Poltergeist III

October 24, 2012

Even by the admittedly devalued standard of sequels, Poltergeist II was a shockingly poor follow-up to one of the decade’s great scareshows. It would be difficult to sink much below that level, but the makers of Poltergeist III appear to have tried. I’m not sure they’ve succeeded, but P-III comes awfully close to matching its predecessor’s wretchedness. Call it a dead heat.

The only returning cast members are Zelda Rubenstein, as the sawed-off psychic, and Heather O’Rourke, as Carol Anne, the blond daughter who has been dragged off by the poltergeists in each installment of the series. (O’Rourke died not long after filming was completed.)

The little girl is staying with an uncle (Tom Skerritt) and aunt (Nancy Allen) who live in a Chicago high-rise. Carol Anne is attending a school for gifted-but-troubled children, where a goateed shrink believes her history of hauntings is just some kind of mass hypnosis. (Richard Fire plays the doctor with just enough B-movie ludicrousness to make his scenes enjoyable.)

No one believes Carol Anne when she begins to see ghostly figures in mirrors, except the psychic, who boards the first plane for Chi-town. The evil spirits capture Carol Anne through a puddle in a parking garage—yeah—and the adults must break through to the other side.

Director Gary Sherman (who wrote the script with Brian Taggert) plays with the idea of mirrors as gateways to the poltergeist world, although Carol Anne’s destination through the looking glass is no wonderland. The special-effects budget evidently wasn’t large enough to provide any glimpses into this other world, so Sherman contents himself with a lot of mirror-image visual tricks. They are the most interesting thing, technical or otherwise, about the movie.

It’s a desultory outing in a lot of ways. The cut-rate quality of the acting, the leaden banter of the opening reels, the extraneous teenagers needed to appeal to the largest moviegoing audience, all contribute to the film’s bargain-basement atmosphere.

First published in the Herald, June 16, 1988

A dismal movie. Gary Sherman also did Raw Meat (aka Death Line) and Dead and Buried; Richard Fire, whose performance I apparently liked, wrote the screenplay to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.


July 8, 2011

Steven Spielberg is going to be changing a lot of people’s lives this summer. His E.T. is the kind of movie everyone is going to wish he had seen at the age of ten; and Poltergeist is full of the affection and respect that has been missing from scary movies lately. Actually, Poltergeist was directed by Tobe Hooper and co-written and produced by Spielberg, although it seems Spielberg stepped in to direct some sequences himself (he also supervised the editing and provided the detailed design from which Hooper worked). Hooper is a good director—his Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an interesting movie that is doomed forever to be a reference point for talkshow/cocktail-party critics who have never seen it—but almost everything about Poltergeist is recognizably Spielbergian.

After the first few entries in his disgustingly young career (The brilliant TV-movie Duel; one of the best “Columbo” episodes, Murder by the Book; The Sugarland Express; Jaws), the word on Steven Spielberg was that Yeah, the guy understood cinema, even if his movies were nothing more than well-crafted stimulus-response machines that didn’t really understand or care about people. Despite the disastrous 1941, Spielberg has managed to turn that too-pat analysis around, and in these first weeks of the summer has presented the public with a hugely entertaining pair of People movies.

Both films are set in solid, average suburbia; Poltergeist presents a normal, three-kid, one-dog family that gets hassled by some troubled spirits. Spielberg and Hooper establish their normalcy without any sense of rush or bother; as often happens in a Spielberg movie, scenes around kitchen tables are important in revealing intrafamily dynamics. The only unusual ripple we see is that little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has the disturbing tendency to stare into the static TV screen—after the day’s programming has gone off. It isn’t long before this leads us into a series of spaces—a cluttered closet, an unfinished swimming pool, an opening in a tree—that are just as pregnant with terrifying possibility as the humming, busy tube.

“It knows what scares you”—the ad line for Poltergeist is very true; Spielberg and Hooper have quite a knack for selecting objects and events that can turn from innocuous to sinister within seconds. Like the stuffed clown that sits in a chair in the kids’ room. When I was a kid, a clown was about the scariest thing around, and this one gets to be just as horrific as I always suspected. The audience is led to confrontations with other such basic childhood fears as: is that Something outside the window moving, or what? and Something is wrong and I’m going to look under the bed now but Please God don’t let there be anything down there! The filmmakers orchestrate the mayhem so fluidly—and the characters are so well-acted (by JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as the parents, Oliver Robins as their son, Beatrice Straight as a phemonena expert) and are made to matter so much—that the audience is irresistibly drawn into a heady degree of involvement.

The special effects are nice—especially a white, long-limbed phantom who hovers outside a doorway and emits a growl not unlike that of the MGM lion who presides over this movie—but the best special effect of all is the levitation effect. That’s the one in which the filmmakers raise the audience members right out of their seats. At one point in Poltergeist a character warns a group of folks to “Get a good hold on yourselves.” Audiences all over would be well-advised to do just that.

First published in The Informer, June 1982

Calling them People movies seems not right, because E.T. and Poltergeist are just as rigorously composed as Spielberg’s previous films. Anyway Jaws is a People movie, too, when it comes to that. Boy, it was a good time seeing this in a theater full of shrieking people that summer. That scene involving a closed door and the slow movement to open it should be shown to all aspiring horror-movie directors as a model for how to stage and cut a scene. By the way, I’m looking at the ads in this issue of The Informer (monthly newsletter magazine of the Seattle Film Society) and both Poltergeist and Star Trek II were playing in 70 mm. (Poltergeist was at the late, not especially lamented Town theater). Remember 70 mm.? Why has that fallen off the movie-format discussion table?

Invaders from Mars

June 5, 2012

The 1953 science-fiction film Invaders from Mars is an uncomplicated, cheap-looking near-classic. It’s about a crew of belligerent extraterrestrials touching down in a backyard sand pit in Small Town, U.S.A., witnessed only by a boy who can’t get anyone to believe him.

One of the elements that made this little movie so memorable was the stark-but-evocative production design by the legendary designer-director William Cameron Menzies. In particular, the hill behind the boy’s house, with its fence curving up and back to where the aliens landed, was a repeated image fraught with dangerous possibilities.

That backyard fence is retained in the new remake of Invaders from Mars—in fact, it’s the image used in the understated print-ad campaign. (Menzies gets a high school named after him in the new film’s small town.) The story is basically the same, too, as the boy (Hunter Carson, from Paris, Texas) can’t get anyone to believe him, and his parents (Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman) have their minds stolen by the aliens.

This occurs in a process taken from the original film. People step out into the sand pit, are sucked under the ground, then regurgitated, their brains having been washed. The only way you can distinguish them from uninitiated humans is by the wound on the backs of their necks.

Our little hero can tell in other ways, too. For one thing, his parents speak in that low monotone that always comes when somebody’s brain is snatched in a science-fiction movie. Also, Mom burns the bacon and eats raw hamburger. These tip-offs send the boy into the arms of the school nurse (Karen Black, who is Carson’s real-life mother).

This remake gets off to a good start. The first half-hour or so is full of the creepy detail we’ve come to expect from Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist, Lifeforce). Especially good is the use of the school science teacher (Louise Fletcher) as a gargoyle. She keeps dead stuff pickled in jars. ‘Nuff said.

Unfortunately, Hooper allows the paranoia of the situation to get away from him. The kid and the nurse get the help of the Army—the Army, for crying out loud—which considerably reduces the sense of danger. The troops come in about halfway through the movie, and it’s no longer one little boy fighting the armed forces of Mars. This is a fatal blow to the film’s tension.

Even the imaginative creatures don’t add much to the narrative, other than to impress us with the cleverness of the special-effects team. Fact is, Louise Fletcher is a lot scarier.

First published in the Herald, June 10, 1986

This must be more fun than I make it sound. Er—doesn’t it? The Army comes into the 1953 version too, albeit mostly in the form of stock-footage tanks rolling around and padding out the running time.


June 4, 2012

Lifeforce plays like a good 1950s sci-fi thriller, full of aliens multiplying, populace feeling, and scientists wringing their hands dourly. It’s almost a relief, after a rash of revisionist sci-fi movies that make fun of the genre, to see a film that plays it straight.

As much as that attracts me to Lifeforce, I have to admit that a lot of it is derivative. The visual style of the first part of the film, aboard a space shuttle, is reminiscent of 2001, and the later section conjures up Night of the Living Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the British Quatermass movies.

Director Tobe Hooper (he of Poltergeist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre) does get his own brand of eerie foreboding in the early scenes. The space shuttle is investigating Halley’s Comet, and they find a trio of humanoid bodies frozen in pods, which they load onto the shuttle. Cut to some weeks later, as a rescue mission finds the burned-out shuttle with the pods still intact.

The rescuers bring the pods back to London, where the things quickly break out of their shells and run wild. Seems they suck the life force out of their victims, who then become carriers of the vampire-like disease. These aliens are led by a spectacular-looking woman (Mathilda May) who spends most of the film naked and alluring.

When she escapes and infects London, a team of experts goes after her: a cop (Peter Firth), a scientist (Frank Finlay), and the leader of the shuttle (Steve Railsback), who feels a strange kinship with the alien woman.

Hooper manages the exposition crisply and spookily, but once the alien gets free, the film starts breaking apart. The whole logic of the life force business is pretty hazy, as is Railsback’s connection with the woman (he seems to be telepathically in touch with her). And halfway through, Finlay starts raving about how a previous appearance by these aliens gave rise to the legend of vampires centuries ago—and how, apparently, vampirism is no legend after all. Indeed, he deduces that the way to destroy the evil is with the standard stake through the heart.

That sounds pretty hokey, and some of Lifeforce plays that way. But a lot of it is fun, and Hooper knows how to keep things moving. He’s also backed by a remarkably first-rate production team: Henry Mancini did the music, John Dykstra (Star Wars) worked on the special effects, and the screenplay is by Dan O’Bannon (Alien) and Don Jakoby (Blue Thunder).

The supporting players, mostly British, are good to have around. All in all, not bad, but not major, either. That can’t be good news for Cannon Films, the independent-minded studio that poured upward of $25 million into this movie. They’ll be very lucky to make that back.

First published in the Herald, June 25, 1985

Hooper did Invaders from Mars around the same time, and both movies stumbled; his subsequent career might’ve been different if they’d scored really well. But casting Steve Railsback could have been the error in this case.

Action Jackson

April 30, 2012

Sgt. Jericho “Action” Jackson has a police officer’s badge, a 1966 Chevrolet Impala convertible, and a chest the size of Mount Rushmore (and just as neatly carved).

He uses all of these things in his job, which is running down criminals and basically scaring the bejeebers out of anybody who gets in his way.

He also has a degree from Harvard Law School. (Ahem.) Well, he doesn’t use that as much as his chest, but then he seems to prefer the hands-on approach: the legal niceties can wait.

He’s also the hero of Action Jackson, a new movie that clearly would like to establish this character as a sequel-worthy guy who could stretch well into the Roman numerals. Strange thing is, he might just do it. Surprise: Action Jackson is an unexpectedly fast and funny movie.

Action is played by Carl Weathers, the fellow who kept coinciding with the business end of Sylvester Stallone’s gloves in the Rocky movies. Weathers is, to put it delicately, quite a load, and his comedic talent has been heretofore quiet. But Robert Reneau’s script contains just enough clever bits to punch up the character, and Weathers has a sufficiently light touch with the one-liner.

Action, a Detroit cop, has a problem: a really despicable car manufacturer (played by the Poltergeist dad, Craig T. Nelson, with plenty of sarcastic snarl). It’s not that he makes bad cars; no, this guy is killing the auto-union officials who are getting in his way.

Nelson has a wife (Sharon Stone) who is innocent about almost everything. He also has a mistress (Vanity) who is innocent about almost nothing. They’re both in danger. Action tries to get to the man through these two, but can only manage to save one of them.

The plot exists, of course, as an excuse for a few car chases and some spectacular explosions. But to give the film its due, there’s some efficient exposition and a few good secondary characters who are sketched in colorful strokes, like the gravel-voiced ex-pug who manages a rundown hotel, or the hairdresser named Dee who speaks in heavily alliterative phrases prompted by her own first name: “Always delighted to help a detective, dear.”

Director Craig R. Baxley provides the obligatory action stuff, but he also gives Action Jackson a hefty measure of good B-movie bounce. Any director who cuts away from an immolating bad guy to a close-up of meat burning on the grill at a swanky barbecue is clearly enjoying himself.

First published in the Herald, February 1988

Baxley was an experienced stuntman, and is still going strong as a TV director. Vanity, I am sorry to say, did not become the star that Sharon Stone became, but go figure. The Action Jackson franchise did not ignite with this film, so the character wanders forgotten movie byways with Remo Williams and Jake Speed.

All the Right Moves

April 13, 2011

In the first shot of All the Right Moves, we see a smoking factory sitting in the middle of a small mining town. A young man and an older character actor walk out of the factory, carrying their standard-issue lunch pails and hardhats, and wearily making their way home.

I’m not clairvoyant, but it was at this moment—30 seconds or so into the film—that I leaned back and said to myself: “Uh huh. It’s going to be the one about the kid who has to win the sports scholarship so he won’t get trapped in this suffocating existence the way his father and brother did.”

It’s unfair to pigeonhole any movie based on the first few moments. Good movies can always surprise you.

But dog my cats if All the Right Moves didn’t go exactly where I thought it was going. What I couldn’t predict was how lame it would be about getting there.

Tom Cruise, who was so good as the enterprising innocent in Risky Business, appears as the football-playing hero who learns the true meaning of teamwork, loyalty and whatever else it is that kids learn the true meaning of in stories like this. He wants to wangle a football scholarship at a major college so he can become an engineer and enter the mining business with a whiter collar than his father and brother.

But Cruise derails his plans when he cusses out the coach after his team loses the Big Game—thanks to a coaching error. Not only that, but he gets drunk with some of the town’s rowdy alumni and throws garbage all over the coach’s house. Wrong move.

Pretty soon the coach has him blackballed from all the right colleges. It looks as though Cruise is going to get stuck in the small town.

But wait. Our hero’s steady date, a slip of a girl played by Lea Thompson, has other ideas. She has an excruciatingly dopey heart-to-heart with the coach’s wife, and the tide starts to turn. Now it’s up to Cruise to show a little decency.

But that’s enough synopsizing: you get the picture. The best thing about All the Right Moves is Craig T. Nelson’s performance as the coach. Nelson, who played the father in Poltergeist, has a bizarre off-center delivery that makes everything he does fun to watch.

The worst thing about the movie is that it bodes ill for the directing career of Michael Chapman, the excellent cinematographer (Raging Bull, Personal Best), whose first directing job this is.

A word about a disturbing trend in recent cinema: This is the second film this year in which a spunky kid pursues a goal that will allow him/her to break out of a Pennsylvania mining environment. The first, of course, was that phenomenon—one does not actually want to refer to it as a movie—known as Flashdance, a word that will live in infamy.

All the Right Moves should not have the same bewildering success; still, it’s time to nip this thing in the bud. We’ve got to put an end to the trend, and soon. It’ll be a tough job, but then it’s a chore just to sit there and watch these movies. Besides, maybe we’ll learn the true meaning of teamwork.

First published in the Herald, October 1983

A review from my first month at writing for the Herald, and I already sound plenty jaded. But one gets jaded quickly with a movie like All the Right Moves, my friend. The awfulness of the title itself seemed to point the way toward many an Eighties handle: vague and stupid, as fitting for an aerobics film or a martial arts picture. Michael Chapman directed again after this, with Clan of the Cave Bear, so there you go with that (strangely, it was during this time that he went from being one of Hollywood’s absolute top cinematographers—Taxi Driver, Fingers, the Kaufman Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as the two mentioned above—to being a very, very good cinematographer. The movie was a step up the ladder for Cruise, who never looked back.

Ninja III: The Domination

December 16, 2010

I’ve got a little confession to make: This film is the first of the Ninja series I’ve seen. Don’t ask me how I managed to miss the two preceding segments; I have no good excuses. All I know is, now that I’ve seen Ninja III: the Domination, I’ll never miss another one.

It’s just great. Well, maybe I should clarify my terms: “Great” is an overused word these days, as we all know, and I don’t mean to compare Ninja III with Citizen Kane or Birth of a Nation. In fact, cinematically, it’s abysmal.

But I don’t think I’ve seen another movie that was so weird in so many ways—and with such verve. For the first fifteen minutes, we watch this guy wipe out about two dozen people, destroy a helicopter, and crush a golf ball with one bare hand (this one-man ambush begins on a golf course). You never find out why any of this happens, but that doesn’t matter. You get used to that in this movie.

So, then, the cops pump him full of lead, but they can’t kill him (because, as we later find out, he can only be killed by another Ninja). So he drags his body to a girl (Lucinda Dickey) who works as a telephone lineman and gives her this sword.

The gag is, his spirit (which, as you’ve probably gathered, is none too chipper) enters her body. Okay. She can still lead a normal life as a telephone lineman and part-time aerobics instructor, but every once in a while, she gets the urge to crush a policeman’s noggin.

Perfectly normal, of course, but sometimes she—possessed by the bad Ninja, of course—carries through with it. Once she even crushes a billiard ball with her bare hand (this is clearly an important stylistic motif).

Sometimes at night, her closet starts to glow, and the sword gives lifts itself up and gives off some kind of heat. (This may be symbolic.) Also, the video game in her apartment comes alive and zaps her with a laser.

I could go on and on. She visits the doctor for a check-up, and the doctor says (this is the gospel truth): “Nothing very wrong with you, outside of your preoccupation with Japanese sculpture.” Gad! Maybe that’s not wrong, but it sure isn’t right.

To the rescue: a friendly cop (Jordan Bennett), who takes her to a backroom somewhere and pays an old Japanese gentleman to tie her up with chains and try to exorcise the demon out (it doesn’t work); and the nemesis of the bad Ninja, a fellow named Yamada (Sho Kosugi), apparently a familiar figure in the Ninja series.

He doesn’t really play a big role here, but he does come in at the end, in an unlikely Japanese temple nestled in the Arizona hills, to do final battle with the bad Ninja. This is a doozy—the bad one twirls himself down into the sand and starts an earthquake, so the actors get to move back and forth and wave their hands while the cinematographer jiggles the camera around.

Tremendous stuff. And I left out the massacre at the cemetery and the hot-tub murder. I just hope that, for Ninja IV, they make it even weirder. But how can you top a film that’s a cross between Enter the Dragon, Poltergeist, and Flashdance? My hope is that, if anyone can, it’s Kosugi & company.

First published in the Herald, 1984.

Sometimes sheer recitation of a plot, with appropriate annotation, is fitting, and obviously I thought that was the case with this movie. It conquered me. Lucinda Dickey had an abbreviated career, with this film and Breakin’ and its notoriously named sequel, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo her main credits. I have not revisited the world of Ninja III or its predecessors, but I’m fine with keeping it that way: one memory, kept pristine, untouched by time or age. And here it is.