 37 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bobby Roth

Studio: Ambassador Film Distributors

Available: VHS

Hands of Steel (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: He’s made of steel.

Paco (Daniel Greene) is a man who gets injured in an accident and then rebuilt as a cyborg in an operation financed by evil industrialist Francis Turner (John Saxon). Paco is then programmed to assassinate the head of a competing faction, but at the last second he is unable to do it, due to still harboring a conscience from his human side. He then hides out at a desolate Arizona hotel/bar run by the attractive Linda (Janet Agren) who he soon forms a bond with, but Turner and his men track Paco down and are determined to enact revenge for his disobedience.

The storyline could best be described as a variation to the Six Million Dollar Man. In that one a man was rebuilt to help the secret service on missions for ‘good’ while here the protagonist is programmed to carry out evil tasks, but refuses. It all might’ve been more interesting had it not been produced by an Italian film company where all the speaking voices are dubbed, which gives it an amateurish quality.

The isolated desert location only helps to make an already visually boring film even more so and the place certainly gets a lot of customers for being stuck literally in the middle-of-nowhere. The action is passable, but relies heavily on arm wrestling matches (yes you read that right) that are not exciting at all.

The plot features many logical loopholes that make little sense if you start thinking about it. For instance the cyborg gets shot at in close range, but he does not get injured or killed, but you would think the metal, circuitry or the skin surrounding it would still be affected or damaged. Later on when the bad guys are chasing him down in the desert by shooting at him from a helicopter the cyborg ducks out of the way from the bullets as if he fears getting hit by them, but why since we’ve seen earlier that they have no effect?

Greene’s performance is incredibly one-note and one of the main reasons the film is so boring. John Saxon is the only recognizable face in the cast although there is also George Eastman who played one of the killers in Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs and appears as a similar type of baddie here. However, that film was way better than this one and more worth your time to watch.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: August 29, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sergio Martino

Studio: Almi Pictures

Available: VHS

Mind Trap (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Avenging her father’s murder.

Shana (Martha Kincare) is an actress who stars in low budget action flicks. Her father works at a secret lab where they do experiments in areas of holograms and mind control, which elicits the attention of dangerous foreign agents who want to use these experiments for their own nefarious gain. They end up killing not only Shana’s father, but her sister and mother too and forcing Shana to pledge a vendetta on all those who murdered them while using what she has learned from being in action films to take them down.

Even though this is nothing more than a mindless actioner it does manage to have a few unique scenes, which is the film’s only saving grace. The opening one features a woman getting attacked while inside a trailer home that is set onto a moving truck. The bit featuring a room equipped with the old clapper light switch in which simply clapping one’s hands will force the lights to turn on or off and then having a ‘battle’ where one person claps for them to go on and another immediately claps to have them shut off, which continues on for a couple of minutes, is amusing.

Another segment has a woman (Jacquie Banan) getting gang raped by the bad guy, but then Shana mocks the man’s ability to ‘get-it-up’ and makes him so self-conscious that he is unable to achieve an erection and thus unable to complete the intended assault.

Overall though the film is flat and forgettable and the star Martha Kincare, who depending on the camera angle resembles a young Justine Bateman, is not believable at all. Just because one may perform in action movies does not mean that person knows the first thing about handling a real gun or taking on real-life secret agents, which makes the already flimsy plot completely absurd.

Dan Haggerty and Lyle Waggoner are given top billing, but seen only briefly while playing characters that have little to do with the main story. Maureen LaVette, who portrays the Russian agent, but was born in Iowa puts on such an over-the-top Russian accent that it becomes annoying and enough to force some viewers to watch the film with the sound turned down, which really wouldn’t be a problem since the banal dialogue sucks anyways.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: August, 1989

Runtime: 1Hour 30Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Eames Demetrious

Studio: AMI Video

Available: VHS

The Promise (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Girl gets new face.

Michael Hillyard (Stephen Collins) is from a rich background and set to take over his family’s thriving business. He wants to marry Nancy (Kathleen Quinlan) who has a troubled past, but Michael’s mother (Beatrice Straight) does not approve and tries to prevent it. Michael and Nancy decide to proceed with their wedding plans anyways, but then get into a car accident that completely disfigures Nancy’s face. While Michael lies comatose his mother makes a deal with Nancy; she’ll pay for a plastic surgeon (Laurence Luckinbill) to repair her appearance as long as she agrees never to make contact with Michael again. Years later as Nancy becomes a successful photographer Michael by chance meets up with her and wants to use her photographs as part of his business. Nancy’s face is now different and her name has been changed so Michael does not know it is really her. Will the two be able to rekindle their relationship and will Nancy ever confide in him her secret?

The biggest loophole is with the plastic surgery. Face reconstruction even in this technology advanced age is still a very complex thing and most people that receive ‘new faces’ after an accident still look a bit ‘off’ and you can tell it’s not their natural one. Rich woman who pay plastic surgeons millions to look younger many times end up appearing disfigured instead and that’s after using some of the best surgeons they could find, so how then in the year 1979 could some doctor not only make a woman’s newly constructed face look completely natural, but actually even better than the original one?

Nancy’s face doesn’t really change either. No make-up effects are used on Kathleen Quinlan’s appearance to manipulate her looks outside of giving her a different hairstyle. She also speaks with the SAME voice, so Michael should still be able to recognize her when she spoke, so then why doesn’t he?

Michael’s character has issues too. When he comes out of his comatose state his mother informs him that Nancy was killed, but wouldn’t you think that after he recovered he would want to visit Nancy’s gravesite and when he couldn’t find it he would become suspicious that she really wasn’t dead?

Also, later on in the film Nancy decides to go to a spot in a park where the couple had years earlier hidden a necklace underneath a rock as a sort of symbolic gesture that the two would remain loyal to one another until death. When Nancy arrives she finds the necklace gone and then Michael walks out from the trees holding it like he was waiting for her to arrive, but the two hadn’t been speaking to each other, so how would he know that she was going to return there? Was he simply going to stand there for days, weeks, months holding that necklace and waiting for a chance encounter that at some point she might decide to come by?

The script also lacks conflict. The mother’s vindictiveness needed to be amped up. Michael and Nancy should’ve also formed other relationships and thus created more difficulties when they tried getting back together. Instead everything conforms to a chick-flick formula with an uninspired script that telegraphs it all from the get-go.

Even romantic diehards may have a hard time with this one, which includes an achingly awful opening song that for some weird reason was nominated for an Academy Award even though it may be enough to make some turn the film off even before it has begun. From a trivia angle I found it interesting that Carey Loftin, who played the mysterious truck driver who terrorized Dennis Weaver in Duel, plays the truck driver here as well who crashes into their car in a visually impressive fashion that is the movie’s only convincing moment.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: March 8, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gilbert Cates

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS