The Stepfather/Wanted Dead or Alive

October 13, 2011

The Stepfather is a genuinely creepy little suspense movie, with a very interesting villain at its center. In the film’s first scene, an ordinary-looking fellow in an ordinary suburban home shaves his beard off, cuts his hair and changes into classy clothing. Then he walks down the stairs of his cozy home, as the camera casually reveals the tableau of his wife and children lying dead in the living room—murdered at his hands.

It seems this fellow makes a habit of marrying widows with children, then killing the family. His psychopathology is particular, and bizarre: He kills them because they don’t measure up to his ideal of a perfect family.

A year after the opening scene, we find him (in an assumed identity) married to another widow (Shelley Hack) with a 16-year-old daughter (Jill Schoelen). It’s a happy home, except that the daughter catches the stepdad in one of his weird freak-out moods down in the cellar, and she starts catching on to his true colors.

The most interesting thing about the movie is the depiction of the stepfather. He’s a bland, milk-drinking All-American type, who spouts hokey clichés to end conversations (“Father knows best,” he smiles blandly), chuckles warmly when watching reruns of “Mr. Ed,” and uses such TV-commercial pieties as “Ah, this is as good as life gets.” He’s somewhat reminiscent of the protagonists in the ferocious pulp novels of Jim Thompson, whose people are often dull on the outside, insane on the inside.

He’s played by Terry O’Quinn, who does an impressive job of catching the character’s terrifying banality, as well as his suppressed violence (there are some echoes of the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining). O’Quinn is particularly good at avoiding the temptation to mug; he keeps the man a hale and hearty, backyard-barbecue guy, and doesn’t tip his hat with too much eyebrow-wiggling.

Director Joseph Ruben and screenwriter Donald E. Westlake deserve credit for this cool, almost analytical character study; and for keeping it suspenseful and crisp. This is a chilling little movie.

Not so chilling is Wanted Dead or Alive, an action flick featuring Dutch star Rutger Hauer. Hauer, a fine actor (he was the hero of Soldier of Orange and Harrison Ford’s snow-haired adversary in Blade Runner), has stated his desire to become a big American movie star. He seems to think that appearing in an Eastwood-style shoot-’em-up will further that end.

He plays a bounty hunter, irrelevantly the great-grandson of the character Steve McQueen played in the old TV series “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” who goes after an Arab terrorist (Gene Simmons). The terrorist blew up a theater playing Rambo, so it’s absolutely imperative he be stopped before he further damages our culture.

It’s the standard routine, with Hauer’s charisma slightly hampered by his uncomfortable American accent. The only unusual note is sounded at the end of the film, when, after Hauer has cleared out the bad guys, he avoids the clenched-fist heroics customary to these films. Instead, he settles down into melancholy, and seems even more existentially adrift than he was at the beginning.

First published in the Herald, January 22, 1987

The Stepfather remains a terrific one-off kind of picture, and O’Quinn’s performance is a gem. For some reason I have frequently missed the subsequent work of Joseph Ruben (never saw Money Train or The Good Son or The Forgotten), so I can’t really speak with authority about the work of the former director of Gorp. A lot of people liked Ruben’s Dreamscape, including Pauline Kael, who did a handstand or two about it, although it didn’t grab me. Surely the gifted Donald Westlake had something to do with the movie’s dry, even power. Wanted was directed by Gary Sherman, the guy who did Raw Meat and Dead & Buried; he’s still in the business. I really have no explanation about why I said so little about Gene Simmons as an Arab terrorist.

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The Kindred

October 12, 2011

Does the first movie of the new year carry a promise of what is to come? If so, fasten your seat belts for a loopy ’87. The Kindred is here, and it’s so bad you can almost smell it.

It’s 90 minutes of nonsense about a scientific experiment gone awry, which is the way experiments almost always go in this genre. An esteemed scientist (Kim Hunter), on her deathbed, tells her scientist son (David Allen Brooks) about some weird work she’d been doing in her isolated seaside home.

Then she dies, and Brooks and his research associates go out to the old house to poke around and reconstruct his mother’s experiments, even though she’d asked him to destroy everything. Once there, these people are the last to discover—the audience gets hip to it immediately—that there is a creepy, gooey, malicious monster hiding under the rotting floorboards, and that this monster is intent on pulverizing all these nice young people.

So the movie turns into an old dark house with a scary thing loose. It pursues this formula so pathetically, and with such a ferocious penchant for cliché, that it frequently elicits hearty laughter, in all the wrong places.

The script is credited to five people, including co-directors Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter. One of the credited writers is Joseph Stefano, who many years ago wrote the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. If there is anything of Stefano left in The Kindred, it is certainly not recognizable, which he presumably sees as a plus.

In its favor, the film does have an English actress named Amanda Pays, previously lost in the hapless Oxford Blues, who is, by any conservative estimate, an authentic wow. And she turns into a fish near the end of the film.

Otherwise, it’s truly silly. Included is a stupefying watermelon attack, for which the monster somehow lodges itself inside the melon, is placed in the back seat of a car, and zaps the driver; although the victim is supposedly a good friend of the main characters, she is never mentioned again.

Undeniably, the worst moments come for poor Rod Steiger. He is required to say and do many awful things here, but his most terrible scene comes near the end. Steiger, the heavy, wants to preserve the monster for research rather than kill it. He shouts the improbable line, “You call yourself a scientist? Your mother created that thing!” As Steiger stands in a roomful of slime, with a river of goo pouring down on his hat before he gets sucked under the floorboards whence no scientist returns, the actor’s humiliation is palpable, and unpleasant to watch. His face seems to say, My god, I’m an Oscar-winning actor—what crooked road led me here?

One character gazes at him and says, “He looks like a well poisoner.” To which the only possible response is: If you were a serious and much-awarded actor who was ending out his career in this kind of schlock, you’d look a little sour too.

First published in the Herald, January 10, 1987

Along with Oscar-winners Steiger and Hunter, the movie’s got Talia Balsam and a score by David Newman. Sheesh. Somebody must’ve thought The Dorm That Dripped Blood showed a lot of promise.


Frightmare/The Dorm That Dripped Blood

October 11, 2011

Frightmare takes its story from two juicy bits of Hollywood lore. One involves horror great Bela Lugosi, who (it is rumored) started to lose touch with reality toward the end of his life, possibly because of his drug addiction, and may have drifted into his Dracula character while not in front of the cameras. He was buried in his Dracula cape.

The other tale is a practical joke that director Raoul Walsh played on Errol Flynn, who was despondent after his friend John Barrymore’s death. Walsh, sick of Flynn’s whining, went down to the morgue, stole Barrymore’s body, sat the great actor’s corpse down in his living room, and invited Flynn over for a couple of drinks. Flynn became suitably freaked out when he arrived.

In Frightmare, a famous vampire actor (Ferdinand Mayne) dies, is buried in his costume, but insists he will return from the grave. Then his mausoleum is broken into by some college kids who steal his body and proceed to party down with it. Then they put the body in the attic of the party house and go to sleep, whereupon the actor gets up and takes his revenge during the long night.

Naturally, when the kids hear rustling upstairs, they get spooked. One girl says to her boyfriend, “I want you to look everywhere—even the attic.” Right. In the attic. In the dark. It’s that kind of movie.

Frightmare wants to have a sense of humor, but it’s tepid, shapeless stuff. At the beginning, when we see the old actor shooting a commercial, he looks at the director and says, “It is you who are inept, not me.” Nuff said.

The Dorm That Dripped Blood is a wonderful title, but when I went to see it, it had another title. The film bore the name Pranks, although this makes no sense—and then at the end of the film appears, in small letters, Death Dorm. However, I prefer The Dorm That Dripped Blood, and since the film lives up to this title, we shall use it.

Five people are hanging around an old dormitory, cleaning it out before it’s torn down. They look forward to hard work and good fun, but it is not to be. A maniac ruins everything by backing the car over one of them. Then someone comes in and messes up their dinner table, which really sends them into a tizzy. Then they hear something on the roof in the middle of the night, prompting the obligatory line, “Why don’t we split up and look around?” We know they’ll drop like flies after that.

It’s a whodunit. The five people all think maniac is this creepy guy with frizzy hair who scavenges through the garbage, but Ol’ Frizz does a turnaround near the end, tries to help the heroine, and gets hacked up for his efforts.

You can already sense that The Dorm That Dripped Blood is livelier than Frightmare. However, the acting is much worse, and it’s cheaper looking. I did like the last five minutes, though, in which an unexpectedly nihilistic conclusion is reached and it is suggested that somewhere, blood will continue to drip. Ripe for a sequel, it is. Look for it next semester.

First published in the Herald, September 11, 1984

I’m sure I knew the Errol Flynn story thanks to The Men Who Made the Movies, Richard Schickel’s classic TV documentary series, which profiled Walsh is spectacularly salty fashion. The movie stars the tireless Ferdy Mayne and was directed by the imposingly named Norman Thaddeus Vane. IMDb.com says the movie was released in 1983 and Dormin 1982, but that’s how horror movies crawled around in those days. The Dorm That Dripped Blood came from the filmmaking team of Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter, whose 1987 film The Kindred is—well, tune in tomorrow.


Footloose

October 10, 2011

Bacon, Singer, Footloose

Footloose is something of a throwback to those 1950s movies in which the conservative town elders would try to stamp out that satanic menace called rock and roll, a newfangled music that was turning their kids into a tribe of fornicators. These quickie movies were usually an excuse to string a bunch of musical numbers together and sell it as a film. At the end there was always somebody who would turn to the camera and say, “You can’t kill rock and roll!”

They were right. The beat goes on, but now we have pictures that are specially designed to go with the music. In case you’ve been comatose for the last year, it’s all because of MTV, the cable network that shows nothing but non-stop rock epics. It’s the new narrative form: three minutes long, just long enough so that no attention spans are unduly taxed.

Footloose weds the plot about the preacher who wants to crush rock music in a small Utah town with the splashy visuals of an MTV video. And, borrowing a leaf from Flashdance (although I found Footloose more enjoyable, in its own mindless way), there’s a lot of jazzy dancing and superficial characterizations.

A kid from the big city (Kevin Bacon) finds himself in Utah when his mother moves in with relatives there. He’d like to fit in, but things just keep tripping him up. When he gets interested in a girl (Lori Singer), it turns out she’s the daughter of the fire-and-brimstone preacher (John Lithgow) who instituted the laws against sinful music. Great.

Then when Bacon steals the girl away from her boyfriend—a creep who drives a pickup truck with moose horns welded on the hood—he invites even more trouble. There’s nothing for a guy to do but, you know, dance, and that’s what Bacon does. Soon it’s his mission to convince the city council to lift the ban on dancing so the kids can have a senior prom.

It goes on like this, and there’s lots of music. Director Herbert Ross, who took over this project after (of all people) The Deer Hunter‘s Michael Cimino dropped out, tries to give the proceedings some emotional subtext.

Ross is a hack Hollywood director, even though he’s got some well-regarded credits to his name (The Turning Point; Play it Again, Sam), and when he tries to supply subtext, it usually means somebody talks in hushed terms about a lost father, or some other vaguely Freudian explanations. These sequences in Footloose were treated with impatience by the preview-night audience, who wanted to get to the good stuff. In general, the movie did not let them down.

The preview night, incidentally, was marked by a weird extravaganza that preceded the movie in which various local high-school cheerleading teams did routines in front of the curtain at the Town theater. A panel of “judges” rated the squads against each other. (Mercer Island High School won.) After a half an hour of this, the movie began to seem superfluous. And perhaps it was, after all; although you wouldn’t know it from the crowd, which reacted to the entire evening as though it were a pep rally.

First published in the Herald, February 18, 1984

I don’t have to tell you that this is the week the remake of Footloose comes out, thus the re-visit with this review. The movie caught on, in case you hadn’t heard, and it does indeed resemble a model of storytelling next to Flashdance. Seattle’s Town theater no longer exists, by the way, having long since been replaced by a downtown office tower.


Hero and the Terror

October 7, 2011

In Hero and the Terror, the Hero is a Los Angeles cop played by Chuck Norris, and the Terror is a hulking killer played by Jack O’Halloran. At least, that’s what The Terror is meant to refer to. Some might guess at another possibility: The Terror is what the viewer feels at realizing Chuck Norris has it in his mind he’s gonna do some acting in this one.

What this means is that, between the episodes of gunplay and head-crunching, Norris seeks to show his sensitive, emotional side. Now, Chuck Norris the man no doubt has a sensitive, emotional side, but please—can’t he keep it off the screen? The scenes in Hero and the Terror that detail the cop’s personal life are surely the drippiest that Norris has attempted.

His cop is haunted by nightmares of a major arrest he made three year earlier, of a serial killer called the Terror. Now the lunatic has escaped, hidden in a Los Angles theater, and Norris must collar him.

All of that is standard fare. Below standard is the drama of Chuck’s girlfriend, a therapist who is imminently expecting their child. They’re not married, which is one source of drama. Also, this woman is worried about the future of her career, and about the weight she’s gained during the pregnancy. “You’re pregnant,” says the new sensitive Chuck, “you’re supposed to be fat.” Thanks for caring, big guy.

Under the random direction of William Tannen, the relationship story and the murder story have absolutely zilch to do with each other. The script is a hodgepodge of cookie-cutter elements that don’t fit together. For instance, Norris is supposed to be undergoing this intense psychological torture over the old arrest and his undeserved “hero” label, but he’s the same wisecracking cool dude he has always been when he stiff-arms a petty thief on the street.

And, of course, the movie indulges in the old saw about the tough guy who goes to pieces in the delivery room. Chuck faints dead away at the hospital entrance desk. Nope, the split personality just won’t wash. Either Chuck Norris goes back to his old ways, or he turns into the next Alan Alda and spends the rest of this career dispensing warm ‘n fuzzies. He is not an actor who can manage both.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

This one has the marks of having been intended as a somewhat more ambitious vehicle for the Invasion U.S.A. star, but it ended up as just another Norris movie. The cast included 80s movie stalwart Steve James, Billy Drago, and (according to IMDb.com) Ron O’Neal as “The Mayor.”


Spaceballs

October 6, 2011

Mel Brooks found his winning movie formula in the 1970s. He settled on a target, took parodic aim, then filled the screen with as many gags as he could muster.

With Spaceballs, Brooks has the target: space epics a la Stars Wars. Unfortunately his aim is off, by about five years. And, most importantly, the gags aren’t mustering. Mustered?

Brooks probably figured that what worked with the western (Blazing Saddles), the horror film (Young Frankenstein), and the Hitchcock movie (High Anxiety) could work in space—and provide him a safe return to directing after the disappointing History of the World, Part I, which he made six years ago.

But Spaceballs reveals Brooks to be disturbingly out of touch with funny business, and I’d be very surprised to see this film do big box-office. It’s full of painful puns and far too many of those pauses that follow punch lines—the pauses that are supposed to be covered by laughter but which, I suspect, will be greeted with silence.

Brooks directs, produces, co-scripts, and plays two roles. The plot shakily orbits around a space adventurer (Bill Pullman) and his assistant (John Candy), who is half-man, half-dog (“I’m my own best friend,” he explains, in one of the film’s better lines). They assist a runaway princess (Daphne Zuniga) and her robot (voice of Joan Rivers), while an evil general in oversize headgear (Rick Moranis) plots something evil.

Brooks appears as the nasty president of one planet, who wants to steal the air supply of another; and as Yogurt, a shrunken and inexplicably Jewish wise man, built along the lines of George Lucas’s Yoda.

To avoid overkill, I will illustrate the film’s humor with one representative example. Pullman and Candy decide to jam the radar of the evil ship. In the next shot, we see an enormous jar of raspberry jam smash against the radar receiver of the enemy vessel. Jamming the radar, see.

That’s a median joke. At least half the gags are worse. Funniest, oddly enough, is the irrelevant ethnic humor. Zuniga, who comes from the planet Druidia and whines about her designer luggage, is described as a “typical Druish princess.” (I know, I groaned too.) And Yogurt’s inspirational phrase is the catchy, “May the Schwartz be with you.”

Mel Brooks is a funny person. But something’s gone out of his moviemaking. He needs better writing collaborators, for one thing: his former partners have included Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, and ace comedy writer Andrew Bergman. Spaceballs credit is shared with Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham, and they don’t have the wicked sensibilities necessary.

On the other hand, maybe Brooks has simply lost interest. For most of the last decade, he’s spent his time executive-producing interesting movies such as The Elephant Man, Frances, and 84 Charing Cross Road. He’s obviously lavished a good deal of care on them; whereas Spaceballs seems tired and perfunctory, as though Brooks half-heartedly felt he had to keep his comedic hand in. To put it bluntly, the Schwartz is no longer with him.

First published in the Herald, June 26, 1987

And yet people quote lines from this movie and remember some of its gags fondly, an aftermath I find surprising. It’s not just that the jokes seemed unusually lame, but that the movie should’ve come out in 1980 to have any sort of oomph at all.


The Boys Next Door

October 5, 2011

Roy and Bo are celebrating their graduation day from high school. Since the other kids in their small Southwestern town don’t like them, they must make their own fun. To that end, they hop in a car, drive to Los Angeles, and look for an outlet for their energy, which, next week, will be channeled into the local factory, where the two will run the drill press for the rest of their lives.

The outlet they find is, to them, almost as casual as playing video games or drinking beer: They start killing people. This is the disturbing premise of The Boys Next Door, a strong youth-alienation film from director Penelope Spheeris (Suburbia).

The title is a bit of a misnomer. Although these boys are attractive and of average intelligence, at least one, Roy, is already deeply maladjusted. During the drive to Los Angeles, Roy confesses to Bo, “I got stuff inside of me”—stuff about to explode. Bo, not as explosive but malleable, goes along for the ride.

They arrive in town and, without planning, start lashing out at people who irritate them—foreigners, homosexuals, women. Meanwhile, detectives on the case search for some clue in the series of seemingly unconnected crimes.

All of this may sound overly distasteful, and it’s not a nice film, but Spheeris has a gift for portraying the banality of the terror these boys wreak. When they beat a gas station worker over a money dispute, Bo takes time to grab a handful of chewing gum from the front counter. A visit to the LaBrea Tar Pits inspires the concept for “Caveman Day,” in which the boys envision a society where all rules are overturned.

This banalization of murder is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, which also portrayed a pointless murder spree. What makes The Boys Next Door so compelling is the acting from Maxwell Caulfield, who plays the simian Roy, and Charlie Sheen, who plays Bo. Sheen is the son of Martin Sheen, who starred as the killer in Badlands.

It’s a bit puzzling to speculate about the film’s potential audience. Without heroes or a happy ending, the teen crowd will not be much interested. And by not wearing its pretensions on its sleeve, the film will probably be ignored by the critics who applauded Badlands. But, while it’s ugly at times, this is an impressive piece of filmmaking.

First published in the Herald, March 1986

Spheeris really does have a feel for this kind of thing, and if the movie might be derivative of A Clockwork Orange or Badlandsor some other banality-of-evil texts, it is pretty potent. Or so it seems from 25-year memory The film never got any particular traction, with audiences or critics, so I suppose my observation in the final paragraph held true.