Tag Archives: Low Budget

Maniac (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: He wants their hair.

A loner (Joe Spinell) terrorizes New York City by killing young women and scalping them. He then takes their hair, brings it home, and places it (actually he nails it) onto the heads of some mannequins that he has.

In a lot of ways this is the same old mechanical slasher flick as it has all the predictable characteristics of the others that dominated the early 80’s. The story is simple and strung along by long, drawn-out murder sequences. There is some suspense, but it is minimal since we know exactly what is going to happen. The victims are young, good looking women, who are clueless to the dangers that are lurking until it is too late. One segment in particular features a nurse getting off of work late at night, who mentions her fear of the killer and yet for some reason she still foolishly refuses a ride home from her friend and instead walks down a dark, lonely street and into, of course, eventual carnage.

There are also some rather glaring technical errors. One features a woman (the same one who refused a ride) running from the killer by going into an empty subway. Although isolation is the whole factor here there is one shot, taken from inside a departing subway car that clearly shows a whole bunch of people standing just across from her on the other side of the tracks. There is also a segment where Spinell takes his girlfriend to his mother’s grave. When the car pulls up to the cemetery it is a nice, bright afternoon, but when they reach the actual grave it has become pitch black with a strange unexplained fog that has rolled in. Lastly there is the ending. This is a man that has terrorized a whole city and yet only two policemen in an unmarked squad car come to his residence and when they do they don’t even bother to secure the site.

Despite the low-budget problems there are a few things that raise this slightly above the rest. One is the fact that it actually manages to get inside the killer’s head. You hear the inner conversations between his ‘good’ side and his ‘bad’ side. Of course this only touches the surface of a true schizoid personality, but it does offer a little more depth than most. It also helps create a good portrait of a tormented soul and you end up feeling more sadness than fear for the man. The film also consistently has a dark, grainy look, which helps accentuate the ugly theme. Having it take place in New York City gives it a little more distinction and atmosphere.

The special effects are good. The part where he blows a man’s head off, through a car windshield, looks very realistic and has become the film’s most famous scene. The surreal ending, where the mannequins all come to life and exact a sort of revenge, is also well-handled and imaginative. Makeup artist Tom Savini, who also appears as the character of ‘Disco Boy’, has had a lot of success, but the stuff here may be his best.

Director William Lustig shows some panache and Spinell, who also co-wrote the screenplay, gives a surprisingly strong performance, but their attempts at creating a better understanding of a crazed killer prove placid and simply done for shock value.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 26, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 27Minutes

Not Rated (Graphic Violence, Brief Nudity, Language, Adult Theme)

Director: William Lustig

Studio: Magnum Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (30th Anniversary Edition)

Bunny O’Hare (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bette becomes a hippie.

Extremely odd Bette Davis vehicle made in her later years when her career had crested and she was forced to be less choosy about her projects. The story has to do with a lonely widow named Bunny O’Hare (Davis) who losses her home to foreclosure and is rendered homeless. She meets an older man named Bill Gruenwald (Ernest Borgnine) who is an escaped bank robber. Together they dress up as hippies and rob banks throughout the state of New Mexico in order to survive.

Davis is exceptional. Usually she plays cold, manipulative characters, but here she gives a perfect, touching performance as a nice old lady. She is terrific in every scene that she is in and the only bright spot in what is otherwise a misfire. Borgnine though seems wasted and thrown in only as a stock character.

The story really has nowhere to go. The intention was to make the film a mixture of social satire and slapstick, but it fails on either end. The novelty wears off quickly and it soon becomes derivative. Initially their ploy to rob the banks seemed clever as Bill releases a bird into the bank, which causes such a distraction that they are able to rob it without detection, but it becomes tiring when it gets played-out again and again. The police are portrayed as being universally bumbling and making it seem like a six-year old could rob a bank and easily get away with it. I also did not like the banjo music being played as they are trying to get away from the cops as it seems too similar to the much better film Bonnie and Clyde and in fact the original title for this movie was going to be ‘Bunny and Claude’.

The casting of Jack Cassidy as Lieutenant Greely, the policeman who becomes obsessed with capturing them, should’ve worked.  He was very adept at playing cold, cunning, slightly offbeat characters as evidenced by his Emmy Award winning performances on the old Columbo TV-show as well as the cult TV-series He and She. He was the husband of actress Shirley Jones and the father of Shaun and David Cassidy whose career was unfortunately cut short when he ended up dying in a fire in 1976 after falling asleep with a lit cigarette. His unique talent here is stifled because the character is portrayed as being unrealistically dimwitted and saps any possible energy from the scenes that he is in.

Actress Joan Delaney makes a terrific addition as his female counterpart R.J. Hart. She is young, attractive, and hip. She plays off of Greely’s old, regimented ways quite well and it is a shame that, with the exception of a very brief appearance in the 1991 comedy Scenes From a Mall, this ended up being her last film.

The New Mexico landscape is nice, but I got the feeling that the location shooting had not been scouted out sufficiently. The police station didn’t look authentic at all. It seemed like scenes where shot in any building that they were able to attain a film permit. The lighting consists of one bright spotlight put on the subject while the sides of the frame and the background are dark and shadowy. Sometimes, in a good movie, this is done for artistic effect, but here I felt it was more because that was all they could afford. This one is for Bette Davis completest only.

Well known character actors John Astin and Reva Rose appear as Bunny’s two grown children, but are essentially wasted. The then acting governor of New Mexico, David Cargo, plays one of the state troopers.  Larry Linville, who would later become famous for playing Major Frank Burns on the classic TV-series M*A*S*H, can be seen very briefly at the end, but has no lines of dialogue.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: October 18, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gerd Oswald

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: Netflix Streaming

Re-Animator (1985)

re animator

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: The dead come back.

Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott) is a student at a nearby medical college who decides to take in as a roommate a foreign student named Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs). West seems a bit anti-social and very intense about his work. He sets up a lab in Cain’s basement where he does experiments to bring back the dead by injecting them with his specially formulated serum. He starts with animals, which makes it intriguing enough for Cain to get in on it, but when they start to move onto cadavers at the school’s medical lab things spiral out of control.

Compared to most low-budget horror films of the 80’s, and I have seen many, this thing is nicely compact and well-paced. There is none of that extraneous dialogue and needlessly slow, drawn out scenes before you can get to any type of action, or horror. It grabs your attention right away with a clever, whimsical opening sequence and a musical score that although does sound similar to the one used in Psycho is still quite effective.

The gory special effects are excellent even when compared by today’s standards. Normally I have no problem watching these things no matter how high the gore factor is, but the scene where the instructor peels the skin off the head of one his cadavers during a class lecture and then cuts through the bone of the skull and takes out his brain had me feeling a bit queasy. The best part comes when Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) gets his head chopped off at the end of a shovel, which is again well-done, and then has both his body and head injected with the serum. The scenes involving the headless body walking around while carrying this talking head are creepy, hilarious, and highly effective. It is realistically enough looking during a couple of sequences that it had me sitting there wondering how they pulled it off. My only quibble in this area would be the part where West reincarnates a cat that comes back to life and turns homicidal.  It is very clear that this ‘killer cat’ is nothing more than a stuffed animal as its fur looks fake and the body is unrealistically thin.

The film is directed by first-timer Stuart Gordon whose only claim to fame before this was when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin in 1969 and he brought in an audience into an auditorium to watch a play he had written and then locked the doors so they couldn’t get out. He intentionally made the play as boring and annoying as possible just to see how long it would take them to rise from their seats and clamor to be let out. Although this was enough to get him expelled I still admire the guy’s panache. That same type of snarky humor is evident here and woven in, in a way that nicely balances the horror. My favorite scene here, and one that I remember most distinctly from when I first saw it back in the 80’s, is when Dan meets his girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton) in the school’s hallway. He starts to kiss her passionately and she feels embarrassed and tells him ‘no, no, no’ and then it quickly cuts to show them in bed where she is saying ‘yes, yes, yes’.

Another thing that differentiates this from other low-budget horror films is the fact that the lead characters are not as bland as usual. I liked the way Dan has a moral quandary and teams up with West on some of his experiments. Both Dan and Megan are better fleshed out as characters and believable. Crampton also looks gorgeous and has a good nude sequence at the end.

Kudos must also go to Robert Sampson an actor who has worked steadily since the 1950’s, but has never become a household name. He plays Dean Halsey father of Meagan and his part takes off after he is accidently killed and brought back to life with Herbert’s serum where he turns into a mumbling, crazed lunatic. This isn’t as easy to pull off as you may think and his catatonic stares are fabulous.

David Gale deserves mention as well playing the evil doctor. His pale skin and sullen face make him look like he is dead from the very beginning and he has the perfect look for a horror film. He clearly relishes his role and hams it up nicely. He started to garner a large cult following after his performance here and offers to play similar roles in other horror films began to pour in when he unexpectedly died in 1991.

The only performance I really didn’t like was that of Jeffrey Combs. I know he has pretty much become the face of the Re-Animator franchise, but this guy seemed hammy without ever being amusing, or funny with it. I didn’t like the square, metal rim glasses that he wore as they were much too typical.  An eccentric character should wear eccentric looking glasses and attire to help accentuate his off-beat personality. I also didn’t dig his accent that seemed to waver between Bavarian, German, Russian, and some weird variant in between.

If you are looking for something different this Halloween then I suggest checking this one out. It has just the right amount of ingredients to be both entertaining and scary at the same time and it can still easily hold-up with today’s jaded viewers.

My Rating 7 out of 10

Released: October 18, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 26Minutes

Rated R

Director: Stuart Gordon

Studio: Empire Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray

Tetsuo, The Iron Man (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Man turns into metal.

This is one of the most bizarre and fascinating films ever made. It reminded me a lot of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, but with a little more linear storyline and engaging tongue and cheek humor.  It all depends on one’s tolerance as to how much they will enjoy it. Some will find it weird and alienating while others will insist it’s brilliant.

The story centers on a very strange man, played by the film’s director Shinya Tsukamoto, who has a freakish compulsion to stick scraps of metal inside his body.  He cuts his leg open and crams a metal pipe inside of it, which causes him excruciating pain.  He runs through the streets screaming and is hit by a car driven by a man (Tomorowo Taguchi) who is never given any name.  The driver and his girlfriend think that they have killed him and decide to dump the body along a riverbank and then make love in front of it. The next day the man notices while shaving that a metal nail is protruding out of his cheek. Soon metal parts start to grow from every part of his body until he is completely unrecognizable.

Despite being made over twenty years ago I found the special effects to be awesome and able to stand-up to today’s standards. The opening part where the man stuffs a metal pipe into his cut open leg appears so real that it made me cringe. The amount of metal growing out of the main character’s body becomes almost mind boggling and has to be seen to be believed.  The immense metal suit that the actor ends up wearing and having to walk around in is massive and I wasn’t sure how he could even move in it as it looked incredibly heavy.  The stop-action photography is fluid and watching the metal metamorphose in different and imaginative ways is fun. I found the grainy black and white photography to be highly effective and it helps accentuate the nightmarish vision of the story.

The story also features dreamlike segments while although not always making sense and sometimes jarring to the story, still are memorable. The scene where the main character is chased through the catacombs of an isolated train station by a woman who has turned into a robotic mass of metal is cool.  There are a few kinky elements that are shocking, tasteless, and hilarious all at the same time. They include the man’s girlfriend with a mesmerizing stare who becomes a zombie during one of these visions and rapes him with a metal pipe that has sprouted out of her vagina.  Then, a few scenes later, he turns around and rapes her with his penis that has turned into a giant whirring drill.

Although I applauded the film’s no-holds-barred creativity that seemed years ahead of its time, I did feel that it was confusing and disconcerting.  There are too many jump cuts and wild images thrown at the viewer without any explanation. It does finally come together at the end, which is good, but I would have liked a better set-up. I wanted to see more character development, which basically is none and some explanation for why all of this was happening.  A little more conventional narrative could have gone a long way. I also felt that it became too one-dimensional. Metal grows into more metal that grows into yet even more metal until it becomes almost boring. Although the running time for the picture is only 64 minutes I felt that this was actually too long and I would have wanted it shortened even more as the story seems to play itself out and have nowhere to go.

(Spoiler Alert)

Fortunately it is saved by a very satisfying over-the-top ending that nicely brings it all together.  The strange man inexplicably comes back to life and the two duel things out in the vacant city streets. The apocalyptic over-tones here are terrific and the last sequence where the two fuse together to form one giant metal mountain has to be one of the most extraordinary images ever to be put on celluloid.  Their final conversation is insanely funny.

(End of Spoiler Alert)

Again, as I stated before, this is not going to be for everyone. There is a real underground look and feel here that is going to offend some while amaze others. Nonetheless it has justifiably acquired a large cult following that seems to never stop growing and it has spawned several sequels that have all been done by the same director. This one though is still the best of the series. I recommend it to those with perverse, offbeat tastes and an extremely dark sense of humor.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 1, 1989

Runtime: 1Hour 7Minutes

Rated NR (Intense Imagery, Rape, Graphic Violence, Language)

Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Studio: K2 Spirit

Available: VHS, DVD (Special Edition)

Eating Raoul (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Get rid of perverts.

Paul and Mary Bland (Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov) are a very conservative couple that do not approve of open sexuality. They live in an apartment that is filled with swingers and spend most of the time trying to avoid them while abhorring their behavior.  Their dream is to purchase a large house in the countryside and convert it into a restaurant.  The problem is they have bad credit and are unable to secure any type of loan, so they decide to run an ad in the newspaper promising to fulfill and play-out people’s sexual fantasies. They insist everyone must pay in cash and then lure them to their apartment where Paul hits them over the head with a frying pan and kills them. That way they are able to collect the money they need while ridding the world of all the ‘perverts’.  However, a local con-man by the name of Raoul finds out about their act.  He is a young, good looking, self-described ‘hot-blooded Chicano’ who has the hots for Mary.  He allows them to continue with their scheme as long as he can have the dead bodies afterwards, which he then sells to a company who uses them to make dog food. Things go well for a while, but then complications ensue and that’s when it really starts to get crazy.

Paul Bartel’s hilarious script was initially rejected by all the studios and he spent six futile years trying to get it financed. It was only after his parent’s sold their house and gave him the money that he was able to get the film produced. It definitely has a very low budget look with a grainy film stock that gives it almost a home movie feel. However, this is a perfect example where a creative script can help overcome the film’s other shortcomings.  There are some genuinely funny moments the best is probably the swinger’s party and the infamous hot tub scene. This is the one thing that I remember most vividly about the film when I first saw it decades ago. I knew it was coming and still found myself laughing out loud when it did.  The swingers themselves are an obnoxious riot and you actually find yourself looking forward to seeing them get killed.

Writer, director, and star Bartel continues with his theme that perversion is a normal part of the human makeup.  Everyone has their own private sexual fetishes and fantasies that is unique only to them and may not be understood by others. He started this philosophy with his short film Naughty Nurse in 1969 where an otherwise respectable doctor and nurse would spend their lunch hour playing weird sex games. He continued it with his initial feature film Private Parts in 1972 that had a handsome young man who enjoyed having sex with a doll that he could fill up with water over real women and the weird relationship that transpired with the teen girl who lived next door and got-off watching him do it.  Here it continues with the sexual fantasies of Paul and Mary’s customers that become increasingly more outrageous (and hilarious) as they go on. Even the very strait-laced Paul and Mary have their own perversions. They dislike the actual act of sex and never do it. Instead they sleep in separate beds and cuddle with stuffed animals instead of each other, which is just as funny in the other way.

When I initially saw the film I thought Bartel was having a major ego trip by casting himself as being married to a very attractive lady like Woronov. He was a pudgy and bald man who in real-life would most likely not be able to attain such a woman. Upon second viewing I ended up liking the odd casting and felt it helped make the film stronger.  Usually beautiful women are shown as simmering with sexuality and even sex symbols, so I appreciated the way it went against type. It also helped to define how Paul and Mary had a very special understanding with each other that did not conform to conventional wisdom, which sometimes happens. I also enjoyed the way Mary stays true to Paul even when she ends up being severely tested.

I admired Woronov’s performance the second time around as well. She was majoring in sculpting in 1963 at Cambridge University when her class decided to take a field to the Andy Warhol factory. She became so impressed with the place that she stayed while the rest of the students went back.  She starred in some of his experimental films and now 80 independent/underground films later she has become a major cult icon.  I was only 18 when I first viewed this and at the time my hormones where more fixated on her sleek body as she does have a few good, but brief nude scenes. Her acting though indeed helps carry the film.

Successful Latino actor Robert Beltran is good in his part as Raoul, which also marked his film debut. I enjoyed the contrast of his aggressive, streetwise character against the stifled Blands. There is also shades from Roman Polanski’s classic Cul-de-sac where a coarse stranger disrupts the unique chemistry of an otherwise isolated couple.

Susan Saiger is fun as Doris the Dominatrix. I felt it was nice how the film starts out with her as a kinky woman with a whip at a party, but then turns around with a scene showing her as an everyday housewife and raising a kid during her off hours. I liked how Paul and her managed to get past their differences and form an interesting friendship.

Famous character actors pop-up in amusing cameos. Ed Begley Jr. is an over-the-top hippie sex freak. Edie Mclurg appears near the end of the film as one of the swingers. Famous dwarf actor Billy Curtis is one of the customers and has a pet Doberman that is bigger than he is! The best cameo goes to Buck Henry who plays an amorous bank manager who makes advances towards Mary and then the funny way he tries to back-track when he gets caught.

This film has acquired a major cult-following that seems to grow by the year.  Yes, there are some flaws. The beginning is a bit cheesy and awkward and it took me about 20 minutes before I could get into it. I also wondered, with so many people being killed, why the suspicions of the police, or anyone else, was never aroused. There is also the fact that not everyone would get killed by being hit over the head with a frying pan, some might just get knocked unconscious. Still, I found myself laughing at a lot of places. I think people who are fans of black humor will enjoy this especially since it doesn’t sell itself out and stays true to form the whole way.

Sadly Paul Bartel died in 2000 from cancer and I felt his full potential was never fully realized. This became is most popular work and although he did several films afterward, none of them were as good.  Mary Woronov continues to be quite busy even at the age of 68. A documentary about her life and career is set to be released later this year and I look forward to seeing it.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: March 24, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 30Minutes

Rated R

Director: Paul Bartel

Studio: Films Incorporated

Available: VHS, DVD

W (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Ex-husband is psycho.

For all you trivia buffs out there it may be good to know that Oliver Stone was not the first person to make a film with the twenty-third letter of the alphabet as its title, although that one technically has a period after it.  The first one was in 1974 and starred British super-model Twiggy. She had just made a splash in Ken Russell’s brilliant musical The Boy Friend and this film was supposed to send her to superstardom by proving that she could act by placing her in a completely different genre. Unfortunately for her it never happened.

The film is a thriller and the tagline read ‘W…suspense beyond words’. It is a story about a woman who has remarried but it still being stalked by her psycho ex-husband (Dirk Benedict). His name is William and at all of the scenes of his murders, or ‘accidents’, he scrawls the letter ‘W’, hence the film’s title.

At the time the critics came down hard on Twiggy’s performance, but I kind of liked it. She comes off as very innocuous and vulnerable and in this kind of role it works.  Her present husband was played by Michael Witney, who at the time was her real-life husband.  He was eighteen years older than her, but the age difference is not apparent.  You can tell that the two are genuinely fond of each other and that chemistry helps.  Yet they have no real onscreen presence and too much of the time is spent with only them in it, which hurts.

Viewers enjoyed Eugene Roche’s performance in a supporting role as a detective.  His gritty, matter-of-fact approach is refreshing and gives him some distinction over the other characters who are very transparent. Unfortunately he gets phased out rather quickly and this is too bad because it is the type of persona that could have really carried the film.

Where this film really fails is that way too much time is given to extraneous dialogue that is not interesting and does not propel the plot along.  The scenes are also excruciatingly slow and in great need of quicker cuts and edits.  I would have like to have seen cutaways showing the Twiggy’s character’s relationship with her ex-husband and how that all started, but it is never shown. She doesn’t even end up talking about it until well over an hour into the film and then it is only done briefly.

This is also one of the first thrillers that I have ever seen that has no creepy or pounding music score.  In fact the music is very soft and melodic like something you would hear in an elevator. There is also extended amount of footage showing the couple going sailing, walking hand in hand in a park, or spending time at their lavish beach house, making it seem more like a dreamy romance movie.  Some scary imagery, or just a few shocks are badly needed.  There is one nightmare sequence that has a little potential, but it lasts less than ten seconds and that just isn’t enough.

The film also has a lot of loopholes that completely throws you out of the story.  One is the fact that as they are becoming increasingly terrorized by this ex-husband they decide not to go to the police, but instead call on the services of a private detective, who has ulterior motives and just ends up making things worse. There is also a scene where the killer cuts off two of his fingers and attaches them to the victim’s burned body so when the police identify the body using the fingerprints they think it is the killer.  However, I wasn’t exactly sure how he pulled this off. Certainly he wouldn’t have the skill or time to actually graft the fingers onto the body and even if he did you would still think that the police would notice that the victim had too many fingers.

The biggest head scratcher of them all has got to be the fact that the prison in which the ex-husband resides gives daily tours to the public.  Now I have toured a prison myself in Boise, Idaho, but that was only after the prison had been closed and the prisoners shipped off to another facility.  Here the visitors can get right up next to the prisoners and observe them without any guards, or protection.  The person leading them around is not armed and dresses and acts like a tour guide to a museum.  I would think one of the prisoners could easily obtain a homemade knife of some kind, grab one of these visitors, and use them as a shield to break out. Of course in this film that doesn’t happen, but in real life I think it would, which just makes you wonder what kind of drugs were they on when they made this.

My only interest in watching this film to begin with was seeing Dirk Benedict playing the psychotic.  He is probably best known for the character of Face in the 80’s TV-show ‘The A-Team’.  Not that he is a real great actor or anything, but he has had a career where he usually always plays the nice guy, so I was interested in seeing him as the bad guy. Unfortunately he doesn’t appear until the final ten minutes and these scenes are strained and probably the most boring of the whole film.  His character is also poorly fleshed out with no reason given to his erratic, crazy behavior thus turning him into a cliche.

I came into this film expecting very little and I went away not even getting that much. Being an avid collector of lost films can be fun because every now and then you can come across a real gem, but that was definitely not the case here.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: June 8, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 35Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard Quine

Studio: Cinerama Releasing Corporation

Available: None

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Fast cars fast women.

During the 70’s car chase movies were all the rage.  Smoky and the Bandit, Convoy, Vanishing Point, and Two-Lane Blacktop were just a few.  Most of these films followed the comedy adventure blueprint closely resembling the politics of the time where the police were the befuddled authority figures and those being chased symbolized the downtrodden masses looking to break free from the values and customs of yesteryear and find their own identities. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is pretty much the same as the rest with a few notable exceptions the biggest being its very downbeat ending, which was quite talked about at the time of its release and one of the main reasons this film continues to have a strong cult following today.

The story is based on the novel by Richard Unekis called The Chase. It involves an out of work race car driver named Larry and his mechanic (Peter Fonda, Adam Roarke) who decide to rob a grocery store to make ends meet. Much to their dismay they are accompanied by a hooker named Mary (Susan George) and the three spend the rest of the film riding in Larry’s Dodge Charger with a powerful V-8 engine and avoiding the relentless pursuit of the police.

The screenplay follows the book pretty closely, but does make a few ill-advised changes. One is that in the book the two leads characters were career criminals who robbed for a living. I thought this made more sense and gave the characters a little more grounding.  I didn’t understand why a race car driver and his mechanic would suddenly be pushed to robbery, or what lead them into their fix. The robbery is executed in much too sophisticated a way for a pair of novices as they kidnap the store manager’s wife and daughter and then threaten to harm them unless the manager opens up the store’s safe. They also rig his home phone up to a tape recorder device so every time he calls home he hears the voice of the two and thinks they are still there even though they had already hit the road.  Criminals who had done this all their lives would be brazen enough not only to come up with this idea, but to also pull it off.  People with no background in robbery most likely would not.  There is also no explanation as to why they chose this store and how they planned the whole thing out, which would have helped.

Another change that was made was the addition of the Mary character.  In the book it was just the two men, which made it more gritty.  Although easy on the eyes the character serves no fundamental purpose to the story line.  All she does is have very redundant arguments with Larry that quickly become tiring.  I began to realize that these shouting matches were put in solely as filler material and it ends up getting inane.

Although I have like Peter Fonda in other films, most notably Easy Rider, I did not feel his laid back persona fit this part.  Larry is indeed a potentially interesting character as it is a person who can only find solace when he is taking extreme risks and driving real fast, but Fonda seemed unable to bring out this edginess effectively and his incessant gum chewing ends up becoming real annoying.

Vic Morrow probably gives the film’s best performance as the sheriff.  Normally the police are portrayed as bumbling idiots in this type of genre, but here they were a little more human and I liked the way that he was a bit of a non-conformist himself in the relentless way  he pursued the trio.

I also liked the attempt by the film makers to put in more realistic elements to a car chase that is never shown in most movies. One particular scene involves a pick-up truck that has nothing to do with the chase pulling out and getting side-swiped by Larry’s car.  For a minute the film becomes somber as they think they may have killed the other driver, which is good. Too many chase films always show other drivers and pedestrians miraculously getting out of the way and never being hit or injured even though in reality a lot of them probably would. The subject of seat belts also comes up, which is another pet peeve that I have with these films.  The occupants of these cars are never shown wearing them and with the stunts that they do they would all end up injured and killed without them.  They don’t wear them here either, but at least Larry does mention to Mary that she should put one on and there is also an amusing scene where a big yellow billboard stating ‘There is only one word for people that don’t wear seatbelts…STUPID’ which is shown briefly just before one of the out-of-control police cars goes careening through it.

Of course the best thing about the film and the one thing that has made this film so famous is the notorious ending, which is a downer for sure. If you consider this a spoiler then please don’t read any further, but the truth is when I first saw this film many years ago I already knew it was going to have a downbeat ending, but it kept me more intrigued because I didn’t know how it would happen.  Unless you count the film’s opening shot there is no foreshadowing of it and it happens very suddenly where the victims end up not knowing what hit them, which is also realistic.  Personally I loved it and most other viewers seem to also.  Too many chase movies have the good guys being able to escape one close call after another when in reality the odds will catch up with you sooner or later and with this film that is what happens, which in some ways can be considered ‘refreshing’. The scene is captured well and features one of the best explosions I have seen and without any of that tacky computerized special effects. I also liked the way the film ends very abruptly after it happens without any denouncement.

Normally I argue against Hollywood remakes, but this is one instance where it would be a good thing.  One of the main problems here is the film’s low-budget.  Although I felt they captured the central California countryside nicely (it was filmed in and around Stockton) the indoor sets are quite bland and dull. A bigger budget, tighter script, and some flashy camera work could work wonders here.  Too many times Hollywood seems driven to remake films that were already good the first time and only ends up tarnishing the original instead of remaking films that didn’t quite work on the first run and trying to make them better.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: May 17, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Hough

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Closely Watched Trains (1966)

closely watched trains

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Boy loses his virginity.

This is an engaging, amiable Czechoslovakian import that won the Academy Award for best foreign film of 1966. The story pertains to a young man named Milos (Vaclav Neckar) who follows in his father’s footsteps and gets a job at the local railway company during World War II. He almost immediately becomes bored with it and gets preoccupied with a beautiful young train conductor named Messa (Jitka Scoffin). The two have a sexual tryst, but Milos is unable to ‘rise to the occasion’.  He becomes despondent and even tries to commit suicide, but is saved at the last minute. While he is recuperating in the hospital the Dr. informs him that he suffers from premature ejaculation.  Milos then spends the rest of the time scouring the village for some prostitutes that he can ‘practice on’ so that he can learn to control his condition and become a ‘real man’.  A subplot involves plans to blow-up a German train carrying some high level ammunition.

Despite the fact that it is very leisurely paced and everything happens at one not very exciting location I still found the film to be immensely enjoyable. I had the feeling that director Jiri Menzel spoke straight from the heart with this one. The bleakness of the characters situation and the poor, hopeless conditions of their country is vivid and yet the ingenuity and perseverance of the human spirit never fades. Anyone who has dealt with an oppressive situation will most assuredly relate. The fact that this film stays so highly amusing and touching despite the depressing elements is what makes this a winner.

In a lot of ways this was years ahead of its time. The very liberal sexual attitudes and provocative scenes were stuff not yet seen in most movies and didn’t really become the norm, even for European films, until the 70’s and 80’s. Although not extreme there is indeed some lingering eroticism and even nudity. One segment involves Milos’s very amorous co-worker Hubicka (Josef Somr) rubber stamping the naked rear of Zdenka (Jitka Zelenohorska) who works as the station’s secretary. When her shocked mother finds out about this she parades her daughter all around town, exposing her rear to everyone, so that they can witness the ‘outrageous crime’ while the amused Zdenka finds it a turn-on.  There is also another scene, which another reviewer considered to be the most unique scene ever put on film that involves an old woman and a goose. I’ll agree it is very different, but I am not exactly sure what she was doing with it, or if I want to know, or if it is even legal, but it does indeed catch your attention.

Of course the drawback to this is the fact that the character’s attitudes seem far too modernistic for the era. At no time did I feel like I was really being transported back into the 1940’s.  There was also a little too much preoccupation with the sex angle and I felt there needed to be a little more balance with the actual war.

The Milos character is a bit too wide-eyed. He looks literally like a ‘deer-in-headlights’ through the entire progression of the movie. He seems overtly naïve for someone of 18. I know it was done for comical purposes, but having his mother dress him for his first day of work was going over the top. For the first half of the film he has hardly any dialogue and it is difficult for the viewer to relate to him, or get inside his head. Things do even out at the end when he ‘transforms into a man’, which I liked, but the opening half paints him too much as a caricature.

If there was one thing that really rubbed me the wrong way it would be the downbeat ending. I didn’t think it was necessary and tended to go against the film’s theme, which was human survival and coping. Still, it’s a good film with a great message. The budget was clearly very low, but it’s entertainment value high.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: November 18, 1966

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Jiri Menzel

Studio: Filmove

Available: VHS, DVD (The Criterion Collection)

Rock ‘N’ Roll High School (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: They like The Ramones.

Vapid, schlocky nonsense about high school students rebelling from an oppressive new principal named Miss Togar (Mary Woronov) with the help of the punk rock band The Ramones.

The film was produced by Roger Corman, who was known to be quite stingy with his budget, and it shows. As a joke the crew put in birds in the background to chirp ‘cheap, cheap’ over the credits.

There really is no storyline here. It is just a rapid-fire parade of one corny, lame gag after another that gets progressively worse as it goes along. Despite being labeled a teen comedy the humor is embarrassingly kiddie with the expected sex jokes and innuendos at a minimum. Normally, even in the worst of comedies, I can usually find a few lines, or scenes, to be funny, but here I found nothing that was amusing, or even halfway clever.

What is worse is the fact that there is no nudity! What kind of self-respecting teen comedy doesn’t have nudity? Not that a few fleeting naked bodies would have saved it, but at least it would have helped.

P.J. Soles won a cult following for her rambunctious performance as the student leading the rebellion, but her acting is very hammy. Vincent Van Patten, son of actor Dick Van Patten, is cast against type as the good-looking blonde All-American, who seemingly can’t get laid. Unfortunately, he has always had a very blank, ‘deer-in-headlights’ stare and I find his acting follows in the same suit.

Woronov is ineffective as the heavy. She is just not mean, or repressive enough and stupidly falls for all the dumb tricks that the students play on her. Her character should have been played-up more and her evilness more accentuated, which would have, even on a minor level, allowed for more tension and made the film seem less one-dimensional.

If I liked anybody here it would be Dey Young, who is the younger sister of actress Leigh-Taylor Young and the two look a lot alike. She is real cute, but in a nice natural way that is not overdone. She seems to be having a good time throughout and I enjoyed her spontaneity. Male viewers may also like her revealing gym outfit.

The punk band The Ramones appear as themselves. Initially the producers had wanted singer Todd Rundgren, who would’ve been better, but he refused. They then tried to get Van Halen, but backed down when they heard they were wild and too hard to control. For a while they even considered bringing in a disco band and calling it ‘Disco High School’.  For what it was worth I was not into their music, or at least from what I heard here, as their songs sounded too much alike with no harmony, or melody, and a beat that was too repetitive. Also, their vocals sounded more like shouting than singing. They showed no screen presence and reportedly their acting was so bad that the majority of their lines were cut. For the record though their lead singer Joey looks almost exactly like radio personality Howard Stern.

Sometimes, if done right, teen comedies can be fun because they allow one to harken back to their own high school years and bring back fond memories like John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club do. However, those films at least had some shred of reality to them while here the characters and situations are too cartoonish and over-the-top. Nothing is relatable and even for satire it goes overboard. It’s a ‘bomb’ in every respect.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: August 24, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Allan Arkush

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray

Open Season (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Humans are their prey.

This is the type of film that has a really great concept, but ends up being ruined with its poor execution. It is based on the novel ‘The All-Americans’ by David D. Osborn, who also co-wrote the screenplay. The story involves three ‘All-American’ suburban family men (Peter Fonda, Richard Lynch, and John Phillip Law) who once year go on a ‘hunting trip’ except here they hunt people. They typically pick their victims up at random and then drive them to their isolated hunting lodge in the woods. They feed and entertain them for a week and then give them a few supplies as well as a compass and tell them that the highway is twenty-five miles north.  If they are able to make it to the highway they are free and if not the three men will hunt them down like animals. The victims are always given a thirty minute head start, but none of them ever make it. The movie focuses on a man and woman (Alberto de Mendoza, Cornelia Sharpe) that are having an affair and are kidnapped by the three outside of a truck stop.

The beginning is well-done and quite easily the best part of the whole film. It goes back in time to when the three men where in college and accused of gang raping a young lady.  To the shock of the girl’s mother the prosecuting attorney tells them they have no case because these boys are great athletes with stellar reputations and nobody would believe they would do something like that. I liked this part for two reasons. One is the fact that at least we are given some sort of history to these culprits. A lot of movies never do this and you always wonder how these psychos where able to get away with it for so long. At least here we are given a backstory and somewhat plausible one at that.  Many sociopaths have been able to fool people for years simply because they smart enough to play the respectable role in society and bring out their deviance only when it is completely safe to do so. Also, athletes, especially in the past, where given much more leeway and many of their transgressions would get over-looked. So to me this made a lot sense and helped get me into the movie right away. I also liked the imagery used over the opening credits as well as the very haunting music score.

I also liked how the film then cuts to the present day showing the men at a neighborhood block party and interacting with their wives and kids. The three actors are perfect for their parts.  They were all B-actors who’ve made a career playing sleazy characters and fall into the roles easily. Richard Lynch is especially good. In real life he once set himself on fire in 1967 while taking LSD and his scarred, pale, and rough looking face always makes a creepy impression. Director Peter Collinson does some good camera work with detailed bird’s-eye view shots that show how sprawling the forest is and indeed gives the viewer a very remote feeling.

Unfortunately the rest of the film goes downhill. Part of the problem is that there is just too much talking.  In fact the whole middle section is spent with a lot of drawn out conversations that aren’t interesting, or well-written. It saps the tension out of the film until there isn’t any left.  It isn’t until the very end that they finally get around to letting the victims go out into the woods and then tracking them down. However, this too is poorly handled. The action is limited and not well choreographed. The whole sequence goes by too quickly and comes off like it was nothing more than an after-thought that fails to take advantage of its immense forest setting.  In fact for a film with such a sadistic and exploitive theme there is actually very little violence to speak of and no gore at all. The three bad guys also end up becoming quite banal and one-dimensional. They show no distinctive personalities whatsoever as they agree with each other on everything and seem to do nothing more than laugh and guffaw and each other’s juvenile jokes and antics.

If you are interested in watching this film then please don’t read any further as it may be considered a spoiler:

The film’s twist ending is weak as well. It features actor William Holden (a very accomplished actor and why he took this role, which amounts to nothing more than a cameo, I will never know) playing the father of the girl that the three men raped in college. He secretly followed the men on their hunting trip and decides to have his revenge by gunning them down just like they had done to all their victims. Again, the action here is handled in an unexciting and unimaginative way. I couldn’t buy into the fact that these men, who supposedly fought in Vietnam, would panic so quickly and act like a bunch of scared children the minute they found out that they were being shot at. They show no savvy or survival skills and allow themselves to be easily picked-off in an uninspired fashion.

I have always enjoyed Deliverance and I liked how this film used a variation of that theme where instead of the civilized man going out and coming to terms with the savage of the wilderness they instead go into the wilderness to come to terms with their own, inner savage. More action, better tweaking of the characters, and a faster pace and this film could’ve been a cult classic as the ingredients are all there. As it is now though I think it is much too bland to interest or intrigue anybody.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: November 1, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 44Minutes

Rated R

Director: Peter Collinson

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS