Tag Archives: Thrillers/Suspense

Marathon Man (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dentist doesn’t use novocain.

            Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a post graduate student at Columbia University and part-time marathon runner who spends a harrowing 48 hours being tortured and terrorized by a sadistic Nazi war criminal. It all starts when his brother Henry ‘Doc’ Levy (Roy Scheider) who works for a secret government organization known as ‘The Division’, secretly tracks Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) a dentist at Auschwitz who has traveled to New York in order to collect a cache of diamonds. When Doc moves in too close Szell stabs him and despite being covered in blood Doc manages to make it all the way to Babe’s apartment before collapsing. Szell fears that Doc might have told Babe something before he died and has his men kidnap Babe where they then tie him to a chair in an abandoned warehouse and Szell tortures him by drilling into his teeth forcing Babe to use his running skills in an effort to escape.

This is an original thriller that stays intriguing and intense throughout. In the first thirty minutes alone the viewer is treated to some interesting and exciting scenarios including watching two elderly men drag racing with each other in their antique cars down a crowded neighborhood street. There is also an exploding baby carriage and an exciting fight sequence where Doc battles an attacker who tries to strangle him from behind with a metal wire. This scene is unique in that it cuts between seeing the action up close as well as viewing it from the point-of-view of an elderly man watching from across the street.

Director John Schlesinger shows visual flair with a variety of camera angles and settings. I particularly liked the part where Doc meets Szell at the red steps statue in the Arco Plaza. Having the climactic showdown between Babe and Szell take place in a pump room at the reservoir in Central Park gives the sequence added energy and distinction. I also enjoyed Babe’s cramped, drab, and cluttered apartment that had a very lived-in look and resembled exactly what a bachelor pad with someone on a low income would look like. The scene taking place at a country house is memorable simply for its extreme remoteness. I was disappointed though that although Schlesinger does a great job in setting up the atmosphere of the scene by doing a long shot looking out at the barren landscape the weather suddenly goes from cloudy to sunny in the minute it takes for the bad guy’s car to pull up the driveway. I realize certain scenes are sometimes shot over several days and this is not the first movie to have sudden weather changes during outdoor shots, but it is distracting nonetheless.

The infamous torture scene didn’t work for me. I appreciated the set-up especially the prolonged way that Szell plugs the drill into a wall outlet while talking to Babe in a calm tone. Constantly asking Babe the question ‘Is it safe?” has become a classic line and the fact that the dental torture gets extended when you think it is over is well done. Still, it didn’t seem violent enough and although pain is implied I didn’t think that the viewer really ‘feels’ it. I wanted more shots from Babe’s point of view especially as Szell sticks his metal instruments into Babe’s mouth. A close-up of Babe’s tooth and seeing the drill touch it would have helped as well. Also, Babe needs to scream in pain a lot more, he does it once briefly, but someone going through that would be doing it constantly.  Apparently the producer’s cut out portions of this scene when it upset the test audiences who saw it, but I would like that footage put back in as I feel it would make the movie stronger and give it an added kick that otherwise is missing.

Olivier is tremendous in the villainous role. His face exudes evil and this is one of his best later career roles. Scheider has his best role here and I found Marthe Keller impressive as Babe’s girlfriend. She wears an attractive hairstyle and I couldn’t get over how diametrically opposite she was compared to her character in Black Sunday that was done the very same year. She is definitely an under-rated actress that deserves more accolades as well as more parts in American productions. However, the way Babe pursues her for a date seemed to border on ‘creepy’  and overly aggressive and act as a turn-off to most women.

The film does seem derivative at certain points especially the way it portrays New York as an urban hellhole, which was quite common during the 70’s. The fact that Babe avoids confrontation and is picked on by a Hispanic gang that lives across the street seemed too reminiscent of Hoffman’s earlier film Straw Dogs. There are several flashback sequences showing Babe as a child that is done with faded color and no dialogue and look too similar to the childhood sequences done in Midnight Cowboy, which was an earlier Schlesinger/Hoffman project. Hoffman, for what it is worth, gives another one of his dedicated performances, but this film really does show in glaring detail how very puny he is and I really could have done without having to see his naked rear.

The electronic score is nice and the part where Szell gets recognized by an elderly concentration camp survivor on a busy city sidewalk and who then begins to chase after him is memorable. However, when it is all over I still felt it didn’t completely click. I’m not sure what it is. I know the ending was changed from the one in the book, but I liked this one better and felt Babe’s revenge on Szell was creative. Although controversial and edgy for its time, the torture scene seems too toned down for today’s standards. Either way, if you are looking for a competent and entertaining thriller this should fit the bill, but it is not a classic.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 8, 1976

Runtime: 2Hours 5Minutes

Rated R: (Violence, Language, Adult Theme, Brief Nudity)

Director: John Schlesinger

Studio: Paramount

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

The Nanny (1965)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kid doesn’t like nanny.

            Bette Davis plays a nanny to an upper-class British family whose oldest son Joey (William Dix) is accused of accidently killing his younger sister. Joey, who is only 10, is sent away to a home for disturbed children. When he returns he accuses the nanny as the one who did the killing and a psychological game of cat-and-mouse ensues.

Davis is sensational. She plays a type of character that she has never done before and the results are fascinating. She is much more subdued and evasive than usual and she falls into the role of the unassuming nanny in a seamless fashion. The different setting works well for her and I commend her tenacity for taking on a project that was not glamorous. She even puts on some thick eyebrows for her part and at times, especially at the beginning, she starts to resemble her most hated rival Joan Crawford.

Dix is amazingly good as the kid and it is a shame that he did only one other picture after this one. I liked the independent nature of the character and he plays off Davis quite well and showed no signs of being intimated by her. Making the adversaries have such extreme age difference and personalities gives the story an interesting edge that helps carry the picture.

The evocative black and white photography helps accentuate the dark-tone. The British setting along with the expected formalities of that culture, particularly that from the father character Bill (James Villers) give the film some distinction.

The first act though goes on way too long. We are given the general premise right up front and then have to spend the whole first hour going through the scenario that Joey doesn’t like his nanny and is suspicious of her again and again until it becomes derivative. When the second act does finally come about it seems too late. The revelation isn’t all that clever or creative and the climactic sequence desperately needed more action and punch. The final result is unsatisfying. The viewer is given an intriguing premise that it can’t sustain to the end ultimately making this a misfire despite the outstanding presence of Davis and some high production values.

There is also the issue of the three-year-old girl who is adorable and an absolute scene stealer and yet right up front you are made aware that she is killed, which makes the proceedings rather depressing. Having to then watch her actual death is disturbing and, for its time period, rather vivid and startling.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 27, 1965

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated: NR (Not Rated)

Director: Seth Holt

Studio: Hammer Productions

Available: DVD

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: She is all alone.

Rynn (Jodie Foster) is a 13-year-old girl living alone in a big house in the countryside. Her father has leased the place for three years from nosy landlady Mrs. Hallet (Alexis Smith) and her adult son Frank (Martin Sheen) who continually makes lecherous advances towards Rynn. No one has seen her father and when anyone asks for him she comes up with excuses, which starts to make everyone in town suspicious. She meets fellow teen Mario (Scott Jacoby) who she lets in on her secret and the two devise a plan that will rid them of the meddlesome Hallets.

Although she has stated in interviews that this is the least favorite out of all the movies that she has done I can’t think of anyone more perfect for the part of an independent headstrong young woman than Foster, who has always carried that persona. Despite the vast age difference she easily carries the picture from her older co-stars. There is even a nude scene involving her character although it was done by her older sister Connie working as a body double. This was done despite her adamant protests as was a scene where she goes to bed with Jacoby, which she has said made her extremely uncomfortable and probably explains her dislike for the film.

Sheen is menacing as the perverted Frank, who enjoys ‘younger girls’ and his ongoing banter and advances with Rynn is consistently creepy and tense. Alexis Smith is excellent as the mother and her worn face and attitude gives her a witchy presence and it is too bad she couldn’t have remained for the entire movie. I also found Jacoby engaging and amiable and I really enjoyed his character, which I found a bit surprising since he is best known for playing dark, sinister characters in Rivals and the TV-movie Bad Ronald.

The on-location shooting, which was done in both the Canadian province of Quebec and in Maine, is excellent and gives one a nice taste of small town life on the east coast. There is some nice synthesized music that gives the film a dark tone. The premise is offbeat and to some extent, at least during the first half, it is enough to keep you intrigued.

My main issue with the film is the fact that not enough happens. Almost all the action takes place in the main room of the house, which eventually becomes dull, especially visually. There are no scares, or shocks and the twists aren’t all that clever, or surprising. In fact the final twist I saw coming long before it happens. There are times when cutaways would have been helpful and spiced things up particularly when Rynn talks about a visit from her mother and her ‘long red finger nails’, which we never see and is just described. The conclusion leaves A LOT of unanswered questions making this thing empty and incomplete. The final shot is one very long take of a close-up of Foster staring at a subject while the credits role by, which eventually becomes annoying and it would have been better had they done a freeze-frame instead of forcing her to sit and stare at something way longer than humanely possible. Also, composer Mort Shulman is badly miscast as the policeman. His acting abilities are clearly limited and he shows no presence or authority and makes the scenes he is in weak.

It is hard to know what genre to put this in. It is really not scary and the mystery angle has too many loopholes to being taken seriously. The story, based on a novel by Laird Koenig, seems rather tame despite some dark elements and geared more for teens, or young adults.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1976

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Rated PG (Brief Nudity, Mild Cursing)

Director: Nicholas Gessner

Studio: American International

Available:  VHS, DVD, Netflix Streaming

Still of the Night (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: This teddy bear bleeds.

Successful psychiatrist Sam Rice (Roy Scheider) finds himself immersed in a tangled web of murder and deceit. One of his patients, wealthy art dealer George Bynum (Josef Sommar), is found murdered. A mysterious woman named Brooke Reynolds (Meryl Streep) visits him and states that she was George’s mistress and Sam suspects that she may be the killer. He tries to do his own investigation, but the police start to doggedly tail him thinking he may know more than what he is letting on.

This was yet another homage to Alfred Hitchcock, this time done by writer/director Robert Benton, who is an excellent filmmaker in his own right.  This one has all of the style, but none of the substance.  The concept is slickly handled, but it misses Hitch’s flair as well as his wry sense of humor.

Normally I have never been too impressed with Scheider as a leading man.  He has always seemed transparent and his range of characters as well as emotions that he can convey are limited. Here though, as an evasive middle-man, his acting abilities work quite well and I actually found him perfect for the part.

Streep does not fare as well.  Her acting is almost always impressive and I admire her prolific career, but this is one of her few roles that takes no advantage of her talents. She seems to have an almost ghost-like presence. I didn’t find her character to be compelling, nor intriguing. I had no interest in her fate nor her relationship with Rice.

Joe Grifasi was a poor choice as the lead investigator Joseph Vitucci. He showed none of the characteristics of a seasoned police detective and looked and acted more like a disheveled kid just out of college. The rest of the supporting cast is dull and cardboard. It would have been nice if one eccentric character had been put in to liven things up.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the whole movie is a nightmare segment that the George character has that comes in the middle of the story. I liked some of the creepy imagery that was used including a bleeding stuffed teddy bear. I also enjoyed how afterwards Sam debates the dreams meaning with his mother Grace (Jessica Tandy) who also has a background in psychology, but I thought it was a bit of a stretch when she suggests he go to the police about it as dreams can be interpreted in many different ways and hold no relevancy in a court of law. I thought it became even more far-fetched when at the end Sam uses some of the symbolism in the dream to figure out the identity of the killer.

The film has a few plot holes and certain things that just don’t add up.  Some of the ones that hit me was when Brooke talks about seeing George off in a cab that night and then the next morning reading in the papers that he had been murdered, which is preposterous.  Most newspapers go to press between ten and midnight, the dead body might not yet have even been discovered until later that day, or even a few days later. There is also a segment where Sam makes a $15,000 purchase on a painting he doesn’t even want at an auction simply so he can use it as an excuse to write a note on the bidding card warning Brooke that the police are after her. Also, when Sam does not find Brooke at her apartment her friend tells him that she is at her parent’s house in some town called Glen Cove, but she is not sure of the street name and yet Sam is able to find the place in the middle of the night with hardly any effort. Also, I found some of the conversations that George has with Sam during their sessions to be unintentionally funny.

There is enough intrigue to keep you somewhat interested, but the result is mild. I did like the idea of building the tension up through slow subtle means instead of the quick shocks that you see done in a modern suspense movie, but it is still slow going. The music played over the opening credits is more suited for a romance and does nothing to create the right mood for a thriller. The lighting in literally every shot is dark and shadowy, which certainly helps with the atmosphere, but after a while it gets to be too much. I was also not impressed with the climactic sequence. The protagonist is too helpless and defenseless and does not fight back, which severely limits the action. Having it occur at an ocean-side house does create a nice ambience, but the chase that is involved there could have been more extended and the camerawork during the segment is unimaginative.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: November 19, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Benton

Studio: MGM/UA

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Venom (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kidnappers versus deadly snake.

            Phillip Hopkins (Lance Holcomb) is an 8-year old boy and son of a wealthy couple. When his parents leave for a trip the family’s maid and chauffeur (Susan George, Oliver Reed) conspire to kidnap the boy and hold him for a ransom with the help of a ruthless gunman (Klaus Kinski).  Unbeknownst to any of them the boy has mistakenly acquired a black mamba snake that escapes from his cage. As the culprits try to pull off their crime they become trapped in the house by the deadly reptile that starts to attack them one-by-one.

For starters the cast is one of a kind. Besides the performers listed above the film also has Sarah Miles as a Dr. with a serum to help fight the snake’s poisonous venom. Nicol Williamson appears as the police negotiator and Sterling Hayden, in his last film role, plays the boy’s grandfather.  How anyone could manage to direct a cast with such legendarily huge egos and eccentric personalities seems hard to fathom and probably explains why original director Tobe Hooper left the production after only ten days of shooting and was replaced by Piers Haggard. Supposedly Reed and Kinski were at odds with each other during the entire production and their animosity clearly shows on screen. For the most part the talents of the cast is wasted with a script that is limited and filled with characterizations that allow for no range.

I did like Hayden in the scene where he is forced to go searching for the snake in a darkened room and armed with nothing more than a lamp and a makeshift weapon. George is also fun playing a duplicitous character for a change and I was disappointed that she gets killed off so soon. However, she does make the most of it with a very theatrical death scene. Probably the best performance in the whole film is that of the boy. He has a very sweet, young looking face and the widest most innocent pair of blue eyes you’ll ever see and the kind that most casting directors would kill for. The kid plays the frightened part well and does an effective asthma attack. He hasn’t done much since, but I am sure that if he wrote a book dealing with his experiences on the set and his interactions with that cast that if would most assuredly be a best-seller.

The set-up is good and I found myself riveted to it for the first half-hour. I liked the idea that an actual mamba snake was used. There is a part where the snake is slithering towards the camera and opens its wide, black mouth and hisses straight at the camera, which could be enough to get most viewers to jump out of their seat. Director Haggard uses the novel idea of shooting scenes from the snake’s point-of-view and he does it through a fuzzy and slightly distorted lens to help replicate the snake’s vision. The only problem I had in this area is that the snake is seen slithering throughout the picture inside the home’s venting system, which is shown to be very clean and spotless, which didn’t make sense to me since the home was old making me think that the metal piping would be more corroded and rusted.

Despite the excellent concept the film’s second hour is quite boring. The characters don’t have enough to do and spend most of the time standing around. The interplay between Kinski and Williamson brings no tension. There is one cringe inducing scene where the snake crawls up Reed’s pant leg, but overall the scares are quite sparse. The climatic sequence is too convenient and becomes more of a disappointment then a shock. It is hard to say if the film would have been better if Hooper had stayed on or not. Reportedly none of the footage that he shot is in the final cut. The film is based on a novel by Alan Scholefield, which I suspect is probably more intriguing and after watching this makes me interested in reading it.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: January 29, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R (Mature Theme, Violence, Language) 

Studio: Paramount

Director: Piers Haggard

Available: DVD

The Bedroom Window (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: What did she see?

Terry Lambert (Steve Guttenberg) is having an affair with Sylvia (Isabelle Huppert) the wife of his boss. The two go back to his apartment one night after an office party to engage in sex. In the middle of the night Terry gets up to go to the bathroom and this is when Sylvia is awakened by a scream coming from outside the bedroom window.  She goes to the window and sees a young woman struggling with a man on the sidewalk. When Sylvia opens the window the man runs away and by the time Terry gets there everyone is gone. The next day Terry reads in the paper about a similar murder to a woman that occurred later that night just a couple of blocks down the street. He is convinced there is a connection and that he should report the incident that Sylvia saw. In order to keep the affair a secret he decides to act as the witness and simply relay whatever Sylvia told him. However, in classic Hitchcock style things quickly spiral out of control and Terry soon finds himself in deep trouble.

Overall, this film is highly entertaining from beginning to end and a terrific Hitchcock imitation that should please even his devotees. However, Guttenberg as the lead seemed, at least initially, to be a poor choice.  The guy has always seemed very bland to me and has never shown any real type of strong onscreen presence. I could not buy into the idea that this guy would be cocky and shrewd enough to have sex with his boss’s wife right under his boss’s nose as Guttenberg seems to convey a very wide-eyed persona and looks like someone who is still in puberty and speaks in a high pitched voice. I did soften my stance on this as the story progressed simply because it would take an extraordinarily naïve person to get themselves into the mess that this character does and in that regard Guttenberg fits the bill perfectly.

His two female costars outshine him badly. Huppert is excellent as usual and may very well be one of the top five actresses alive today. I loved how her character starts out as kind and supportive, but eventually devolves into being cold and conniving. Huppert of course pulls this off almost effortlessly. She also looks great naked and has a pretty good nude scene, both front and back, when she is shown looking out the window.

Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Denise the waitress that Sylvia sees getting attacked, does a fine job as well. As Terry gets more involved with the case the two start to hook-up and end up making, dare I say, a cute couple. I did not like McGovern’s overly heavy Eastern accent that sounded too Bostonian to me even though the story takes place in Baltimore.

Bald, eccentric character actor Wallace Shawn, best known for his roles in My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street is terrific as the defense attorney. His clever cross-examining of Terry during the courtroom scene is a classic.

Curtis Hanson’s direction and script is what really makes this thing gel. The story is based off of a novel by Anne Holden and it manages to stay plausible and believable throughout. The direction is compact without the unnecessary flamboyance that can sometimes take away from the action. The pacing is good as it grabs you right away and holds you in throughout without any slow spots. The twists are well plotted and for the most part surprising. I also thought his recreating of a bar atmosphere at both the trendy nightclub and later at a small neighborhood pub was right on target. I liked that the story took place in Baltimore because outside of John Waters that seems to be a forgotten city in most movies. Hanson uses this setting to make some nice directorial touches like having a bar called The Nevermore with a mural of Edgar Allen Poe and there is even shot of a birthday cake with icing made to look like a raven.

Kevin Williamson is set to do a remake of this film and I will be intrigued to see it. Not that this version was bad because it certainly wasn’t, but a bigger budget and a better male lead could help improve what is already a sound plot.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: January 16, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated R

Director: Curtis Hanson

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Black Sunday (1977)

(In celebration of the Superbowl coming to Indianapolis, which is also the headquarters to Scopophilia, movies about football, or ones that have football as their theme, will be reviewed all this week and through Superbowl Sunday.)

By Richard Winters

My Rating:  6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blimp wrecks the Superbowl

            Based on the Thomas Harris novel this film involves a female terrorist named Dahlia (Marthe Keller) working for a group called Black September. She plans on killing thousands of people at the Superbowl with the help of a blimp captain named Michael Lander (Bruce Dern), who is also a disgruntled Vietnam vet. As they are putting their plan into place their compound is attacked by an Israeli anti-terrorist group headed by Major David Kabakov (Robert Shaw). He decides not to kill Dahlia when he has the chance, but they confiscate all of their materials including a tape recording by Dahlia talking about a massive terrorist attack planned on U.S. soil in the near future.  Kabakov gives this information to the F.B.I. and they go on the offensive trying to track down what their operation is, as the details are vague, before they can pull it off.

Overall, as a spy thriller, the film is pretty good. I had to chuckle a little at the fact that the government takes the vague threats seriously and acts so swiftly based simply on an obscure tape recording when in real-life our government was warned long before the 9-11 attacks that a terrorist plot was being planned, but did nothing because they didn’t think it was possible. It would be nice to think that the government could one day act as semi-efficiently as it does in films.

There are indeed some memorable moments. One includes Kabakov shoving his gun down the throat of a suspect (Michael V. Gazzo) and giving him a very terse ultimatum ‘Blink for yes; die for no’. There is also an exciting well-choreographed shoot-out chase that starts out in a hotel lobby, goes through the streets and alley ways of the city, and ends up on the ocean beach. Another twisted moment is when Dahlia and Michael go to an isolated hanger in the Mojave Desert to try out a gadget that can supposedly shoot thousands of bullets in a single shot. The image of seeing all the tiny holes created on the wall of the shed from the bullets is cool enough that I was willing to overlook the fact that the wooden beams that crisscrossed the same wall were untouched. This scene also has a good bit of black humor when one of the employees of the hanger, who thinks the machine is a camera, and stands in front of it smiling only to have hundreds of bullets go slicing through him.

Shaw is excellent in the lead although it took me awhile to adjust to him in that type of role simply because he has played so many dark characters so well that it was hard to see him as a good guy. I liked that the character is human and admits to his mistakes, namely to the fact that he doesn’t kill Dahlia when he first has the chance. He also professes doubts about himself and his career, which adds to his multi-dimension. He tends to lean towards rogue tactics when forced, which helped reflect the brutal nature of the business that he was in. Certain lines that the character says are made memorable by Shaw’s dialect and tone that probably no other actor in the part could have done quite as well. I was also amazed at the incredible run he does during the game when he races down several flights of stairs and across the entire football field, which almost becomes a highlight in itself. I know the actor suffered from a weak heart and ended up dying from a heart attack just a year after this film came out, but I was almost surprised that he didn’t fall over from one right there.

Keller is great as the female adversary. Her American acting career never really took off, but that still doesn’t mean that she isn’t a strong actress. Her expression when she is caught in the shower with a gun pointing at her is priceless. I liked how initially she is portrayed as the ‘sane’ one in relation to the Dern character, but by the end it becomes quite clear that she is probably more evil and crazier than he could ever be. Her fight with Michael inside his house when they fear that their intricate plot may be falling apart is definitely her finest stuff.

Dern of course is an exceptional actor whose unique style and odd intensity make him a joy to watch even if the script is poor.  He is certainly well cast here, but I wished he was given more screen time and latitude as I don’t think his talents where given quite enough justice. His best moment maybe the long rant he has during one of his counseling sessions at the V.A. Medical center.

The film’s weakest point is what should’ve been its strongest, which is the segment involving the blimp barreling into the stadium. The set-up is perfect and consists of the some dazzling aerial photography and good up close footage of the football game. However, the actual blimp attack is highly compromised.  For one thing the edits are quick making it hard to follow. A much smaller blimp was used in the long shots and in the scenes where the spectators are running scared onto the field director Frankenheimer put the front end of the blimp onto a crane, which looks tacky and obvious. The blimp’s explosion is fake and when it was all over I felt disappointed. The film’s promotional items, including the film poster as seen above, promised this spectacular event, but then doesn’t come through. It almost makes one feel cheated and ruins the movie’s other good points.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: March 11, 1977

Runtime: 2Hours 23Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Frankenheimer

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Wait Until Dark (1967)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: They want the doll.

Horror writer Stephan King, in his non-fiction book ‘Dance Macabre’, lists Wait Until Dark as the scariest movie ever made and Alan Arkin as one of the scariest film villains. Of course that is a statement that could be wildly debated, but as a thriller it is very well structured with a original storyline, a fantastic heroine, and a terrific climatic sequence that still rates as one of the best.

The film is based on the hit Broadway play by Frederick Knott and follows that script very closely.  It centers on a recently blinded woman named Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) who accidently acquires a doll filled with heroin and then becomes terrorized by the three drug dealers (Alan Arkin, Jack Weston, Richard Crenna) when they come to retrieve it. Trapped in her small apartment by the three men with her phone line cut off, she decides her only possible recourse is to smash all the light bulbs and then, in the pitch blackness, use her handicap to her advantage and try to escape.

Normally stage plays transferred to film don’t usually work too well namely because all the action takes place in one setting, which eventually creates visual boredom, but here this becomes an asset.  As the story progresses the viewer begins to feel claustrophobic and as entrapped as Susy as well as successfully tapping into the fear of isolation. The lighting is also impressive.  It may not be something one consciously thinks about, but good lighting can really help accentuate a film’s mood and style, which it does here.  I enjoyed the interesting color schemes and the contrasts between light and shadows that becomes more apparent as it goes along.

Of course the element that really makes this film special is the fantastic performance of Hepburn, which I consider to be her best.  She was nominated for the Academy Award and she should have won it.  She displays just the right level of emotions, which creates empathy from the viewer almost immediately. Her reactions as well as the fear and panic that she shows are very convincing. Arkin, as the villain, tends to get a little too flashy and hammy. I felt Hepburn easily out performed him and everyone else. The film just would not have been as good had anyone else played the part.  This also marks her career pinnacle as she went on a nine year sabbatical after this and when she did finally return, the films she did weren’t all too great.

I also like Julie Herrod as the child named Gloria who lives upstairs and becomes a very crucial link to the story.  So many movies portray children as either total brats, or overly wide-eyed innocents solely put on this planet to say cute and amusing things on cue.  Here the balance is just right and so believable she will remind you of kids that you know in real life as it certainly did with me.  She is sneaky and precocious at certain times, but also genuinely helpful and concerned at others, just like adults are.  The line she says to the Hepburn character just before she runs out to find help is a gem.

The climatic sequence still ranks as one of the best.  The clever ways that this petite, handicapped woman manages to outwit the brutal thugs are classic.  The viewer also gets the satisfaction of seeing the character grow and find an inner strength that she didn’t even know she had. It also features a very well staged scare/shock that sent viewers jumping out of their seats when it was first released and still does today as evidenced by the other people who watched the film with me and all screamed out loud when it happened.

As with any film released 40 years ago, there are some dated qualities that do hurt it.  Some of the ‘tough guy’ talk between the thugs seems a bit stilted.  The film was released a year before the ratings system took effect, so there is no cursing, but a little bit of it would have helped make it more authentic.  It would have also been a little more gritty had the bad guys actually carried guns instead of the brass knuckles and silly looking knives.  Air travelers of today will also be shocked at just how easily it was for people to get through airports in the old days.

However, even with these few weaknesses I still feel this film is a pretty solid, compact thriller that can be used as a blueprint for all other thrillers to follow.  There is also the excellent music score by Henry Mancini that is really creepy although the song played over the closing credits should have been avoided.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: October 26, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Terence Young

Studio: Warner Brothers

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

Body Double (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sex through a telescope.

During the 70’s and 80’s director Brian DePalma, a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, made a lot of stylized thrillers using many of Hitchcock’s trademark devices.  He even storyboarded every shot that he did just like Hitch. Unfortunately a lot of these films had rather flimsy plots and characters and were over-directed, drowning out what little story there was. DePalma tried so hard to imitate Hitch that he ended up showing no original vision himself and made the viewer crave even more at seeing a genuine Hitchcock film.  This film, which I first saw when it was released 26 years ago, I felt was the best of DePalma’s Hitchcock imitations. Upon viewing it a second time many years later I found a lot more holes despite one clever twist and some good camerawork.

The story is about Jack Scully (Craig Wasson) who is a struggling out of work actor who is offered a place to stay by a man named Sam (Gregg Henry). The house is a very modernistic place looking almost like the Space Needle in Seattle.  Jack is offered the home on condition that he takes care of the place while Sam is away on business.  During his stay Jack becomes obsessed with the attractive neighbor lady named Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) who he watches through a telescope.  She does an erotic dance in her bedroom each night at the same time while wearing a revealing negligee. The dance itself is not real exciting and would probably bore most people after a minute or two, but Jack becomes hooked on it and watches it endlessly night after night.  Eventually he starts following the woman around during the daytime and even tries to start up a relationship with her. He also begins to notice another man, who is very creepy looking, is also following her and eventually he witnesses him murdering her, but Jack becomes convinced there is more to it.  With the help of a porn star named Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), who he meets along the way, the two set out to try and solve the mystery.

Wasson makes for an incredibly weak male lead. This helps somewhat because the character is very weak, but it is hard for the viewer to relate or care about him.  His best scenes come during his endless auditions and rather thankless treatment he receives from directors, producers, and acting coaches.  These are one of the few scenes that the film gets right as it hits the nail right on the head showing just how degrading working as a low paid, nameless actor can be in Hollywood. The porn star character is also weak as she is too cliched and predictable making her more annoying than anything despite the fact that Griffith plays the part pretty well.  The character was based on real-life porn star Annette Haven who gets listed in the credits as a ‘technical advisor’. I did like Gregg Henry though who makes for a great sleazy villain as well as Dennis Franz in a small, comic relief type role as a brash, stressed-out B-movie director.

The film also has a lot of rather implausible elements that prevents the viewer from getting as involved in it as they should. One of the biggest ones is when Jack sees Holly Body performing in a adult video that he has rented and becomes convinced that she may be connected to the case when he sees her do the same type of dance that the neighbor lady did, so in order to meet up with her he auditions as the male lead in her next X-rated production. Now I’m not completely sure how casting in these productions work, but having some guy with no experience starring and having sex with the industry’s biggest female star at the time seems to be a bit of a stretch. I would also think that a guy who was not used to having sex in front of the camera and with everyone staring at him might get nervous and be unable to ‘perform’ especially in what was still the pre-Viagra age.

The porn scenes themselves aren’t too interesting, or exciting.  This industry is no longer quite as underground, or taboo as it once was, so the shock factor is gone.  The characters and situations are handled in such a placid way that the viewer is given no real insight into the business, or the people who work in it.  The industry has evolved a lot in the past twenty-five years, so the scenes here become irrelevant.

There were a few things that I did like.  The scenes where Jack follows Gloria around in the shopping mall are pretty well handled despite the fact that I think they could have had a little more action here and there also needed to be more customers in the background.  However, the bird’s eye view, which is another patented Hitchcock type shot, showing Jack following Gloria around who is also being followed by the killer is good.  This part also features the one definitive moment from the film that I remembered after all these years.  It involves Gloria throwing away her old panties when she buys some new ones and then having Jack fish through the garbage, retrieve the panties, and put them in his pocket as a sort of ‘souvenir’.

Some of the shots during the actual murder are also really innovative especially the way the camera captures the giant drill, which is the killer’s weapon.  Probably the best shot of the entire film occurs when the killer drives the drill into the victim, which then goes through her body as well as the floorboards and then pops out of the ceiling from the floor below.  Yes, it is rather gory, but I still thought it was a really cool shot anyways.  I also thought the innovative design to the house that Jack stays in had potential, but I wished they had shown a little more of the place from different angles and given us more of a feel of the inside instead of having all the action occur in just one room.

Overall the film is slick, but very shallow and superficial.  The neighbor lady especially seems like a male fantasy.  DePalma gets too hyper with the camera.  I really don’t like his ‘spinning camera’ shots.  He spun it around Jack and Gloria as they kissed and it was tacky and cliched.  Once, in the film Blow Out, he spun the camera around so much in one scene that it started to actually make me feel dizzy and nauseous. The film has a scene during the closing credits showing how a body double is used during a film production, which is amusing and interesting, but a bit out of place for a thriller.  You walk away from the movie wondering how much more entertaining it could have been had Hitchcock himself been able to direct it.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 26, 1984

Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes

Rated R

Director: Brian De Palma

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD (Special Widescreen Edition), Amazon Instant Video

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