Tag Archives: Roddy McDowall

Embryo (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Accelerating the growth cycle.

Late one night while driving home in raging thunderstorm Dr. Paul Holliston (Rock Hudson) accidentally hits a pregnant dog with his car. He takes the dog home to his lab and is able to save one of the embryos by placing it in an artificial uterus and then injecting it with an experimental hormone that speeds up its growth cycle. Paul is so excited about the results that he gets one of his colleagues (Jack Colvin) to agree to give him an unborn human baby from a mother who had committed suicide. Paul uses the drug on the fetus and finds that it grows at an even more accelerated rate, which leads to many unforeseen and horrifying scenarios.

For a grainy looking, low budget production (the DVD transfer is horrible) the plot isn’t too bad and had me guessing all the way up to the end at how it was going to turn out. The story has a lot of holes and most likely won’t be plausible to a science purist, but Ralph Nelson’s competent direction keeps the drama moving at a brisk pace, so you never dwell on the absurdities for too long and for the undemanding viewer it may come off as believable enough. The film also has a unintentionally funny moment that may not have floored audiences back in the 70’s as it did with me and features Barbra Carrera reading the Bible, which she finds ‘illogical’ only to have Hudson a supposed scientist tell her that it’s an ‘accurate account of how life began’, which blew me away as I’m sure there are few scientists who would say that today.

Carrera does surprisingly well in a difficult role, but her ability to retain knowledge and learn things happens a little too quickly and isn’t interesting. I realize she’s supposed to be super smart, which is fine, but even a smart person needs to be taught how to read and the meaning of words to communicate, which is something that the film just glosses right over.

I was glad that there was a big age difference between the two stars and that a romantic angle wasn’t forced into the proceedings that would’ve just bogged everything down, but having the two end up going to bed together was almost as bad. Hudson had taken a very paternal approach to Carrera almost like she were his daughter, so when she asks him to have sex with her, so she can feel what it’s like, I would’ve thought it would be too uncomfortable and too awkward a situation for him to go through with.

Roddy McDowall has a great cameo as an arrogant chauvinistic chess player. There’s also an interesting car chase, a neat twist ending, and some good aging make-up effects, but Carrera’s dilemma of suddenly going from being healthy and vibrant to on the brink of death is jarring. It’s almost like the writers wrote themselves into a hole and couldn’t think of any way out of it except to insert having the character die from some mysterious illness even though the dog, who went through the same treatment, is not affected, which is a shame as the premise is intriguing and works for most of the way.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: May 21, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ralph Nelson

Studio: Cine Artists Pictures

Available: DVD-R, Amazon Video

The Black Hole (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Area of gravitational acceleration.

On their return trip to earth a crew of 5-people (Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, Joseph Bottoms, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine) on board the USS Palomino spot a large spaceship and are baffled at its ability to withstand the gravitational force of the nearby black hole. They decide to investigate the ship and find that it is being run by Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) who has been for the past 20 years the sole human survivor after the rest of the crew supposedly returned to earth, the members of the Palomino though are suspicious about this explanation since the robed android drones seem to strangely have human-like qualities. They become further alarmed when they learn that Reinhardt plans on taking the ship through the black hole, which they feel will lead to a sure death to all those on board.

For the most part the special effects look awesome  and one gets a true feeling of the vastness of space in this one with Reinhardt’s ship getting captured in a way that makes it look large and impressive. Even the interiors give off a sort-of mansion-like feel and that the characters are inside of a large scale vessel with many rooms as opposed to simply being sets on a soundstage.

Unfortunately the script lacks imagination and becomes just another formulaic madman in space scenario that offers no new twists to the genre. The tone is extremely downbeat and despite being produced by Disney doesn’t seem to be something aimed for kids at all. The story is also devoid of action and when there finally is some it’s short and fleeting and comes off like a second-rate laser shoot-out.

The characters don’t show enough contrasting personalities either and are too old. Usually pre-teens relate better to movies with performers around their same age range, but here everyone is middle-aged and in Borgnine’s case even well past that. Bottoms is the youngest and should’ve carried the film, but his acting is so transparent you end up wishing it he hadn’t even been in it at all.

It’s also a bit ridiculous that Mimieux could communicate with the ship’s robot via ESP even though mental telepathy cannot be substantiated by the scientific community and therefore should not be introduced into a sci-fi flick that is supposedly trying to taken seriously.  I did enjoy Perkins in his part, but he should not have been the one to turn around one of the drones and unmask them to expose a shriveled face underneath, which for trivia purposes was the film’s director Gary Nelson, since it will remind viewers too much of a similar reveal scene near the end of Psycho of which he famously starred in.

Schell as the resident nutcase is a complete bore in a performance that is so pathetically cliched that it borders on camp. He reminded me of James Mason’s character from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, which was also produced by Disney and should’ve been enough to have Mason invited back to play the part here as he would’ve been far more interesting.

The robots outshine the humans in this one particularly Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens, who strangely go uncredited, as the voices of the  ‘good guy’ droids. However, the army of villainous androids that try to stop the crew from escaping walk too stiffly almost like mimes playing into the cliche of how people perceive robots to move, but by the year 2132, which is when this story takes place, you’d think technology would’ve improved enough to have created androids that would’ve had more fluid-like motions. They are also a bit too easy to pick-off almost like sitting ducks in a shooting gallery, which saps the shoot-outs segments of any tension.

The ending though is the biggest disappointment as it never clearly explains what happens to the crew when the go through the black hole. There’s a lot of heavy-handed imagery including a cool hell-like visual, but nothing conclusive, which makes the whole thing just one big buildup to nothing.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 21, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gary Nelson

Studio: Buena Vista

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Angel, Angel, Down We Go (1969)

angel angel 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Singer manipulates rich family.

Tara (Holly Near) is an overweight teen who feels like a social outcast. Her family is rich, but empty on love. Her mother (Jennifer Jones) is a former star of stag films and boozes it up on the bottle, but still manages to look quite attractive, even better than her daughter, which she constantly reminds her of. Her father (Charles Aidman) is a closet homosexual who routinely brings in male lovers for entertainment. When a rock group with a dashing lead singer (Jordan Christopher) arrives at her sprawling family home to help host a party Tara doesn’t hesitate to fall into his open arms. At first he seems to be the answer to her loneliness, but after a while she realizes he has a plan of his own as he not only seduces the mother, but her father as well before manipulating his way into the family fortune.

The main reason to watch this film, if not the only one, is for the performance of Jones in this her second-to-last cinematic appearance. She gives an incredibly strong, multi-faceted portrayal of a middle-aged woman on the emotional edge who realizes she’s being used, but allows it to happen simply so she can still feel desirable. Her presence lifts the sleazy material to watchable heights and comes just a year after she herself tried to commit suicide after hearing of the death of a close friend in real-life.

Near, who has later become a well-known folk singer, gives an effectively sensitive portrayal of a troubled teen, which allows her to be the one character that the viewer has any sympathy for. The rest of the cast though, which includes Roddy McDowall and Lou Rawls as Christopher’s band mates, are essentially wasted although you will get a full view of McDowall’s bare bottom for those few who are interested.

The garishly colorful collages done by Shirley Kaplan are visually alluring, but writer/director Robert Thom goes back to them too often. The aerial skydiving footage is excellent, even breathtaking, but the script as a whole, despite its lurid and even groundbreaking subject matter, falls flat. A lot of the reason for this is the fact that it’s poorly paced with too much time given to Christopher who sings a total of five songs, which does nothing but slow the proceedings down to a screeching halt. The ending is vague and aloof, which only helps to cements this as a misfire and good only as a curio.

The film did quite poorly upon its initial release, so it was reissued under another a title called Cult of the Damned in hopes that it could cash in on the hysteria of the Manson murders that had occurred around the same time, even though the story doesn’t have anything to do with a religious cult and the movie still fared no better at the box office.

angel angel 2

Alternate Title: Cult of the Damned

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: August 19, 1969

Runtime: 1Hour 29Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Thom

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Dead of Winter (1987)

dead of winter

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Trapped in a house.

Being that this has been one of the coldest and snowiest winters in Indianapolis history, which is the current headquarters of Scopophilia, as well as much of the rest of the nation I decided it would be a good time to review a film with cold weather as its theme. After all misery loves company and if we got to suffer through this crap it’s always nice to see film characters have to deal with it as well.

The film is a loose remake of My Name is Julia Ross, which came out in 1945 and starred Nina Foch, which in turn was based on the novel ‘The Woman in Red’ by Anthony Gilbert. Here the title character is Katie McGovern (Mary Steenbugen) a fledgling actress who answers an ad in a paper for an audition to a role in a low budget movie. There she meets a man by the name of Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowell) who hires her on the spot based on her resemblance to their last leading lady who walked out on the production before it was finished. He takes her to an isolated mansion that is owned by Dr. Joseph Lewis (Jan Rubes) to supposedly finish the project by playing a character named Julie Rose, but slowly she realizes this is no movie at all, but instead an elaborate blackmail scheme. Her attempts at escape are futile due to a raging snowstorm outside forcing her to try and come up with a scheme of her own in order to turn-the-tables on her captors before it is too late.

This was director Arthur Penn’s second to last theatrical feature. He had been slumming through the 80’s with movies that never quite hit-the-mark and this one proves no exception. He makes a few attempts to liven it up with my favorite being when they drug Katie and then show things from her point-of-view where everyone talks in an extremely slow way like a tape player running at a very slow speed. There are a few other touches added including some obvious Hitchcock references, which I felt really weren’t needed. Overall though the film seems pretty slow at least through the first hour with only a minimum of tension.

Part of the problem is the casting of the bad guys. While I like the novelty of two elderly men cast as the villains it really doesn’t work overall. Rubes whose character is bound to a wheelchair and speaks in a heavy Czechoslovakian accent seems almost like a cuddly grandfather for most of the way. McDowell has too much of a small frame to be intimidating and there is never any gun or other weapon used against her making me believe that since she was much younger than both of them that had she acted even slightly more aggressively than she does she probably could have overpowered them.

The characters also act pretty stupid at points. Katie goes to this very isolated place, but then when she finally is able to call the police doesn’t have the simple fortitude to know what the name of the nearest town is. She also becomes very aware that these guys are up to no good and even lets them know it only to foolishly take some hot chocolate that they serve her, which not so surprisingly is laced with a sleeping drug.  The bad guys also act dumb by disposing of her driver’s license by sloppily throwing it into the fireplace and then make no attempts to keep her away from it were she eventually spots it.

The wintry atmosphere by-and-large is well handled as cinematographer Jan Weincke deftly captures the gray unrelenting bleakness of the season. It was filmed on-location in Ontario, Canada and there is actual snow on the ground, but the snowstorm itself is fake using artificial snowflakes that they blow in front of the camera that doesn’t look quite right when compared to a real storm.

Things spice up during the final half-hour and features a few interesting twists. However the Rubes character who was stuck in a wheelchair for the entire duration of the film suddenly becomes amazingly agile and nimble using only a fireplace poker to pull himself from the chair and then uses it to balance himself as he chases Katie all around the place and even manages to somehow push himself up a long and winding staircase, which became a bit farfetched. It got to the point where I felt the writers shouldn’t have even bothered to make the character paralyzed in the first place if they were just going to completely sell-out on the concept at the end.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 6, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Rated R

Director: Arthur Penn

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video