The Amityville Horror (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Their house is haunted.

Kathy and George Lutz (Margot Kidder, James Brolin) move into a large home that just a year earlier was the place of a gruesome homicide of six people. Though the idea of living where these murders occurred is unsettling they cannot beat the home’s price, so they take the offer. Soon there are bizarre occurrences and George begins to behave like he is becoming possessed convincing the young family that the place is haunted and they need to move out before it is too late.

The film is based on the Jay Anson novel, which was centered on the supposedly true events of the Lutz family who moved into a home known as ‘High Hopes’ that had previously been occupied by the DeFeos who were slaughtered at the hands of their oldest son Ronald in November of 1974. The Lutzs lived in the home from December of 1975 until they ‘abandoned’ it in January of 1976. Since that time many other people have lived there and none have reported any paranormal activity. The home, which was built in 1924, had no unusual events occur in it for the 50 years previous to the DeFeo tragedy either making me and many others speculate that the Lutzs made it all up because why else would they be subjected to the hauntings and none of the others.

(The actual house as it appeared in 1974)

In either case the movie isn’t very good and at many points is quite laughable. The film would’ve worked better had it been structured as a pseudo-documentary where interviews with the characters could’ve be spliced into the reenactments, which would’ve avoided it from seeming so mechanical and coming off like a formulaic scare-a-minute like it does here. The so-called frights are over-the-top from the start and there’s such a barrage of them that by the time you get to the finale, which should be the scariest point of the film, it becomes almost anti-climactic.

The overblown facial reactions of the actors had me laughing out loud at many spots particularly Brolin’s feeble attempts to channel a Charles Manson-like persona and Amy Wright getting locked in a closet. She plays a teen babysitter who walks around wearing one of those garish dental headgears and made me believe that the spirits locked her in there simply because they felt she looked too stupid. Kiddor’s constant shocked expressions at Brolin’s increasingly edgy responses becomes tiring and the part where Brolin shouts at the evil spirts that “This is my house!” had me thinking the spirits should’ve responded with “No it isn’t, it’s the banks!”

Rod Steiger’s priest impression is the Achilles heel. I realize there was a priest in the book, but since then that same priest as disputed the events described in the story, so it should’ve gotten downplayed. I didn’t like the supernatural events occurring outside of the home like when Steiger and Don Stroud are driving in their car and having it mysteriously breakdown. The house is the centerpiece and all scares should take place there otherwise it ceases to be a haunted house film at all and instead just another pedestrian story dealing with evil spirits that can manifest anywhere.

How some could find this scary is a mystery. I first watched it 30 years ago and thought it was tacky then and consider it even more so now. Just because it has managed to spawn a lot of sequels doesn’t make it ‘a classic’ and I feel it would be better suited for rifftrax of Mystery Science Theater.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: July 27, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 58 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Stuart Rosenberg

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region A/1, B/2) Amazon Video, YouTube

Midnight Lace (1960)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Somebody is stalking her.

Kit Preston (Doris Day) is an American who has just recently married Anthony (Rex Harrison) and moved with him to London. Shortly after her move she begins receiving phone calls from a man who speaks in a strange sounding voice and who threatens her bodily harm. When she goes to the police about it they’re not helpful and soon both her husband and friends begin to question her sanity and whether she is simply making the whole thing up.

The film is based on the stage play ‘Mathilda Shouted Fire’ by Janet Green and for the most part is well-done. I enjoyed the glossiness of it particularly the sumptuous interior design of the large home they lived in. So many times movies with this type of theme are given the low budget treatment, so it’s nice to have one done more on the highbrow level.

The pace is slow and there’s way more talking than action, but I still found myself intrigued. The voice of the stalker though could’ve been done better. I guess it’s nice not having it conform to the stereotype of a madman by having his voice deep and menacing, but this guy sounds like a cartoon character and it’s unintentionally funny. The set-up could’ve also been improved as it starts out right away with her being threatened by him in a park that seems a bit surreal and confusing since we know nothing about this character and a previous backstory would’ve helped.

The villain’s ultimate identity may surprise some, but the film tries so hard to throw in these red herrings to make you think it’s all these other people that a truly savvy viewer will start to consider the one that seems to be the least likely. The plot logistics aren’t particularly well thought out either, but this is clearly not something you’re expected to think about too hard anyways.

The film’s main selling point is Day who’s tremendous. This was a big stretch for her, but she comes away in impressive fashion. She vowed afterwards that she would never do another thriller because it was too emotionally draining and I felt emotional drained just watching her. What I liked is that instead of screaming when she panics she breaks out into a teary-eyed wail that makes her seem quite helpless, but still endearing. She stated that during the filming of these scenes she would think back to the real-life abuse that she suffered from her first husband, which makes her emotions genuine and raw and manages to strongly connect with the audience.

My only quibble and this was probably more the fault of the screenwriter than hers, is when her husband is struggling to fight off the bad guy and all she does is stand there and whimper. This was most likely a product of the era where women were expected to be more ‘dainty’ and not get involved in physical altercations, but when a guy is trying all he can to save his life and hers he might appreciate her offering him some assistance.

There’s another scene where she gets stuck in an elevator that is a bit botched too because in her attempt to sound like a hysterical women she comes off more like a gal having a weird orgasm, but overall she’s great. It might even be her best performance as she far outshines Harrison who looks too old to be her husband and wasn’t a good fit at all.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 13, 1960

Runtime: 1 Hour 48 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: David Miller

Studio: Universal Pictures

Available: DVD

Devil Times Five (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Children terrorize the adults.

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler Alert!

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

End of Spoiler Alert!

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Alternate Titles: Peopletoys, The Horrible House on the Hill

Released: May 31, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sean MacGregor, David Sheldon (Uncredited)

Studio: Cinemation Industries

Available: DVD-R, Amazon Video

The Kindred (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hybrid brother in basement.

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: January 9, 1987

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jeffrey Obrow & Stephen Carpenter

Studio: FM Entertainment

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

Rituals (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Nightmare in the woods.

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: July 21, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Peter Carter

Studio: Canart Films

Available: None at this time.

Impulse (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: William Shatner kills people.

As a boy Matt Stone (William Shatner) witnesses a man trying to rape his mother (Vivian Lester) and that sight scars him psychologically. As an adult, when ‘triggered’, he goes into murderous rages. Young Tina (Kim Nicholas) watches him off a business associate of his named Karate Pete (Harold Sakata) and tries to warn her mother (Jennifer Bishop) about his dark tendencies, but she refuses to listen and begins forming a relationship with Matt. When Matt realizes that Tina is on to him he tries to kill her before she can tell anyone else.

Although this film has a reputation of dealing with child molestation, and had an original title of Want a Ride Little Girl?, there is no evidence of it. Matt only kills women who are above the age-of-consent and his dealings with Tina have no sexual overtures. The script is actually quite pedestrian and loaded with nothing but cardboard characters and contrived situations that fail to be either distinctive or memorable.

William Shatner’s acting is the only horrifying thing about it. His facial expressions are better suited for cheap camp and his loud, plaid leisure suits are enough to hurt your eyes along with a wig made for a storefront mannequin. You can also spot his real-life wife at the time, Marcy Lafferty, playing a hotel desk clerk.

Sakata’s appearance is another detriment. I could see why he wasn’t given any speaking lines in Goldfinger because every time he does open up his mouth he comes off like someone who has no business being in front of the camera. Ruth Roman, who was a star during the ‘40s, but took on token supporting roles during the ‘70s gives the middling material some effort, but only if you can get past her raspy, smoker’s voice.

The only good thing is Kim Nicholas, a young blonde child performer who acted in only 5 movies, but who outperforms her adult counterparts by a mile. She conveys her lines with solid conviction and has just the right facial reactions. You could almost say that she carries the movie, but there is one scene where she stands in the middle of the road so she can force any car that comes by to stop and then uses this chance to bum a ride of off them, but no child or adult in their right mind would do something so dangerous, which only proves how stupid and poorly conceived this pathetic thing is.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Alternate Title: Want a Ride Little Girl?

Released: January 31, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 26 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: William Grefe

Studio: Camelot Films

Available: DVD

Curtains (1983)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review A very deadly audition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: March 4, 1983

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Guza Jr.

Studio: Norstar Releasing

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

It’s Baaaaaaaaack!

Scopophilia is proud to announce the 6th annual horrorween feast where we review only horror movies and nothing but horror movies for the whole month of October! From the sickest to the dumbest and the goriest to the laughable. We’ll also include classics, the not-so-classic and even a  few you may never have heard of. So, don’t be a scared baby and stay tuned!!!!

Family Plot (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie.

Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) is a phony psychic whose client, the rich heiress Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt) offers her a reward of $10,000 if she can use her ‘psychic abilities’ to find Julia’s long-lost nephew who was given up for adoption years earlier. Blanche employs her boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) who works as a cabbie in-between acting gigs, to find the man. George ends up stumbling upon someone who he thinks may be him, Arthur Adamnson (William Devane), but ends up getting in-over-his-head when Arthur proves to have ulterior motives.

The film’s claim-to-fame is that it was the last one directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which is probably the only good thing to say about it. Technically it’s not bad, but it’s not terribly interesting either. Everything that gets done here has been done before in other films with more interesting results. This includes a sequence where Blanche and George’s car goes careening down a mountain highway with no breaks, which isn’t exciting at all and looks clearly shot in front of a green screen.

After completing the far edgier Frenzy I was expecting Hitch to try and push the envelope even more, but instead he draws back with a pedestrian story that’s full-of-holes.  It was based on the novel ‘The Rainbird Pattern’ written by Victor Canning, which had a darker tone. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman wanted to capture that same tone here, but Hitch pushed him instead for a lighter quality that borders on camp, but ultimately comes off as gimmicky. The ending is particularly limp and for someone once dubbed the ‘Master of Suspense’ there is very little of it here.

The only moment that stuck out for me is where Blanche and George sit down to eat hamburgers. Normally actors in films rarely eat the food that they’re served and will usually either take small nibbles, or simply leave it on the plate without taking a single bite, but here both Dern and Harris take big bites from their burgers while continuing to talk. At one point a piece of burger spits out of Dern’s mouth as he speaks and he instinctually holds up his hand in front of his mouth in an embarrassment, which was strangely left in. Most directors would’ve quickly stopped the scene and reshot it, but instead Hitch decided to let it continue, which adds an odd realism probably not seen anywhere else.

The casting is the only real bright spot especially Devane, who normally played good guys, but takes a turn as a villain here and does quite well. In fact it’s the best performance of his career. Unfortunately the two women (Harris and Karen Black who plays Devane’s girlfriend) are wasted and for the most part have very little to do. Black’s role could’ve been cut out completely in a film that especially when compared to the director’s earlier works is a huge disappointment.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: April 9, 1976

Runtime: 2 Hours 1 Minute

Rated PG

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Studio: Universal

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

The Milagro Beanfield War (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Small town fights developer.

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: March 18, 1988

Runtime: 1 Hour 57 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Redford

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Amazon Video