Road Games/Dead and Buried/Hell Night

November 28, 2010

Horror-film fans, weary of the numbing dreck that quick-buck artists have cranked out in recent years, may be in for a modest surprise when they see Road Games. This intelligent thriller, shot in Australia, relies almost entirely on suggested rather than explicit violence.

A lonely truck driver (Stacy Keach) is carting a load of slaughtered pork across the Australian desert. He recites poetry, plays the mandolin, and shares bad puns with his pet dingo, Boswell. Gradually he begins to suspect that a fellow highway traveler is the perpetrator of a series of brutal hitchhiker murders.

Keach picks up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) out of protectiveness and personal curiosity, and they proceed to carry on a duel of wits and wheels with the presumptive killer.

An intriguing element in these road games is that we’re clued in early that Keach is exhausted, and as the suspect becomes increasingly devious, we begin to wonder (along with Keach) whether Keach is losing his sanity. Director Richard Franklin (of the award-winning Australian horror film Patrick) underscores this by having Keach’s usually cheery soliloquies answered in voice-over by his own fevered words.

The movie takes on the quality of a dream, with peripheral characters reappearing in the unlikeliest circumstances. There’s one scene that is like a classic frustration dream: The killer abducts a victim and drives off while Keach watches helplessly a few hundred feet away, where he’s been forced to stop his truck. Another good suspense scene involves—no kidding—a walk down rows of hanging pork in the back of a refrigerated truck.

The case doesn’t need overstating; Road Games is no masterpiece. But don’t let the lurid ad campaign fool you—it’s a cut above today’s average horror fare.

Dead and Buried is pretty much today’s average horror fare, but it benefits from a wild central plot that sets it apart from a basic adolescent-slasher flick: Horrible murders are performed (and recorded on film) so that a madman may artfully reconstruct the disfigured dead and build his own army of zombies. All this fun takes plays in a sleepy resort town, Potter’s Bluff, where the town motto is “A New Way of Life.”

It’s become obvious that a subgenre of horror films mainly exists as an excuse to invent spectacularly grotesque makeup effects, like those in Maniac and Friday the 13th. Dead and Buried is explicitly about the process of makeup—making the dead look alive—so it’s very frank about lingering over some of the more grisly moments. The quality of the makeup ranges from gross-but-pretty-good to plain lousy.

The film also gives clench-jawed James Farentino the chance to let loose a couple of healthy screams, and the presence of the late Jack Albertson lends an eerie tone to speeches about the living dead.

The title Hell Night unwittingly, but conveniently, describes sitting through this grade-Z shocker. It’s the tale of an initiation ceremony that requires four fraternity/sorority pledges to spend the night in an abandoned spooky mansion. Seems that some years before, the family crazies that lived in the house had been massacred by one of their own, and legend has it the surviving lunatic may still be lurking around the place.

Of course he’s still lurking around the place, and soon the kids are dropping like flies, which corresponds to the level of humanity they’re treated with by the filmmakers. One of the boys (whom we have been led to believe is smart) suddenly decides he should go after the hulking maniac in the dark cellar with a pitchfork. It’s the beginning of about five minutes of the dullest would-be suspense in cinema history.

Poor Linda Blair is still being preyed upon, though rather than being possessed, as she was in The Exorcist, she seems bored for the duration of Hell Night. There is no reason whatsoever to blame her for this.

First published in the Seattle Times, May 18, 1982.

This was my first review for the Seattle Times, which means I’ll never forget my excitement at buying some copies on the day it came out. Won’t forget the disappointment, either: an editor had done what some editors do, which is tinker just enough with word choice and rhythm to muck up my stuff. I recall only one specific change, which was my word “dreck” being replaced by “junk” in the first sentence. So I restore the original here: nyah-nyah. (You don’t forget these kinds of things, folks.) I did a few reviews when Times reviewer John Hartl would go on vacation, and then I started writing reviews at the Herald, a Washington Post-owned daily in Everett, Washington. I did a summer on the TV desk at the Times, too, after which they contracted amnesia about me. As for the movies, Road Games is the real deal, Dead and Buried seems to have an appreciative following today, and Hell Night is still to be avoided.

Invasion U.S.A.

November 28, 2010

Those pesky Russians are at it again—you’d think they’d learned from Red Dawn that you can’t invade these United States and expect to get away with it. But, sure enough, that’s exactly what they try in the flammably titled Invasion U.S.A.

Actually, this film is reluctant to pin the source of the invasion directly on the Soviet government. The invasion force seems to be a KGB-inspired mercenary effort, launched at Miami from Cuba—sort of a Bay of Pigs in reverse.

The big problem with these Russians, who are led by a vodka-swigging psycho named Rostov, is that they chose a city that happens to be the home of Chuck Norris, former martial-arts champion and latest two-fisted, low-budget pretender to Clint Eastwood’s throne.

Chuck is living a peaceful existence in the Everglades, hog-tying alligators and watching the sweat form on his brow, when the invaders hit. He’s particularly miffed because this fellow Rostov is an old nemesis from Chuck’s former life as a spy, or a CIA agent, or whatever he was (the movie likes mysteriousness).

When the scarlet horde moves ashore and starts attacking school buses, churches and (the unthinkable) a shopping mall, Chuck leaps into action and machine-guns ’em all away.

There should be enough carnage here to satisfy hard-core Norrisphiles, although the picture is a comedown after last spring’s Code of Silence, which was actually a pretty good action movie. It gets off to a slow start and, except for the shoot-out in the shopping mall, has some dead patches.

This is Chuck’s fourth film in the last 12 months, and he shows no signs of stopping—he even found time to co-write the screenplay to Invasion U.S.A. That his productivity is so high will either be welcome or depressing news, depending on your enthusiasm for his brand of entertainment. One thing is sure: It can’t be good news for enemies of the free world.

First published in the Herald, 1985.

Gee, I should have name-checked the actor who plays Rostov: Richard Lynch, the fearsome-looking, hard-working villain. Obviously this was a heady era for Chuck-heads, but Norris’s prolific output is one of the reasons I look back on the Eighties with such a Did-that-really-happen? feeling.

Rambo: First Blood Part II

November 28, 2010

Jesus Christ, it's Rambo.

The sequel to Sylvester Stallone’s smash First Blood is here, and it must be noted that the new film is superior to the original, if only because it is even more single-minded and uncluttered than the first orgy of violence.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (I figured they wouldn’t call it Second Blood) continues the adventures of John Rambo, a soul-dead Vietnam vet who is the muscle-bound personification of a fighting machine. He laid waste to most of British Columbia in First Blood.

In Part II, he’s tapped by an Army higher-up (Richard Crenna, repeating his role from the original) to take a secret mission back into Vietnam (the movie was filmed in Mexico). This time, Rambo is to find a prisoner-of-war camp with American GIs, collect photographic proof that they’re still there, and bring the pictures back. That’s all.

Rambo finds the camp. And, being an excitable fellow, he decides he doesn’t like photography. He grabs one of the prisoners and hauls him away to the Army pick-up point.

Then: a double-cross. Turns out the big cheese in charge of the mission (Charles Napier) actually wants the mission to fail, so that the books can be closed once and for all on the POW question. The presence of prisoners distresses him, and he yanks the rescue effort—leaving Rambo at the mercy of the Viet Cong and their Russian allies.

When Rambo finds out he’s been crossed—well, stand back and duck. Stallone shifts into high sneer and the carnage becomes widespread.

It’s hokey and manipulative, and in plot and bam-bam style it’s reminiscent of the recent Chuck Norris Missing in Action quickies. It’s certainly got action, though, and that’s what this kind of movie is all about. The screenplay is credited to Stallone and James Cameron, the man who brought us that quirky hit The Terminator last year. Ultimately, however, Stallone’s collaborators are irrelevant. When he gets involved in a movie, he becomes the whole show, and he rewrote Rambo to suit himself.

Stallone contrives to make this action movie into a message picture by including a protest at the way the returning Vietnam veterans were treated by the war-weary American public. It is difficult to know how sincere Stallone is: he makes his statement at an emotionally effective moment, but appearing within the context of a brutal, bloody gorefest, the sentiment strikes a weird chord.

One note for connoisseurs of presumptuousness: Stallone plays with a Christ motif for his hero here, as he has in the recent Rocky films. This appears to be his lone, feeble attempt at intellectual ambition—similar to the way he uses 50-cent words when he appears on talk shows, as if to say: “See? I think.”

He loves to stretch his arms out into a meaningful, Christlike posture, and when Rambo arrives at the Army camp, someone greets him by saying, “So, you’re the chosen one, eh?”

Sylvester Stallone has no shame.

Originally appeared in the Herald, May 25, 1985

The movie, of course, become a monster hit, and a defining film of its decade. Feeling the need to explain who James Cameron was is a charming little reminder of where we were in ’85. I erred in suggesting that Stallone’s only attempt at intellectual ambition was his beloved Christ imagery; of course he’s tried many other stabs at heaviosity over the years.

The Dead

November 28, 2010

When the late John Huston was filming The Dead, he almost certainly knew that is would be his last film. How else to explain the elegiac majesty of this very small movie, the wry feeling of finality?

Actually, death has played a major role in Huston’s films since the beginning—for the most part, as just another absurd event in the accident of existence. (In The Man Who Would Be King, Sean Connery and Michael Caine find themselves snowbound and freezing in the Himalayas; as certain death approaches, they laugh wildly, which causes an avalanche, forming a snow bridge that carries them to their next adventure.)

Living was the dicey part, though Huston’s crew of adventurers managed to pull themselves together well enough for that. For them, facing death was one more way of making their journey more interesting.

In The Dead, the James Joyce story that Huston wanted to film for years, there is no great physical undertaking, as in The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or Moby Dick. Rather the movie is the account of a festive family dinner on a cold Dublin night in 1904, and the brief aftermath of the dinner, when a husband (Donal McCann) and wife (Anjelica Huston) wrestle with a painful memory—revived for her, heard for the first time by him.

The opening shot of the movie shows the street and the family house; snow falls outside, but through the windows we can see the glow of warmth inside, see the shadows of bodies moving past in dance, and hear the lilt of the music. This beautiful shot suggests the difference between outward and inner reality, and Huston guides the film from the soothing warmth of the dinner to the cool blue light of the final scene, when the husband and wife, so charming and responsible during the gathering, go on a spiritual search of themselves.

It is a quiet, subtle film; very little that is conventionally dramatic happens in its 83 minutes. The dinner sequences, in the soft rosiness of Fred Murphy’s cinematography, are full of minor incident: songs, recitations, the carving of a goose and the declaiming of a toast.

The dinner is not the only family affair going on in the film. Tony Huston, the director’s son, wrote the screenplay; Anjelica Huston previously worked for her father in Prizzi’s Honor.

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann are superb, as is every member of the Irish ensemble. Particular praise, though, to Donal Donnelly, as the nephew whose drunkenness cannot hide a good heart; Helena Carroll and Cathleen Delaney, as the sweet aunts who host the party; and Dan O’Herlihy, the veteran actor who plays the grand old man of “the other persuasion” (he’s a Protestant).

This film is one of those delicate works of art in which every little moment seems to carry an old master’s touch. Some images are unforgettable, such as Anjelica Huston standing on a stairway, listening to a song as her husband observes, apart and alone; or McCann watching snowflakes swirling around a lamppost like a gathering of memories. John Huston knew just how to tell his last story, and The Dead is an exquisite winter’s tale.

First published in the Herald, 1987.

The film is an example of a significant director who had the chance to go out on a just-exactly-right note. It is a challenge to write a newspaper review and try to convey in 530 words or so an outline of a career and an appreciation of the new movie, but every once in a while you have to hunker down and get it done. I feel pretty good about this one. The Dead is my #1 film for 1987, as arranged in my list here.

Under the Cherry Moon

November 28, 2010

The most ridiculous marketing decision in recent memory was made by somebody at Warner Brothers, who had the bright idea that, since Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra and Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon were both aimed at the youth market, the Cobra crowed would respond to a Prince preview trailer.

So the Cherry Moon preview, featuring the primping rock star prancing across the screen with his naked belly button, was attached to all 2,000 or so prints of Cobra. Machismo audiences everywhere have been unanimous in their derision ever since, making uncivilized noises and impolite suggestions wherever Cobra plays.

Prince really didn’t need the trouble. He’s made enough for himself with Under the Cherry Moon, which looks suspiciously like the kind of movie produced when people who don’t know how to make movies are allowed to make movies.

Prince earned this right through the huge, and unexpected, success of Purple Rain a couple of summers ago. That film, inexpensively made, played with Prince’s autobiographical experiences in Minneapolis and included a heaping helping of lively concert footage. It wasn’t much of a movie, but it had a lot of vitality and a slew of magnetic actors.

Anyway, it made a bundle. So when Prince decided his next film would be set in southern France, contain little concert material and be shot in black-and-white, apparently Warners just said, “Okay, Prince baby, you understand these young people. Here’s the money—do what you want.”

This is how disasters happen. After a bit of shooting, Prince dismissed the director, Mary Lambert, over artistic differences. Then he took over direction himself. Little warning bells should have gone off; apparently they didn’t.

Warners previewed the finished film, got bad audience reactions and gave Prince more money to reshoot some material.

The final result is every bit as incoherent as that troubled history would suggest. It’s also, at least in the first half hour or so, much more interesting than you might expect.

The plot is nothing—a fable (a fairy tale, as the film’s “once upon a time” introduction makes explicit) about a gigolo (Prince) who finds true love in the form of an heiress (Kristin Scott Thomas) whom he had originally set out to fleece. The subject matter and moral of the film deliberately evoke the sophisticated Hollywood romances of the 1930s—ergo the black-and-white.

While Prince employs his lewd smirk, and there’s some double entendre banter with his partner in gigolo-hood (the funny Jerome Benton, who played the valet in Purple Rain), there’s a surprisingly soft, traditional moral here, about love and commitment and all that.

In fact, Prince, for all the ire he’s raised from congressional wives about the nasty bits in his songs, seems attracted to touchingly naïve themes in his films. He even touts religion, including a message at the end of the credits that says, “Love God & May U Live 2 See the Dawn.”

Much of Under the Cherry Moon makes about as much sense as that. There’s some tasty atmosphere in the early scenes, perhaps due to cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and production designer Richard Sylbert, both class-A talents.

Then it falls apart. Even the songs, except the great single “Kiss,” aren’t up to snuff, and exists largely as backdrop. I’m afraid this Moon will sink below the horizon even faster than Cobra. Actually, Warner Brothers was right: they deserve to be together.

First published in the Herald, July 5, 1986.

I wish this movie were better; it would’ve been great to see Prince do something so absolutely lunatic and have it come off. However, give the guy some credit for having Kristin Scott Thomas in her first feature. The reference to “congressional wives” was about the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center, which Tipper Gore and a few others had created not long before this review was written (Mrs. Gore had heard the Purple Rain album with her daughter and felt horror, or felt something, anyway.) I don’t really know if Prince “dismissed” Lambert, because she has said she left voluntarily; Terence Stamp also walked off the movie. As for the Cobra connection, I don’t remember that at all.


November 28, 2010

Sometimes we have to wait all year long for the one movie that distinguishes itself above all others—or is it below all others?—well, at any rate, beyond all others for the honor of being the biggest howler of the year.

We’re not talking about simple bad movies here—they’re a dime a dozen. No, these movies are so wildly (and sometimes imaginatively) mind-boggling in concept, plot and characterization that they earn your respect just by their very existence—because you can’t imagine anyone in his right mind spending money to make them.

In 1984, I think my pet film was Ninja III: The Domination, with its delirious mix of genres and its karate-chopping aerobics instructor heroine.

This year is not half over, but I think we may be able to call the contest closed for ’85. Gymkata is here, and it sweeps all the competition aside.

Here are the unadorned facts: A government agent contacts a gymnast (Olympic medalist Kurt Thomas, in his, uh, acting debut) about a secret mission. He wants the gymnast to go to an imaginary Third World nation called Parmistan and take part in the annual survival games, which involve a brutal obstacle course that sometimes ends in death.

Somehow—and I’m not too clear on this—his victory will help America’s efforts to establish a satellite base in Parmistan from which the “Star Wars” defense system will be run. Well, since every right-minded citizen wants that, we’re behind Kurt all the way.

He’s a little wary, though. “Why don’t we just send in the troops?” he wonders. Who says there are no more Renaissance Men?

Kurt gets trained in the martial arts and falls in love with a princess from Parmistan. Then they’re off to her country to join the games, in which international competitors scale cliffs, shinny across gorges, and make a hair-raising trip through “The Village of Crazies,” where Parmistan’s criminally insane are sent.

It’s pretty incoherent. The film (especially the first third) seems to have been edited with a blunt instrument of some sort—when the scene changes, characters are all but cut off in mid-sentence. This is a blessing, of course.

The emphasis is on the martial arts action, and there’s plenty of it—but with a peculiar gymnastic slant. If there’s a metal bar attached to a wall, you can be sure Thomas wil grab on and go into one of his Olympic routines—except every time he extends his leg, he’s taking out somebody’s face. And it’s all accompanied by those great sound effects from kung fu movies: the unnatural whooshing when Kurt goes somersaulting through the air (which he does a lot) and the thwack! when somebody gets punched. It’s the same thwack! you hear in every Bruce Lee movie, and I sear it’s left over from an old Three Stooges short.

I have only one serious problem with considering Gymkata the goofiest movie of 1985. Oh, it’s stupid enough, but, unlike Ninja III, it’s just not much fun. However, it is fundamentally reassuring. A subtitle at the end tells us that the “Star Wars” satellite station has indeed been established in Parmistan. So, the world can sleep in peace at night—and, presumably, Kurt Thomas can go back to being a gymnast. So we hope.

First published in the Herald, 1985.

There are worse movies and weirder movies (I will post my Ninja III review soon), but somehow Gymkata says “Eighties” in spades. The idea of an SDI outpost being established in Parmistan is perfectly fitting, and “Village of Crazies” could be the title for a website devoted entirely of reviews of 1980s movies. But no, I had to go with “What a Feeling!”