Tag Archives: Shelley Winters

What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Religious lady goes crazy.

Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) and Helen (Shelley Winters) are two mothers whose sons commit a gruesome murder. Once the two men are convicted the women decide to move across the country, change their names and open up a dance studio. Adelle meets a handsome bachelor (Dennis Weaver) who is full of money, but Helen’s fortunes don’t improve. Instead she wallows in depression while receiving threatening phone calls, which gets her paranoid that someone is out to get them. She tries to seek solace through her religion, but eventually the stress becomes too much and her psychic begins to crack.

The screenplay was written by Henry Farrell famous for penning the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which later became a big screen success. Unlike that one this was written directly for the screen and misses the textured richness of a backstory specifically how the two women first met or how their friendship blossomed.

On the visual level it starts out well and I enjoyed the use of old news reel footage to help introduce the story, but after that it goes into a lull with long, talky takes that fail to generate much excitement. The recreation of the 1930’s setting looks cheap and stagy and the film lacks a cinematic flair to help compliment it’s campy storyline. Originally director Curtis Harrington had implemented visual effects to be used in the transitions between the scenes, which would’ve helped immensely, but the producer hated them and forced them to be taken out.

On the acting end I felt Reynolds was rather boring and stuck playing a character that isn’t very interesting, which made me surprised that she put up $800,000 of her own money just to get it produced. The showy role is clearly Helen’s and Winters plays the part quite well and becomes the film’s main attraction. Usually she would take-on flamboyant-type characters, but this one required her to be more subdued and repressed and she is able to do it magnificently, which only proves what a gifted and versatile performer she was.

There are a few edgy but brief bits including the shot of a dead body that has been run over by a farm plow, which has some pretty good bloody effects. However, the shot showing a close-up of the women’s body who was the victim of the two sons isn’t effective because it supposedly gets posted in a newspaper as a lead in to the article about the crime, but no mainstream publication either then or now would print such a gruesome picture of a victim.

There were also several provocative scenes that got excised in an effort to the attain the GP rating, which included a shot of Winters kissing Reynolds on the lips as well as a murder scene that was originally intended to be much more drawn out than what it ends up being. The film’s final shot though is still well done and probably the only thing that makes sitting through this worth it.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 30, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 41Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Curtis Harrington

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD

Wild in the Streets (1968)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Rock star becomes President.

I was going to post this review the day after the election, but decided given the results that I might postpone it a few days as I didn’t want some readers who might feel a bit on edge with the outcome getting any more nervous. The film’s subject matter consists of what at the time was considered simply wild satire, but now in these crazy political times may actually hit frighteningly close to home.

The story centers around Max Frost (Christopher Jones) a rock star who has become a major teen idol to the nation’s young people. Senator Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook) is running for office and wants to campaign to lower the voting age to 18 in an attempt to garner support from young Americans, which in turn he hopes will get him into the Presidency. He asks for the assistance of Max to help him in his pursuit. Max agrees, but then promotes the idea to his fan base of lowering the voting age not to 18, but to 14. Fergus is ill-prepared for the onslaught of enthusiasm this idea has with the teens. He reluctantly agrees to compromise and pass a bill that allows this, but to his shock it gets Max elected President and not him. With Max in office things spiral recklessly out-of-control. Hippies take over the senate and pass extreme laws that send anyone over 30 into concentration camps where they are forced fed LSD.

The script by Robert Thom is unabashedly cynical, which is what I liked most about it. It takes no sides. The younger generation is exposed with just as much foibles as the older one. The film never compromises on its dark tone and the bleak scenarios get pushed to the ultimate extreme, but horrifyingly never fall all that far from the truth.

The film’s acerbic humor is refreshingly on-target. Director Barry Shear camouflages the low budget with a quick pace that emphasizes the frailties and reactions of its characters. Holbrook is superb as the idealist who gets a harsh dose of ugly reality that sends him more and more on edge. Shelley Winters is hilarious as Max’s narcissist mother who uses her son’s rise to fame as an opening for her own entrance into the spotlight. She appears sporadically throughout, but manages to own every scene that she is in when she does.

Jones is excellent in the lead and I considered him very much like James Dean both in is looks and acting method. He’s perfect for the role except in close-ups he looks middle-aged as he was already 30, which hurts the theme since anyone over 25 was considered the enemy. Diane Varsi is quite sexy as a flower child and I loved the scene of her first day in congress where she and her radical young followers send the elders in the room into a shocked free-for-all. The film also gives you a glimpse of famous child TV stars in early roles including Barry Williams, famous from playing Greg in ‘The Brady Bunch’ and Kellie Flanagan who went on the play Candice in ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’.

While I was impressed with the bird’s-eye-view of the mob scenes and how many people they were able to get to be a part of the teen protesters I still felt that there should’ve been violence and raw emotion in these sequences in order to have been more effective. The ending makes its point and then gets very heavy-handed and goes on too long repeating the same statement that the audience already got the first time, but overall I really liked this film and felt that now more than ever it’s quite timely.

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My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 29, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes

Rated R

Director: Barry Shear

Studio: American Pictures International

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Visitor (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Her daughter is evil.

Dark forces from another dimension conspire to use an 8-year-old girl named Katy (Paige Conner) as their centerpiece in creating an evil empire on earth. Dr. Walker (Mel Ferrer), while working under the cover of being a noted surgeon, heads the secret organization. He instructs local millionaire Raymond Armstead (Lance Henriksen) who made a pact with the group years earlier in order to receive his fortune, that he must impregnate his girlfriend Barbara (Joanne Nail) again, so that she can give birth to an evil son to complement their already wicked daughter Katy and allow the two to eventually reproduce a new offspring. Barbara though, who does not know of Raymond’s secret pact and feels leery of her child already, is unwilling to have another one, which forces him to use unethical ways to get her to change her mind.

This Italian production, which was filmed in Atlanta, Georgia, has gotten a bad rap from the critics and there have been several different cuts issued with some making more sense than others. For the most part it’s a mixed bag with lots of story loopholes and an ill-advised music score that seems better suited for an NFL highlight reel. The movie also defies any genre and jumps between several, but ultimate fails at all of them.

However, if taken as a cheesy over-the-top production then it’s not half-bad. The camera work, editing, special effects and sets are to a degree impressive. The scene where Glenn Ford’s character is driving down a busy highway only to have his eyes pecked out by an evil hawk, which creates a major road accident that culminates with the car tumbling onto a softball field is quite exciting. Katy’s cat-and-mouse foot chase with the John Huston character through the Atlanta streets and some abandoned buildings is also well done as is her ice skating foray in which she single-handedly takes out a group of much older and bigger boys by sending them flying through the windows of some nearby shops and restaurants.

Conner’s bad girl performance with her angelic face making a perfect contrast to her otherwise dark personality is great. Nail as her mother is equally beautiful and creates enough sympathy from the viewer to make the torment that she goes through unsettling to watch. Shelley Winters, in a rare turn playing a normal, likable character, is also excellent as the family’s housekeeper

The male cast though is wasted including Franco Nero who appears briefly only at the beginning and very end. John Huston and Glenn Ford were too old for their respective parts and casting younger actors in their roles would’ve made more sense, but seeing director Sam Peckinpah in a brief acting bit is fun.

The ending can’t quite equal the audaciousness of the rest of it, but there is enough weird, wacky, one-of-a-kind shit here to keep anyone especially those with an affinity for the bizarre entertained and amused.

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My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: March 22, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated R

Director: Giulio Paradisi

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Poor Pretty Eddie (1975)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Wrong turn to hickville.

Liz Weatherly (Leslie Uggams) was simply looking for a break from her hectic touring schedule and a chance to take some nature photos when her car breaks down on a lonely southern dirt road near an isolated lodge run by an aging, overweight lush (Shelley Winters) and her much younger boyfriend Eddie (Michael Christian). Eddie recognizes Liz as being a famous singer and since he has dreams of that nature as well tries to convince her to help him get his foot-in-the-door, but his talents do not match his ambitions and he fails to impress her. He then delays the repairing of her car hoping to wear her down and work things into a sexual relationship. When she resists this he rapes her and traps her at the remote hotel with no vehicle for escape. When she goes to the police the backwoods sheriff (Slim Pickens) humiliates her further, which crumbles her inner strength and makes her feel like a droid to the perversion around her that ultimately has her forced into a shotgun wedding.

This turgid drama is full of provocative southern gothic elements and wallows in areas that others fear to tread. The creative camerawork and backdrop sounds are impressive especially for a low budget film and the slow motion violence adds an evocative touch that stays with you long after it’s over. The character’s sexual repression gets relayed in an equally interesting way by showing scenes of them sucking and slurping their food like it’s a sexual substitute.

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Prolific character actor Pickens gets one of his best roles as the slimy hick sheriff in a part he seems almost born to play and Dub Taylor is spot-on as a self-imposed backwoods judge who creates a makeshift trial in the middle of his ragtag bar while also amusingly comparing Yankees to hemorrhoids. Ted Cassidy is good as well and makes a strong impression despite having limited lines.

I was not as impressed with the female performances as star Uggams comes off as too cold and one-dimensionally rigid without showing any type of preliminary vulnerability. Winters is competent as always, but playing a lonely, aging, pathetic woman begging for love is too similar to the character that she played in Lolita and making it seem more like typecasting.

The climactic bloody shootout is fun, but ends up being more of a spectacle than anything.  B.W. Sandefur’s script lacks any type of twist, introduces psychological elements that it fails to follow through on and wades in tired southern stereotypes making this a warped piece of ‘70s cinema that falls just short of being a cult classic.

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My Rating: 6 out of 10

Alternate Titles: Redneck County, Heartbreak Hotel, Black Vengeance

Released: June 16, 1975

Runtime: 1Hour 22Minutes

Rated R

Director: Richard Robinson, David Worth

Studio: WestAmerican Films

Available: DVD

The Mad Room (1969)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Children murder their parents.

In 1957 George (Michael Burns) and Mandy (Barbara Sammeth), a brother and sister ages 6 and 4, murder their own parents in cold blood. No one knows for sure which one of them did it except that their older sister Ellen (Stella Stevens) witnessed them standing over their dead bodies in blood soaked clothes. It was her testimony that got them locked away into a mental institution, but now 12 years later they are set free into Ellen’s care. Ellen is now living with and working for wealthy widow Mrs. Armstrong (Shelley Winters) who agrees to allow the children to move in to her sprawling mansion, but then the murders begin to reoccur, but this time Ellen decides to cover up for them in order to avoid the humiliation and publicity.

This film, which is a remake of 1941’s Ladies in Retirement starring Ida Lupino, starts out with a bang by using some interesting visuals during the opening credit sequence. We are also shown flowers finger painted by the children using the dead parent’s blood on the walls of the victim’s bedroom, which I felt sent this thing to unprecedented darker depths especially for its time period. Unfortunately the film cannot sustain its initial momentum and devolves into a talky script that lacks much action or scares. Director Bernard Girard’s stylish direction keeps it watchable, but the film fails to achieve its full potential. Dave Grusin’s excellent music score manages to keep the tension going even when the script can’t.

Stevens looks gorgeous, but unfortunately her acting is sterile. Her wide blue eyes seem to reflect her empty performance and her presence weakens the film. The younger performers who play her brother and sister upstage her particularly Sammeth in her film debut.

I have always loved Winters as a character actress, but her goofy character hurts the dark undertones at least at the beginning. She does improve as it goes along and I enjoyed the way she reacts when Ellen tells her about her sibling’s dark secret and I was disappointed she didn’t remain through the film’s entire duration. Beverly Garland is a scene stealer as an embittered alcoholic wife who makes a big stink at a party and then a little later commits a shocking act.

If there is one thing that really ruins the movie it is the lame, limp ending, which has to be one of the most uneventful finales I have ever seen especially for a thriller. When the credits started to roll I literally did a double-take and asked myself. That’s it?? We just sat through 95 minutes of buildup just for that?? This was also another film where I figured out its twist ending long before it happened and when the ‘surprise’ revelation does come about it is unexciting and even anticlimactic.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: May 1, 1969

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated M

Director: Bernard Girard

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

King of the Gypsies (1978)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Daddy is a psycho

Dave (Eric Roberts) is the rebellious son of Groffo (Jud Hirsch) who no longer wants to be a part of the gypsy clan that he was raised in and instead a part of the American dream. However, when Dave’s grandfather Zharko (Sterling Hayden) lies dying in his hospital bed he gives the coveted medallion to Dave making him the new king of the gypsies. This sends Groffo into a jealous rage and orders two men to go out and kill Dave who now must elude them while trying to get his life together and help get his younger sister Tita (Brooke Shields) out of the clan as well.

Although far from being a complete success the film does manage to have a few unique and even memorable moments. The best is when a young Dave is used as a decoy in an attempt to rob a jewelry store. His mother Rose (Susan Sarandon) pretends to be a customer looking over some diamonds. When Dave creates a ruckus she tries to calm him down by having him drink a glass of water while also having him swallow a diamond that she has discreetly lifted from the display table. They are then able to walk out of the store when the merchants are unable to prove that they stole it only to have Rose later retrieve the jewel when Dave poops it out. Having Groffo put a 10-year-old Dave behind a wheel of a car and drive it down a busy Brooklyn Street is about as nerve-wracking as any car chase I’ve seen. The scene where Groffo tries to physically force Dave to have sex with his own mother is also incredibly startling.

However, despite these few interesting moments the film overall never really gels. The first half showing how the gypsy people live seems a bit clichéd and the way they openly cheat other people in order to make a living makes them unlikable and uninteresting. The only time it ever gets half way compelling is when it shows Dave struggling to survive on the mean streets of New York after he runs away from his psychotic father. Unfortunately this gets ruined when it constantly brings his family and past coming back to haunt him. The cat and mouse game that he plays with his father is not original and Hirsch makes for a very boring villain. He is unable to convey a menacing quality and thus there is never any real tension. The violin soundtrack compliments the gypsy tradition, but eventually becomes annoying.

Roberts is solid in his film debut. His voice-over narration coupled with his raw delivery is effective. Had the film focused solely on him and left out the silly gypsy sub-plot it would have worked much better.

Sarandon gives it some energy and she has the most effective accent. Shields is pretty much wasted and appears in only a handful of scenes. The biggest irony here is that the two played a mother and daughter before in Pretty Baby, which came out just 7 months before this one.

Hayden really seems to be having fun as the bombastic self-proclaimed King Gypsy. Watching him feud at the beginning with Michael V. Gazzo who plays the head of another gypsy clan is somewhat diverting. It is also interesting to see Shelly Winters in a part that has less than three speaking lines. This woman never seemed to ever want to shut up both on-screen and in interviews, so seeing her in a part that allows for so little dialogue is quite a novelty, but she still succeeds with it particularly in the part where she grieves over her dead family members.

It is fun to see a young Danielle Brisebois as well as Matthew Labyoreaux who later went on to play Albert in ‘Little House on the Prairie’. Annie Potts is good in a brief part and Patti LuPone makes her film debut in an uncredited bit.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 20, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated R

Director: Frank Pierson

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video