Encounter at Raven’s Gate

July 2, 2020

encounterraven'sgateEncounter at  Raven’s Gate begins just the way science fiction movies are supposed to begin. In lonely Australian farm country, a burned circle is found in a hayfield. Some sheep  die of dehydration, though water is nearby. Dead birds rain down from the night sky.

Cool. Obviously, something bizarre is about to be revealed. Don’t expect an explanation, however; the answer isn’t spelled out, although the movie suggests it may have something to do with visitors from outer space. No, this film is more interested in creating a mood, a sinister atmosphere.

The atmosphere swirls around a farmer (Ritchie Singer), his bored wife (Celine Griffin) and his ne’er­-do-well younger brother, Eddie (Steven Vidler). Eddie has just been bounced out of jail and works at his brother’s place as part of his probation.

While the movie tantalizes with hints of the supernatural, it also unfolds some pretty odd doings among its supposedly normal characters. For instance, Eddie’s barmaid girlfriend is being romanced by a frustrated policeman, an increasingly demented opera lover who seems to have wandered out of Blue Velvet.

The other film that comes to mind while watching Raven’s Gate is The Last Wave, an Australian film of the 1970s that also traded in dark, biblical warnings. The difference is, Last Wave director Peter Weir was masterful in subtly building a sense of dread. Raven’s Gate director Rolf de Heer (who wrote the script with producer Marc Rosenberg) throws rounder punches.

But make no mistake, this movie has some spooky stuff. The camera has a disembodied, fluid presence, which gives even the simplest scene a disconcerting feeling. And now and then some character will simply lose it completely, as when a man turns to a corpse that he’s just placed in the passenger seat of his car and says, reaching for the seat belt, “Now, we’ve got to buckle up.” Creepy – and worth a look, for fans of the genre.

First published in The Herald, February 1, 1990

The film was originally released in Australia as Incident at Raven’s Gate. Rolf de Heer has of course gone on to an extensive career, including high points such as Bad Boy Bubby (you haven’t seen this? oh boy), The Tracker, and Ten Canoes. This one I’d like to see again – despite my measured reaction, it sounds like my kind of thing.

The Serpent and the Rainbow

June 24, 2020

serpentandrainbowAt one point in The Serpent and the Rainbow, a business executive asks anthropologist/adventurer Dennis Alan, “What do you know about zombification?”

Alan allows himself a sidelong glance before he answers, “Only what I see on the late show.” The Serpent and the Rainbow is the story of Alan’s discovery of the voodoo religion and zombies, and in many ways the film seems determined to strip the Hollywood exaggerations from the mystery of voodoo.

Unfortunately, the movie falls prey to plenty of the usual clichés, without being as entertaining or well­ crafted as some of those late-show items.

Alan (Bill Pullman, the dumb guy from Ruthless People) ventures down to Haiti in hope of finding the formula by which people are turned into zombies – that is, the powder that brings them to a near-death state, after which they are buried, exhumed, and forced to work at menial jobs while drugged. The drug­-company exec who finances the trip looks forward to marketing an anaesthetic called “Zombinal.”

But our hero has his hands full, with the lovely Haitian doctor (Cathy Tyson, from Mona Lisa) who serves as his guide; the brutal politico (Zakes Mokae) who has the deadly Tonton Macoute at his bidding; and the slippery shaman (Brent Jennings) who is preparing a sample of the zombie powder. Meanwhile, Baby Doc Duvalier’s regime is beginning to topple.

A lot of activity, this. Too much, in fact, for the movie to sort through and make sense of. The director, Wes Craven, is one of moviedom’s darker figures, a former philosophy professor who now and then cranks out an honest-to-goodness screamfest (A Nightmare on Elm Street). Craven would seem to be the perfect choice for the needed balance of religious mystery, action and flat-out horror.

But the movie, which has be very loosely taken from Wade Davis nonfiction book, clumps from scene to scene without much logical locomotion. Alan’s narration has to fill in the gaps, and even with that his actions don’t seem to follow any pattern; the storytelling is curiously disjointed.

Craven’s best touches are the nightmarish dreams that Alan experiences, which often have false endings and surreal moments. But even this technique is held over from Elm Street, and doesn’t truly engage the heady complexities of voodoo.

Far too many missed opportunites here. Those late-show movies may have given a distorted view of voodoo and zombies, but at least they provided some chilling storytelling. I’ll take Val Lewton’s poetic 1942 I Walked with a Zombie over The Serpent and the Rainbow any time.

First published in The Herald, February 9, 1988

I want to like this movie more, given its director and subject matter, but I haven’t revisited it. Pullman was interesting casting at the time, and skewed the movie for me at the time, I recall (as in, I’m supposed to take that guy seriously?). Post-Lost Highway, that might not be such an issue.


June 1, 2020

spellbinderGood little horror movies are still a rarity these days, so Spellbinder is recommended for fans of the genre. It’s an intelligent movie that forgoes gore in favor of creating a more generally sinister ambiance.

It’s about a normal, somewhat lonely, Los Angeles lawyer (Timothy Daly), who witnesses a scuffle between a man and a woman in a parking lot and helps the woman (Kelly Preston) to his house. She stays. He’s deliriously happy, but as is the case with many seemingly perfect partners, she has a few troubling idiosyncrasies. The movie teases for a while, and eventually reveals that she is a witch.

She’s an unwilling witch, she says, and the other members of her coven want her back, so they can enlist her in a little human-sacrifice ceremony on the solstice. Our man, with the help of his best friend (Rick Rossovich), must try to protect her.

Screenwriter Tracy Tormé and director Janet Greek borrow a bit: The normalcy of the devil­ worshipers comes from Rosemary’s Baby; the lonely man drawn to an exotic, super­natural woman comes from Cat People. But Spellbinder creates an effective, dreadful atmosphere, with a couple of really dandy scenes, including the surprise epilog.

There’s a nicely shaded party scene when the new girlfriend is introduced around, and everyone loves her except the lawyer’s suspicious secretary. She happens to see the witch take a roast turkey out of the oven with her bare hands, which prompts the secretary to conclude, “That woman is trouble.”

This is director Greek’s first feature film, and Greek seems to bear gifts. She does a particularly good job of letting the story lay itself out in the opening reels, with subtlety and deliberateness. There’s a bit too much going on toward the end, but the film is well-acted and handsome, and it has just the right measure of unhealthiness.

First published in The Herald, September 1988

I realize now that the “without oven mitts” scene is borrowed from the 1963 British sci-fi film Unearthly Stranger, which I saw a couple of years ago. Janet Greek directed the “Weird Al” Yankovic music video, “Ricky,” and a good amount of TV until 1999. Screenwriter Tormé is the son of Mel Tormé, and wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and created Sliders; he was also a writer on SNL during some rough years. Music by Basil Poledouris. If you’re a genre person, you have to see this.


May 26, 2020

paperhousePaperhouse is a fascinating film that takes place primarily inside the mind of a young girl. This would automatically give it unusual status, but the film is a good deal better than merely unusual. It’s genuinely original.

The little girl in question is Anna (Charlotte Burke), who takes ill one day and is confined to bed. In her sketchpad, she has drawn a house on a grassy hill, surrounded by some strange standing stones. In her dreams that night, she seems to visit the site of this invented house.

In her waking state, Anna draws more details into the picture. Then, when she visits the house in her dreams, she finds these touches present and palpable. She adds the figure of a little boy (Elliott Spiers) inside the house, but she has drawn only the upper half of him behind a window, and when she arrives in the dream world, she finds he cannot walk.

Anna gradually becomes convinced that the little boy in her dreams has a counterpart in real life; he’s a sickly patient described to her by her doctor. Anna feels that by her drawings, she has the power to keep him alive or allow him to die.

It’s a weird premise, adapted by screenwriter Matthew Jacobs from Catherine Storrs’ novel Marianne Dreams. The little girl is clearly playing out her own anxieties and worries in her paper dream, including her testy relationship with her mother (Glenne Headly) and her ambivalent feelings about her father (Ben Cross), who is always away on business.

Eventually the movie erupts into some frightening, very disturbing imagery when Anna draws her father into her picture. Paperhouse taps into childhood fantasy and fears in ways that are reminiscent of the 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter, to say nothing of the unnerving, violent stories of the brothers Grimm.

The scenes of Anna’s family life are ordinary enough, but the dream sequences have an unreal, fairytale quality. The director, Bernard Rose, is making his first feature here, and his experience making music videos may account for his keen eye at capturing the surrealistic, highly stylized world of Anna’s dreams. It is one of the most vividly created worlds seen in a movie this year.

First published in The Herald, February 1989

I wish this review were better, because Paperhouse is a remarkable film – but at least I communicated that much. Rose had a hard time getting on track as a filmmaker; his next movie was the disastrous Chicago Joe and the Showgirl, then the classic horror picture Candyman, then the interesting Gary Oldman Beethoven film Immortal Beloved. The people who know this film apppreciate it – you know who you are.


April 24, 2020

trollA little girl wanders into the basement of an apartment house that her family is moving into. Between the washing machine and the dryer lurks a gnarly little fellow who magically inhabits her body. This is the title figure of Troll.

He uses her as a vehicle for a plot that he’s been hatching for centuries. He plans to put the world under the domination of the trolls, and he’s going to build his revolution from this San Francisco apartment house (which is really somewhere in Italy, where the movie was shot).

So he goes to each room in the guise of the little girl and zonks the inhabitant with a magical green ring that turns the victim into a pod, which then explodes and changes the room into a verdant expanse of forest primeval. A bunch of little soldier trolls come running out, ready to conquer the world.

Only a few roomers resist: the little girl’s parents (Michael Moriarty and Shelley Hack), and the mysterious lady upstairs (June Lockhart of Lost in Space), who turns out to be a witch – a real one.

This is a weird idea for a movie, and not all of it works out well. In fact, it’s pretty dumb. But the little creatures, designed by director John Carl Buechler, are quite good. Troll is also funny (intentionally, too), and full of odd, pleasant actors.

Moriarty, for example. A decade ago, he looked like one of the hottest young actors around; now, outside of the occasional plum (Pale Rider), he’s become a horror regular (in Q and the upcoming The Stuff). But he’s still good to watch.

And former Charlie’s Angel Shelley Hack gives a warm, intelligent performance as the mother. Hack, who did a superb supporting turn in The King of Comedy, might do interesting work if anyone gave her the chance.

The other boarders are played by a curious band of has-beens, including Gary Sandy (WKRP in Cincinnati) as a gung-ho health nut; Julia Louis-Dreyfus; and Brad Hall, who used to do nothing on Saturday Night Live and who also does nothing here; and most importantly, Sony Bono as a self-professed swinger.

Sonny is the first victim of the troll, and the strangely satisfying sequence in which he is transformed into a forest glen is the film’s high point. The troll makes Sonny’s body turn into a big pea pod and then decomposes his body through various disgusting stages, which is a little repulsive to watch – however, this is Sonny Bono, remember; it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

First published in the Herald, January 23, 1986

The kid’s name in the movie is Harry Potter, so I guess that’s another footnote to Troll’s already-solid legend. Buechler died in 2019, a special-effects maven and sometime director (he did VII in the Friday the 13th series). I’m slinging the snark in this review, so apologies to Sonny Bono and the rest of the gang, and I think it’s fair to say that calling Julia Louis-Dreyfus a has-been (this was her first movie, but post-SNL stint) was probably premature.



December 12, 2019

firestarterOverheard while walking out of the theater after Firestarter: “Let that be a lesson to you: never volunteer for scientific experiments.” Words of wisdom. But if people, real or fictional, ever heeded  that lesson, we’d be robbed of a lot of science fiction/horror stories.

In Firestarter, the latest film adaptation of a Stephen King tale, a scientific experiment with hallucinogenic drugs alters the minds of David Keith and Heather Locklear, who develop certain telekinetic powers. Their eventual offspring (Drew Barrymore) is even more gifted: She can start fires just by concentrating.

This makes the little girl a target of interest for the fiendish government agency (called The Shop) that started the whole experiment in the first place. One doctor (Freddie Jones) wants to expunge the kid’s talent before she passes through adolescence and develops nuclear capabilities. Naturally, he’s not long for the world.

The Shop would rather exploit her abilities. The head honcho (Martin Sheen) sends his most fearsome hit man, a psycho named Rainbird (George C. Scott), out to bring back the girl and her father (mother having been killed in a flashback).

Some of this gets a bit murky. We don’t really know what kind of powers Keith has, for instance, or why, if he can control people, he doesn’t just manipulate an effective solution. And, when Barrymore is eventually imprisoned, it should occur to her that she could burn her way out. Evidently it doesn’t.

Plot holes such as these don’t stop the movie from being a fairly good, professional job. Director Mark L. Lester doesn’t have a very clean visual style, but at least he doesn’t let the film become a guts ‘n gore epic. And the star-heavy cast, presumably bankrolled by the inexhaustible executive producer Dino De Lau rentiis, makes it watchable.

Oscar-winners Art Carney and Louise Fletcher have the kind of supporting roles that could have been played by almost any actors. Scott, however, makes the most of Rainbird, who insinuates himself into a friendship with the child, then reveals his despicability in the climactic scene. As he stalks Barrymore through a stable, toting a pistol and wearing an eye patch, he looks like a deranged version of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn – truly a child’s dream turned into a nightmare.

Someone had the canny idea to cast cherubic Drew Barrymore – the little sister from E.T. – as the tiny heroine. Her naturally likable presence plays well against the reality of her terrifying power. Every few minutes, she gets to burn something to the ground, which she does with deadpan intensity.

All through the film, we’ve been made aware that all the girl wants to do is live a normal life. At the end, after The Shop gets its just reward, our heroine doesn’t quite fade into the general populace. Instead, she finds herself at the front door of the New York Times, ready to reveal all. Good grief. Out of the frying pan . . . .

First published in the Herald, May 1984

I never saw it again, and don’t have much recollection of it. You’d think the George C. Scott stuff would be memorable, but I honestly had no memory that he was in this movie until just now. To say nothing of Heather Locklear, of whom we will say nothing.

Link/Trick or Treat

November 1, 2019

link2Just in time for Halloween, here are two decently produced horror films, both of which go disappointingly awry from unusual premises.

Link attempts a Stephen King-ish story about some apes getting the better of their master, a scientist (Terence Stamp), at his lonely Cornwall mansion. Actually, it’s just one ape who goes bad, an orangutan named Link who’s been trained to outsmart humans. All too well, as it turns out.

Link gets the upper paw, dispenses with the professor, starts threatening the young house­keeper (Elisabeth Shue) who can’t seem to figure out a way to get out of the house.

The director here is the Australian Richard Franklin, who has made some good chillers (Road Games, Psycho II). And Franklin actually directs the film well – he mounts a few exciting sequences. But the basic idea finally seems so silly that even Franklin’s efforts can’t jerk the movie onto a higher evolutionary plane.

trickortreatTrick or Treat is even more disappointing. It springs from a potentially funny-scary Idea that a demonic rock ‘n’ roller might be raised from the dead by a coded backward message on one of his albums.

A teen-age misfit (Marc Price) is stunned when his hero, heavy metal monster Sammi Curr (Tony Fields), dies suddenly. A sympathetic DJ (Gene Simmons) gives the kid the acetate recording of Curr’s last, yet-to-be-released album: Songs in the Key of Death.

When played backward, the secret messages on the album form an incantation that brings Curr back. He’s as surly as ever, but now he has supernatural powers. When his music is played, it melts the ears of kids who listen to it. He must be stopped, and only our hero can do it.

The excesses and self-importance of heavy metal deserve satirizing, and so do the bluenose attitudes of those who would ban the music. Trick or Treat does some of both but blows most of the good opportunities. The script is all over the place, and doesn’t know what it wants to do. Charles Martin Smith directed the film; he’s the actor who played the nerd In American Graffiti and the lead in Never Cry Wolf. He gets off a few funny ideas – the villaincan reach into a TV set and yank out the person onscreen – but most of the movie is as thick and tortuous as Sammi Curr’s music.

First published in the Herald, October 1986

Charles Martin Smith continues to direct; his 1992 film Fifty-Fifty is an unusual picture that has some old-movie zest to it. Other than that, does anybody remember this film? Link has enjoyed some cult approval, I think, especially with that good cast (and Jerry Goldsmith did the music). Franklin had previously done the creditable Psycho II, and went on to make F/X 2, whereupon he went back to mostly Australian work.