Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

Scanners (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: His head will explode.

Scanners are people with strange psychic powers that can not only read other people’s minds, but also kill them and even move objects with their brainwaves. A corrupt group of scanners lead by Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) threatens world domination. Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) who works for a company that is trying to stop these dangerous people finds a scanner named Cameron (Stephan Lack) that Darryl’s groups is seeking, but has not yet located. Ruth trains Cameron on how to hone in his scanning powers and then track down Darryl’s group and destroy it.

Director David Cronenberg is still in my estimation one of the premiere cult/horror directors around. It is one thing to make a great horror movie when you have a big budget and state of the art special effects, but it is another to make an effective movie when you have little to work with and yet Cronenberg has continually shown that a creative imagination can triumph over all else. He has also shown a refreshingly daring vision throughout his career and seems to have no hesitation in tackling taboo subjects.

This film proves no exception. The story is quite creative and there are continually new and surprising twists thrown in. The special effects are excellent and imaginative. I loved the protruding, blood spurting veins coming out of the arms and heads of Cameron and Darryl during their intense scanner showdown at the end. The melting telephone receiver isn’t bad and off course the exploding head is memorable and deserves its place in the annals of gross cinema history.

With that said I still felt the film could have done a better job at setting up the story. It starts right away with a lot of action before anything is explained and makes things confusing. Some sort of prolog in this case would have been appropriate. Everything also seems rushed. This is a great plot with interesting scenarios and I as a viewer wanted a little more time to soak it all in, but wasn’t given any. The sets and backdrops are redundantly dark and grimy and lack visual design. Overall the film has a seriously dated look and although there are way too many films being remade these days and some that are not necessary this is one movie were I would advocate it especially if done with a high budget and a competent director.

Stephan Lack makes for incredibly weak leading man. He is better known in the art world as a renowned painter and his film career was quite brief. After watching his performance here it is not hard to see why. He has very much of a ‘deer-in-headlights’ look and a voice tone that shown no infliction, or emotion. His lack of charisma or stature seriously weakens the film’s overall effect and why he was chosen for the part is a mystery.

Jennifer O’Neill is gorgeous as Kim a female scanner who works with Cameron in his quest to find Darryl. The woman, who was a former model, has a face that is so beautiful it is mesmerizing no matter what angle she is shown at or emotion that she is conveying. My only complaint is the small streak of gray that was put into her hair, which I found unnecessary especially since she was portraying someone who was Cameron’s same age, which was the early 30’s.

On the villainous side Ironside certainly has the chiseled threatening features of a bad guy. However, I actually thought that Canadian character actor Lawrence Dane who plays one of Darryl’s spies was actually more effective.

The artwork done by the Benjamin Pierce character (Robert A. Silverman) visualizing giant heads and the thoughts inside people’s heads was really cool and avant-garde.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes

Rated R

Director: David Cronenberg

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD

Seconds (1966)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Starting a new life.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a middle-aged man just going through the paces of life. He is stuck in a marriage that no longer has any spark and a job that is boring. His life is confined to the basic suburban rituals and he is quietly looking for a way out. Then he gets a call from Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton) who he thought was dead. Charlie tells him that he is very much alive, but with a new identity. Arthur goes to a address that Charlie gives him and there he is told for $30,000 dollars he can be ‘reborn’ and given a completely new identity via plastic surgery as well as a whole new life with new friends and no connection to his dreary past. He would even be given a new set of fingerprints and new teeth while the death of his former self would be created in a way that it would leave no question, or suspicion.

This story is unique and fascinating on many levels. It pinpoints the monotony of middle-aged life and views living in suburbia not as the great American dream, but more as the American trap. I enjoyed the part where one of the Doctors named Davalo (Khigh Dhiegh) tells Arthur who has now been changed into Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) that his new identity will be that of an established painter and he will no longer have to be quarantined with any responsibility and will instead be able to live the rest of his life pursuing is own individual interests, which is probably what everyone secretly desires.

The second half of the story where Tony tries to adjust to his new ‘dream’ lifestyle is equally as interesting if not more. Tony finds that his new friends and neighbors are other ‘reborns’ who will not allow him to backtrack into his old identity and seem compelled to keep in line with his new environment whether he was completely happy with it or not. During this segment I couldn’t help but think of the characters from Easy Rider and how Tony’s situation wasn’t much different. Both longed for complete personal freedom, but the more they tried to escape the societal strings the more they seemed to be dragged back into it. The part where Tony goes back to visit his wife while under the disguise of being a long lost friend of her late husband is revealing and dramatically the strongest part of the whole film.

John Frankenheimer’s direction is superb and intoxicating. The opening sequence featuring a lot of distorted imagery is excellent and creates a terrific mood for the story. The dream sequence where Arthur finds himself in a hotel room with another woman is captured in such a way that it looked almost like a Salvador Dali painting. The use of the fish-eyed lens that is put in at certain strategic moments is effective as well as stylish. The black and white cinematography is evocative and the organ playing soundtrack is distinct and moody.

Rock Hudson has always seemed to me as a weak leading man and apparently Frankenheimer considered him ‘lightweight’ as well, but when his first two choices turned down the role he decided to go with him and here it actually worked. I felt Hudson’s blank expression and confused demeanor fit well with the character’s situation. The part where he is shown tied to a bed and struggling to get out while his mouth is gagged is convincing. Veteran actor Randolph is quite good in the beginning playing Arthur a man who seems run over by life. The close-up of his nervous and sweating face leaves a strong impression. Will Geer is also excellent in support as the founder and head of the secret organization.

The twist ending is well done although I saw it coming long before our naïve protagonist did. Unlike the book it is clearer and less vague. This is one case where the film can make a great companion piece to the book, or vice versa. This is a definite sleeper of a movie screaming for more attention and has strong cult potential.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: October 5, 1966

Runtime: 1Hour 46Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: John Frankenheimer

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD,  Blu-ray (Criterion Collection) Amazon Instant Video

The Terminal Man (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Can’t control his impulses.

            Harry Benson (George Segal) is a brilliant computer scientist who begins to suffer from blackouts after receiving a head injury in a car accident.  During these blackouts he goes on terrifying violent sprees, which includes the abuse of his own wife and children. To help control the condition a group of doctors come up with an experimental procedure of implanting a computer chip inside his brain that will set off a signal that will alleviate these compulsions when they begin.  Unfortunately things do not go as planned and Harry’s condition becomes frighteningly worse in this cinematic realization of the Michael Crichton novel.

Director Mike Hodges visualization is the stand-out here. Every scene and camera shot fits together into a seamless whole. The first hour is filled with sets and backdrops showing a square, gray, futuristic –like surroundings while the second half features more white interiors while still maintaining the modernistic look.  Hodges shows a terrific awareness of every little sight and sound making each one an integral part of the story. From a visual perspective it is brilliantly handled and a masterpiece in need of more attention.  His use of classical music by Johann Sebastian Bach is equally effective. One particularly unique scene has Harry violently stabbing someone to death during one of his seizures, but instead of hearing the expected pounding music we instead hear the soft strains of Bach while the victim’s blood creates a red pattern on the white tiles of the floor.

The operating sequence and build-up to it is especially captivating and takes up most of the runtime.  I appreciated how a great deal of care was taken to make everything follow a very believable logic. The intricate procedure itself becomes fascinating and riveting to watch as they drill small holes into the patients head and use tiny metal tubes to literally shoot the mechanical pellets into strategic spots in the brain.

Segal, mostly know for light comedies, takes a nice break into drama here. He does a terrific job at getting the viewer to see him as a human being and feel empathy for his situation and when he has his head shaved he looks exactly like Howie Mandel . The part where he screams “Make it stop! Make it stop!” as he goes through another of his violent outbursts is especially moving and disturbing.

The supporting cast is strong as well although I didn’t particularly care for Donald Moffat and his put-on Irish accent, which was too strong and distracting and completely unnecessary.  Richard Dysart is memorable as the surgeon conducting the operation. He has two of the film’s best lines. One is when he is putting the computer chips into the brain and he states “This is the one job that can be both boring and nerve-wracking at the same time.”  Another great line of his occurs when a reporter asks him he if considers this procedure to be a type of mind control and he responds “What do you call compulsory education through high school?”

Joan Hackett gives her usual solid performance as Janet Ross the one doctor who is more concerned with the welfare of the patient then the implications of the experimental procedure. Jill Clayburgh, in an early role, plays against type here as Harry’s ditzy blonde girlfriend and the change of pace is interesting.

The film certainly makes a strong statement at the potential dangers of medical science and how the medical staff can be highly intelligent in one area, but very dense, immature and selfish in others.  The dehumanization element is pounded home to the viewer and in that respect it succeeds magnificently, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was being a bit unfair. In the years since this film was released the advancements in the medical field have improved the life and health of the patients and society as a whole. The film’s negative slant seems to conform too much to the pessimistic sentiments of its era and its unrelentingly doomful outlook is unnecessary.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 19, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Mike Hodges

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD (Warner Archive), Amazon Instant Video

Altered States (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blair Brown’s hairy armpits.

            This film, which is loosely based on the experiences of dolphin researcher John Lily the inventor of the isolation tank, and from the Paddy Chayefsky novel comes this bizarre concoction that is half sci-fi and half surreal fantasy.  The story pertains to Eddie Jessup (William Hurt in his film debut) who spends time in his isolation tank at his Harvard research lab while taking hallucinatory drugs that send him into different states of consciousness that become increasingly more frightening and vivid until they begin to externalize in his everyday life.

It was directed by Ken Russell and if you are familiar with his work you realize that means the presence of lots and lots and lots of strange visuals that come at you in quick and unannounced ways. They are confusing, cluttered, and often times make no sense. However, since the story is pretty wide-open these trippy segments work to the film’s benefit, unlike other Russell productions where I felt they became off-putting.  They also give the movie distinction and momentum. I’ve never done LSD, acid, or meth, but these segments probably come as close to the experience of a drug trip as you will find.  It is best not to demand any logic and instead sit back and allow it to become an assault on the senses, which on that level works to excellent effect. I came away wishing these scenes had been more extended and frequent as they are the best part of the movie. Of course the state-of-art special effects are no longer as impressive and look like images put on a mat screen, but some of the other stuff is cool. My favorite part is where a naked Blair Brown and Hurt are lying on the ground and a strong wind completely covers their bodies with sand and then they slowly evaporate into the air.

Hurt does a competent job and the character isn’t the clichéd kind of sensitive modern man like most Hollywood protagonists. He is emotionally ambivalent and self-centered.  His unromantic marriage proposal to Emily (Blair Brown) is one for the books, but I liked it. Most research scientists probably aren’t a socially skilled, people person to begin with otherwise they wouldn’t be shutting themselves inside a lonely, dingy research lab all day, so in that regards I felt the script hit the target and gave the film a little more of an edge.

Blair does fine in her role as the long suffering wife and it is nice seeing her looking so young and even briefly smoking a joint. She looks great naked, but her armpits where much too hairy during the love-making scene and she should have shaved them. I also found it amusing that during the time the two were separated Eddie started to have relations with a younger student of his who continued to refer to him as ‘Dr. Jessup’ even when they were in bed together.

Charles Haid plays Mason Parrish a friend of Eddie’s who helps him out with his experiments despite strong misgivings. His rants and tirades are well-played and give the film energy when it is not in fantasy mode.

To me the movie became boring and contrived when Eddie started to mutate into that of an ape man and runs around the campus and city terrorizing everyone. It seemed too reminiscent to An American Werewolf in London, which came out around the same time as well as countless other wolf man movies. The part is also not played by Hurt, but instead Miguel Godreau, who was an excellent dancer. I was impressed with his limber body and the way he could climb things, which gave him an animalistic quality, but felt that if it represented the Hurt character then Hurt should have been performing it even if it meant allowing for certain concessions.

The opening sequence showing Hurt locked in a thin, rusty tank in an empty room is terrific. There is a certain starkness and foreboding quality, especially with the eerie music, that makes this one of the better openings to a horror movie. The use of the credit titles is creative and reminded me a bit of The Shining. However, the film’s ending is horrid and one of the worst I have seen. It reeks of being a forced ‘happy’ Hollywood ending that practically ruins the entire picture as a whole. Because of this and the fact that the script seems to only skim the surface of this potentially fascinating subject matter forced me to give it only a 5 rating.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated R (Language, Brief Nudity, Adult Theme, Intense Visuals)

Director: Ken Russell

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video 

SSSSSSS (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Man turns into snake.

            Dr. Carl Stoner (Strother Martin) hires a college student named David Blake (Dirk Benedict) to work as his lab assistant on his research of snakes. David also finds himself attracted to the Dr.’s daughter Kristina who also works with her father on his research. However, unbeknownst to both of them the kindly Dr. has come up with a serum that can change a man, over the course of several weeks, into a king cobra snake.

Although clearly done on a limited budget, this film really impressed me in a few areas. The first was that the actors performed with actual snakes. The snake handling that Martin did was simply amazing. I found myself captivated in one scene where he takes a live Black Mamba out of its cage and grab its head and then force feeds it through a special type of mechanical tube. Another scene has him taking a King Cobra out of its cage where, while in front of a viewing audience, he is able to grab its head and make it secrete its venom into a jar. To top that off the film climaxes with a mongoose attacking and killing a cobra, which is quite violent. I almost wished that this had simply been done as a nature documentary as it could have been just as frightening and fascinating. The chilling throaty sounds that the King Cobra makes, which is all perfectly natural, would be enough to scare most people. There is even a segment where actor Reb Brown gets bitten by a snake on his foot and it is done in slow motion.

Another thing that was impressive was the make-up effects done by John Chambers. Benedict really starts to look like a snake and the final transformation is incredible.

The areas were the film is limited is in the horror portion itself. For one thing it takes too long to get going. The metamorphosis doesn’t start to get interesting until the final fifteen minutes.  The David character seems much too passive and trusting as he allows the Dr. to continue to inject him with the fluid even after he starts to have weird side-effects. The Dr. character is not menacing, or creepy enough to be scary.  For most of the movie he seemed pretty cool and I found it hard to cheer against anyone who is able and willing to handle snakes the way he does. The music is another problem as it is too soft and melodic without the jarring and foreboding undertones that is needed to help accentuate the tension. The setting is bland we get no sense of the locale outside of the Dr.’s residence, which looks too much like a studio back lot. The entire production has a cheap TV-movie quality and it is photographed in a flat, unimaginative way.

The side-story involving the budding romance between David and Kristina is uninteresting and unnecessary. The segment where the two go skinny dipping and their genitals are strategically covered by trees and plants at every conceivable camera angle looks cheesy.

            If you are into snakes, or make-up used for special effects, then you may find this film satisfying.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 2, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Director: Bernard L. Kowalski

Rated PG

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, VHS

The Fury (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blow up the body.

Another Brian De Palma/Hitchcock wannabe, this one involving a sinister secret government agent named Ben Childress (John Cassavetes) who wants to use the amazing psychic abilities of a young college-aged man named Robin Sandza (Andrew Stevens) for his own nefarious purposes. While he is in Israel with the father and son he decides to stage a terrorist attack, which he hopes will kill the boy’s father Peter (Kirk Douglas) and allow him to whisk Robin away to an underground research lab where no one will find him. However, Peter manages to survive the attack and goes on a relentless pursuit to find his son. This occurs while a young woman named Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving) with equally strong parapsychological traits starts to have visions of Robin and his whereabouts while attending a school that specializes in people with these abilities and eventually she teams up with Peter to help him in his quest.

I liked the opening sequence being shot on-location in Israel, which gives the film an exotic feel. The attack is well-handled and comes as a surprise without any set-up, but I felt there was a fatal flaw with the premise. This is namely the fact that with Robin’s amazing psychic abilities you would think he could figure out that his Dad was still alive and be able to find him while also outsmarting the people who are holding him.

The secret agency thing and what they are using him for is vague and we see only a few scenes with him there. I felt this should have been more detailed and less time spent with Gillian at the psychic school, which is not very compelling and rather draggy.     There are a few good action moments, but unfortunately they come at the beginning and end with a talky middle that lacks any real suspense.

However, Peter’s escape from some gunmen by jumping out of an apartment window and onto the ‘L’ tracks along Wabash Avenue in Chicago is amazingly well shot and nerve-wracking.  A scene where Robin tortures a female Dr. (Fiona Lewis) by using his telepathic powers to spin her around a room until  blood oozes from her body and sprays all over the walls and furniture deserves some merits, but I wished it had been more extended. There is also the exploding body that is the film’s final shot and possibly its best and it is shown several times at different angles. I also enjoyed the darkly humorous scene where Robin uses his powers to send a ride at an indoor amusement park out of control and throwing the riders through the window of a nearby restaurant.

De Palma’s trademark over-direction is in full gear. Sometimes it works, but other times it is a distraction. For instance he uses a lot of panning shots showing one person talking and then panning to the other person and then back again. During a funny scene where Peter breaks into an older couple’s apartment while looking for a disguise this really works, but De Palma continues to go to this well throughout and eventually it becomes annoying. There is also a foot chase that is done in slow-motion, which to me sapped the tension and excitement right out of it. He does have a few bird’s-eye view shots, which while not adding anything to the story, are still kind of cool.

Andrew Stevens, son of actress Stella Stevens, is well cast as the young man who starts out likable, but slowly becomes evil as the film progresses. Stevens has a good knack for this as he can go from nice to menacing very quickly and I first noticed this during a classic episode of Murder She Wrote. His clear blue eyes can give off a creepy stare as well.

John Cassavetes is an excellent bad guy.  He is best remembered as an independent film director with a unique vision, but with his dark features, cryptic glare, and intense delivery he can also be a very good villain. I don’t think the film made the most of it, but it was astute casting.

Although billed as the star Douglas does not have the most screen-time and there are long periods where he isn’t seen at all. This was really a vehicle for Irving, who is convincing and makes the viewer sympathetic to her quandary of having super-powers that she does not fully understand, cannot control and doesn’t really want.

It’s an interesting idea, but doesn’t go far enough with it. There weren’t enough twists to justify sitting through almost two hours. The pacing is poor and had it been trimmed to 90 minutes it would have worked better. The special effects are decent, but there needed to be more of them and they might not hold-up to contemporary standards. John Williams’s orchestral sounding score helps elevate what is really just bubblegum material.

This is a great chance at seeing some young stars in their film debuts including Darryl Hannah, Laura Innes, and James Belushi. There is also an amusing scene featuring Dennis Franz with a full head of hair playing a nervous and befuddled Chicago cop.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: March 10, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Rated R

Director: Brian De Palma

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video