Category Archives: Obscure Movies

No Drums, No Bugles (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Living in a cave.

Ashby Gatrell (Martin Sheen) is a conscientious objector. When the Civil War begins he wants nothing to do with it, so he escapes into the West Virginia wilderness where he hides out inside a cave for the 4 years that it goes on. He talks to no one during this time, which becomes a strain on him mentally and emotionally.

The one cast member concept is interesting, but few films have succeeded using it. Even Castaway doesn’t really count because the Tom Hanks character is only stuck by himself during the first two acts, but then comes home at the end to interact with others, but here it’s all just Sheen and if it weren’t for his brilliant performance it wouldn’t have worked.

What I liked most is that it shows how isolation can have its benefits. Watching the scenes where Sheen runs uninhibited through the endless fields with no one else around almost like he were a playful child brought out just how freeing being alone can sometimes be and something that other films dealing with the same subject never effectively tackle instead it gets portrayed as being a complete negative, which it isn’t.

I was also impressed at how the film captures all four seasons. I felt that this was needed, but presumed with its low budget that it wouldn’t be and was willing to forgive it for that reason and yet to my surprise it gets shown anyways. What’s even more amazing is that they have the camera stay focused on a certain natural setting for instance a grove of trees and then merge the summer season slowly into the winter one, so you see how these exact same trees and area looks during both times of the year, which I found to be really cool!

On the negative end there are segments where the character overhears conversations from other people as he hides nearby and listens in. The conversations though sound stilted like they were spliced in later after they had been recorded inside a sound studio and not the natural surroundings. We also never see the faces of these other characters as they speak, or very few of them, with the camera instead focusing only on their lower body making them seem unintentionally dehumanized.

The film should’ve started out with the war not yet begun and Sheen still in his family man role, which would’ve created a vivid character arch that is otherwise lacking. The brief scene where he does go back to his home late at night doesn’t work since he never speaks to any one there and we are given no real understanding of what he was like before he became a nomad.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending is confusing as it shows the war ending and he goes back into his town, but finds no one there almost like they’d been kidnapped by some alien being or something. He finally hears some people singing inside a church, but the film never has him going inside, so the viewer doesn’t experiences his readjustment, or whether he was ever accepted back into the community at all, which makes the story incomplete. Too much time is spent on the wilderness scenes when that should’ve only been a part of the plot with the other stages of his life being examined as well.

End of Spoiler Alert!

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 23, 1972

Runtime: 1Hour 25Minutes

Rated G

Director: Clyde Ware

Studio: Cinerama Releasing Corporation

Available: VHS

Almost Summer (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: A high school election.

Bobby DeVito (Bruno Kirby) schemes to get even when Christine (Lee Purcell) is able to get high school hunk Grant (Robert Resnick) knocked out of the race for class president and thus allowing her to run unopposed. For revenge Bobby decides to nominate a shy new kid Darryl (John Friedrich) as her challenger. Darryl is initially unsure about taking on the challenge, but eventually gets into it only to eventually drop-out himself when he realizes Bobby has used some underhanded tricks in order to help him win.

The script is too simplistic and better suited as a ‘life lesson’ film that teachers show to kids in grade school. The action gets too locked into the students and the high school scene instead of broadening the situation out to include the school’s faculty like it did in Alexander Payne’s Election, which was far superior because it took the central scenario and connected it not only the foibles of teens, but adults as well. In fact very few adults get seen here making it seem like they were sucked away to some distant cosmos and the teens were left to run everything.

The film is refreshing to some extent because unlike most other teen flicks there’s no crude humor or sexual innuendos and the kids behave like young adults in the making instead of delayed adolescents, which is nice. However, the story is so boringly basic and told in such a straight-forward manner that after a while I actually wanted a sex joke or two to pop-in simply to have given the thing some life.

The situation needed to be played-up a lot more. Lee Purcell, who portrays a teen here only to ironically portray the mother of one just five years later in Valley Girl, is dull, but only because the part is painfully underwritten. The character is not mean enough for the viewer to really hate her. She is also too easily broken as evidenced by the scene where she breaks down into tears because she arrives at a debate with her hair still wet.

The Darryl character is equally benign. At first he comes off like a truly awkward teen, which could’ve been fun seeing this dopey geek upend a beauty queen at her own game, but the guy slides into the noble hero role too quickly. He becomes too-good-to-be-true making him nothing more than a transparent, good-guy cliché.

Some other reviewers have commented on Didi Conn and how her goofy, supporting presence helps enliven the film. Personally I’m not a fan of the actress as her geeky looks and squeaky voice gets on my nerves, but when a film is as bland as this one I suppose she does help it, which just prove how really bad it is. I also thought ‘Almost Summer’ was a weird title as everything that goes on here happens during the school year. A better title would’ve been ‘Almost Over’ because the whole time I was watching it I kept asking ‘Is this thing almost over?’

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Runtime: 1Hour 23Minutes

Released: September 22, 1978

Rated PG

Director: Martin Davidson

Studio: Universal

Available: None at this time.

Wild Seed (1965)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Runaway falls for drifter.

Daphne (Celia Kaye) is a 17-year-old who runs away from her foster parents (Woody Chambliss, Eva Novak) in order to meet her biological father (Ross Elliot) who resides in Los Angeles. On her journey from the east coast to the west she meets up with Fargo (Michael Parks) a drifter who teaches her the ropes of surviving on the streets. As their trip progresses so does Daphne’s feelings for Fargo who resists her advances despite having feelings for her as well.

This black-and-white mid ‘60s drama has too much of the same trappings of the teen runaway films that came both before and after it. There’s just nothing that particularly distinguishes it from the others, which hurts the ability of the viewer from getting into it because you think right from the start that you’ve essentially ‘seen it all before’. The film also has very little action and Daphne who at times acts with extraordinary naiveté could’ve had far worse things happen to her than what does giving the film a sanitized feel in regards to the runaway experience.

Kaye, who later went on to marry famous writer/director John Milius, lacks visual appeal and fails to seem all that ‘wild’ despite what the film’s title suggests. Much of the time she comes off as someone who is quite sheltered and timid about things and not anyone who would even consider going out recklessly into the world without much ‘street smarts’ to go with it. Her character shifts from being overly paternal about certain things, particularly the ‘lectures’ that she gives to Fargo, to acting incredibly naïve making her character lack any type of real center. She also fails to display a vulnerable side just a crusty defensive one. Instead of being someone the viewer cares for she replicates a pesky nag nobody would want hanging around.

Parks, in his film debut, channels James Dean a bit too much while his character remains an enigma that we learn very little about. The fact that he resists Daphne sexual advances, at least initially, was confusing as usually it’s the man that makes the first move. I kept figuring there had to be some reason for it that would come out later, like for instance he was secretly gay or insecure about his ability to perform, and yet no explanation is ever given.

The second-half improves as this is the type of film that grows on you if you’re patient. I enjoyed some of the long shots showing to the two from an extreme distance making them look like tiny little ants on the landscape, which nicely accentuates their place in the world as a whole. Bringing in the parents, both the biological and foster ones helps add to the drama and fills in the holes of the story, but having a relationship develop between the two leads didn’t seem authentic. Spending so much time trying to survive on the outer fringes of society doesn’t allow for much else most of all a romance. The film would’ve been more interesting had it expanded its timeline and shown how things ended up for the two 5 or even 10 years later and whether the relationship had remained, or whether they were even still alive at all.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: May 5, 1965

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Brian G. Hutton

Studio: Universal

Available: None at this time.

I Start Counting (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: She suspects her brother.

Wynne (Jenny Agutter) is an adopted 14-year-old teen who begins to have romantic feelings for her 32-year-old stepbrother George (Bryan Marshall). However, she finds some troubling signs, like scratches on his back and blood on a shirt she gave him, which makes her believe that he may be the killer that has murdered several teen girls in the area.

This is one of the earlier films directed by the gifted David Greene who went on to helm some amazing films including the TV-movies Roots and Fatal Vision, but here he still seems to be searching for his rhythm. The story, which is based on the novel of the same name by Audrey Erskine Lindop, has some potential, but the pacing drags and there’s too much emphasis on a panning camera that seems to want to pan to different points on the screen in literally every shot. The soft, melodic music is more liable to put the viewer to sleep than create any tension.

Not enough emphasis is put on the murders or the investigation. We see the face of one dead body underneath the water and then that’s it. The killings become almost like an afterthought that gets briefly mentioned here and there, but fails to build up any fear in the viewer and at times becomes almost forgotten. The story instead focuses on the inner thoughts and feelings of Wynne and meanders between her fearing her brother to being in-love with him until she seems weirder than he is.

Agutter gives a great performance and helps hold the thing together, which would’ve become a limp, unfocused bore otherwise. Simon Ward, especially with his facial features makes for a good creepy bus conductor, but Marshall’s flat performance as the brother does not help to the point where the viewer doesn’t particularly care if he is the killer or not.

The only time that there is any true tension is at the end when the killer’s true identity gets exposed and he tries to kill Wynne in a dark, isolated building, but even here things get botched as the film makes it too obvious who the killer is too soon, which then lessens the film’s final twist. Certain other aspects like a flashback sequences dealing with Wynne’s troubled childhood doesn’t add up to much. In fact the only thing that I found even mildly diverting was Wynne’s relationship with her competitive best friend Corinne (Claire Sutcliffe), which brought to mind the old adage: with friends like these who needs enemies.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: November 27, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Not Rated

Director: David Greene

Studio: United Artists

Available: None at this time.

Raw Courage (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Harass the marathon runners.

Three male friends (Ronny Cox, Art Hindle, Tim Maier) decide to challenge themselves by running through a 72-mile span of the New Mexico desert. Along the way they come into contact with a right-wing militia known as The Citizen’s Brigade that is headed by Colonel Crouse (M. Emmet Walsh). Initially the military unit toys with the runners making them a part of their exercise, but when one of the runner’s insults their members things turn ugly and the three friends find themselves running for their lives amidst the harsh terrain and from soldiers better conditioned to handle the elements.

The script, which was written by Ronny Cox and his wife Mary, has such a stupid premise that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. Aren’t there parks or a contained outdoor survival course that the men could take where they could still prove how ‘tough’ they were without throwing themselves into the barren wide-open desert? The men bring along NO FOOD, I repeat NO FOOD is brought along on this 72-mile trek by foot and their water bottles are so puny that they wouldn’t last them 10 miles let alone 70. These suicidal men don’t need a nutty right-wing militia to end their lives as they seem quite capable of doing it just fine all by themselves.

The second-half drags as the runners evade the militia while occasionally coming into contact with them and having very fake looking fights. The militia members are extreme caricatures that border on unintentional camp and Walsh, who has had a great career playing colorful character roles, is not effective as the menacing colonel

The climactic finish in which a large crowd of observers stand at the finish line waiting for the three runners to appear has to be the dumbest part of the movie. Why are all these people so excited to see who wins when they hadn’t seen any part of the race as it was run nor where there when it began? Who’s sponsoring this race and where the participants required to sign a legal waiver before they joined? What kind of a race has no checkpoints that the runners are forced to pass through to make sure that they hadn’t cheated? What’s to say they couldn’t have jumped into a car when no one was looking and drove the whole way and then when they neared the finish line they simply got out of the car and acted like they had run it when they really hadn’t?

Watching the men hobble to the finish looking all beaten down from their self-imposed foray into the harsh desert didn’t seem ‘courageous’ at all, but instead incredibly moronic. A better title for this film would be RAW INSANITY.

Alternate Title: Courage

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: August 4, 1984

Runtime: 1Hour 30Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert L. Rosen

Studio: Adams Apple Film Company

Available: VHS

Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Fashion model is troubled.

Lou Andreas Sand (Faye Dunaway) was a once famous fashion model who now sits in an isolated seaside cabin telling her life story to Aaron (Barry Primus) who records her conversations which he plans to use as a basis for an upcoming film. Through her stories she describes of being molested at the age of 15 by a much older man, her bouts with drugs and alcohol, her time spent inside a mental hospital and how she jilted her fiancé (Roy Scheider) by running out on him on their wedding day.

This film marks the directorial debut of Jerry Schatzberg who up until that time was best known as a still photographer and having captured the cover of Bob Dylan’s seventh album Blonde on Blonde. The inspiration for the movie was the life of model Anne Saint Marie who Schatzberg interviewed much the same way that the Aaron character does in the movie.

Unfortunately the director clearly doesn’t understand what makes his main character tick as she comes off as this one-dimensional, self-destructive cliché whose perpetually sad tales of woo become increasingly more contrived as the film goes on. We get no insight as to why she behaves the way she does turning her into a maddening caricature that frustrates the viewer and allows for no empathy.

A great deal of effort was put into the film’s visual style and on that level it’s a fascinating achievement. Adam Holender’s cinematography is quite vivid and makes you feel like you’re right there in the same room with the characters, but the fragmented narrative that comes with it is unappealing. Certain interesting dramatic moments get dropped and never gone back to, or readdressed at a much later time long after the viewer has lost interest. I suppose this is the reason that the word ‘puzzle’ gets used in the title as we are supposed to ‘piece together’ this woman’s life and personality through the erratic bits that she gives us, but she only succeeds at becoming an enigma.

Dunaway is a great actress, but tends to do better in parts calling for strong or emotionally ambivalent women. Playing the roles of vulnerable people is definitely not her forte. She’s managed to do it a few times, but it’s not easy for her and here she fails at it completely as she doesn’t understand her character’s motivations any better than the viewer.

The one actress that does do well here is Viveca Lindfors who was a beauty in her day, but by this time was already aging into her later years and yet she commands the screen with the brief time that she is on it and had she been seen more she might’ve saved it. However, the story lacks substance fails to be compelling and leaves the viewer with a lot of fleeting, fragmented images and nothing more.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 16, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 45 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jerry Schatzberg

Studio: Universal

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

If Ever I See You Again (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Rekindling an old romance.

Bob Morrison (Joe Brooks) is a successful composer of commercial jingles, but despises the many compromises he is forced to make in order to please his clients. He wants to write a film score and his agent Mario (Jimmy Breslin) gets him a meeting with some movie producers in Hollywood and while there he decides to look up Jennifer (Shelley Hack) his former girlfriend while in college. He finds that she still has feelings for him and they begin dating again only to have her, like in college, back off when the relationship starts to get too serious.

Brooks was coming off great success with the box office hit You Light Up My Life that won him the Grammy for song of the year (1977) the Academy Award for best original song as well as the Golden Globe and the ASCAP award. His over-confidence though exceeded his talents as he followed it up with this trifling mess that reeks of self-indulgence and is so unrelentingly schmaltzy that it will make even the most die-hard of romantics feel like gagging.

The film starts out okay as it analyzes the rigors of the music business and its overly demanding clients. You even get to listen to some cheesy jingles that he is forced to write, which are kind of funny. Had it stayed as a behind-the-scenes look at the commercial jingle world it might’ve been passable

The romantic storyline though kills it. The idea that this beautiful woman would have no other male suitors and simply jump back into the arms of a dopey guy that she had dumped years before is ridiculous.  At least having her married or in some other relationship would’ve made it realistic and allowed for added drama, which is lacking and the love songs that are played during this segment sound worse than the goofy jingles.

Brooks had no acting experience, but casts himself in the lead anyways, which was a terrible mistake as he mumbles his lines and shows no emotion or inflection. His hair looks disheveled and with his glasses off like a beady-eyed, would-be stalker. The character is portrayed too ideally turning the production into a narcisstic foray instead of a story.

The supporting cast is filled with non-actors as well including newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin and author George Plimpton who are just as blah and my guess is that Brooks did this to make his own bad acting seem not quite so glaring by comparison. Hack for her part is okay and at least has a beautiful face although I wished she hadn’t covered it up with her big, bulky glasses.

The most interesting aspect to the film is what occurred behind the camera as Brooks was nothing like the sentimental songs he wrote or lovable guy that he tried to play. Instead his friends labeled him an egomaniac and his daughter, actress Amanda Brooks, accused him of abusing her as a child while his son Nicholas was convicted of murder in 2013. Brooks himself was accused of raping over 13 women whom he had lured to his apartment through Craiglist ads under the disguise of being a film producer looking for fresh young talent. In 2011 while awaiting trial he killed himself, but not before becoming one of the creepiest looking guys you’ll ever see (pictured below).

Capture 282

However, the biggest irony is that in 2005 he wrote and produced a play about a woman with OCD who is brought together with a man who suffers from Tourette’s by a jingle singling God, which Playbill descried as being ‘one of the strangest shows to ever grace the Broadway stage.’ and even though it clearly sounds absurd I’d still take it over this crappy film any day.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: May 24, 1978

Runtime: 1 Hour 45 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Joe Brooks

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS

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.