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.


October 30, 2012

Boy meets car, boy loses car, boy gets car back. Hmm, Christine is a different kind of love story—in this case, the object of an adolescent boy’s affection is his red 1958 Plymouth Fury.

Well, maybe that’s not so weird. The kid’s pretty lonely, and the car is the only thing on which he can lavish his attention. Its name—her name—is Christine.

Christine is a horror movie as well as a love story, however, and the terror twist here is that the car is possessed by the devil. Actually, we don’t ever find out exactly what the car has that makes it so mean, but whatever it is, it likes rock ‘n roll and murder.

Christine’s previous owner was haunted by a history of violent death in the family—and they all died, over the years, in the malevolent car. When 17-year-old Arnie (Keith Gordon) buys Christine as a broken-down pile of junk, he doesn’t care about the history of the car—he just knows that he has some mysterious connection to it.

He fixes up Christine so that she’s all shiny, and in the process, he starts to change himself. The whimpering nerd is banished, and a veritable Mr. Hyde emerges. It isn’t long before Arnie, in his new swaggering persona, is dating the prettiest girl at Rockbridge High—and taking her to the drive-in, courtesy Christine.

Arnie used to be bothered by bullies. But Christine flexes her chrome and—no more bullies. In fact, Christine may be doing her job a little too thoroughly. The local police are staring to sniff around, wondering why all the creeps who once bugged Arnie are being found with tire tracks on their letterman’s jackets.

This premise, based on Stephen King’s best seller, might have been a lot of fun. But the movie is so straightforward and one-note that it becomes rather boring.

The director, John (Halloween) Carpenter, whose early promise as one of the leading lights of the New Hollywood is dimming rapidly, does not seem to be particularly engaged by the material. He tries to develop the idea of Arnie’s loneliness being answered by this seductive machine, but that really gets skipped over pretty quickly. Not much is allowed to stem the flow of car stunts and chases.

And even the stunts and special effects aren’t unusually impressive. The teen crowd may be disappointed by Carpenter’s customary restraint when it comes to the more graphic elements of gore ‘n guts that have been the bread and butter of so many horror movies lately.

Christine herself, it should be said, is a hot number. Whether cruising down a highway in flames or dramatically reconstructing herself after absorbing a pounding from the local toughs, she’s a formidable machine. But it doesn’t say much for Christine to point out that she has more personality by far than anyone else in the film.

First published in the Herald, December 10, 1983

I would have guessed that sometime in the last 29 years I would have given this movie another look, but apparently I had other priorities. At this moment in Carpenter’s career I was perpetually disappointed, so maybe I’d see the movie with kinder eyes today.

Pet Sematary

October 29, 2012

During the end credits of Pet Sematary, a message reminds us that “No animals were harmed in any way” during filming. This is small reassurance, because it’s the animals in Pet Sematary that are threatening harm, not the other way around.

It’s another movie adaptation of a novel by frightmeister Stephen King, but this time King wrote the screenplay himself. Adding interest is the choice of director Mary Lambert, an artsy type who has made some of the better music videos, including Sting’s “We’ll Be Together” and Madonna’s new scandal, “Like a Prayer.”

Pet Sematary turns out to be one of the better King adaptations. Nothing major here, but it delivers the goods.

King’s scary idea in this one is that a family moves into a remote house in rural Maine, and discovers that its property borders on a pet sema—er, cemetery. As the old geezer (Fred Gwynne) across the road informs them, the cemetery does pretty good business, since the road outside carries constant truck traffic and the local critters are not quite fast enough.

But there’s another funny thing about the cemetery. Animals that are buried there have a way of not staying dead, as the young husband (Dale Midkiff) finds out when the family cat is felled by an 18-wheeler. Kitty comes back, but with a distinctly malevolent attitude. The movie’s kicker comes when Midkiff asks the old-timer the inevitable question: Has anybody ever buried a human out there?

Lambert mounts some scary sequences, and a few of the images are truly creepy. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t get much better than merely effective, because there are too many gaps in the narrative. However, any horror movie that ends with a Ramones song can’t be all bad: “Don’t put me in a pet cemetery….”

First published in the Herald, April 27, 1989

The movie seems to have its share of fans. It’s superior to Silver Bullet, and probably Maximum Overdrive too, but I’m not sure that’s saying very much. Denise Crosby was the female lead.

Stand by Me

May 11, 2012

I started to tell the story of Stand by Me to a friend the other day, and after I’d gotten through a few sentences’ worth of description, she stopped me. “That’s the third time you’ve used the phrase ‘really neat,'” she said. She was right.

I will do what I can to avoid the phrase, but blast it, Stand by Me is really neat. And it’s something more than that, too.

Rob Reiner directed the film, his third in what should be a long and fruitful career. (The first two were This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing, both utter delights. Once upon a time, he played Meathead on “All in the Family.”) Reiner’s source is unexpected: Stand by Me is adapted from a novella called The Body, by Stephen King.

Stephen King? Then why don’t the TV commercials for this movie have King leering into the camera and saying, “I’m gonna scare the hell out of you”? Well, it’s not that kind of Stephen King. In fact, The Body (which, after filming, was given its vague new title) is a nostalgic non-horror story that turns on a simply beautiful idea.

One summer day in 1959, much like any other in Castle Rock, Ore., a kid overhears two older boys talking about a dead body they spotted some miles away, by the railroad tracks. They didn’t report it, because they were out there doing something illicit.

They know who the corpse is (was?); the missing boy they’ve all been hearing about on the radio.

The young eavesdropper runs to his buddies back at the treehouse. Wouldn’t it be neat to go see that dead body? They’ve never seen one before. Besides, it would be a fun overnight camping trip through the forest.

Out they go, and the rest of the film is their journey. The movie’s main weakness is that this is all too clearly a major rite of passages for the boys. It’s the moment when the two maturing kids will pull irrevocably past the two more childish ones. But the trip itself is so enjoyable, and so rich in deeply felt detail, that the glaringly symbolic nature of the odyssey doesn’t hamstring things.

The script by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans utilizes salty dialogue and a grasp of the stuff that matters when you’re very young (the best food in the world, it is decided, is cherry-flavored Pez).

The story is set in a flashback, told by a writer—a cameo, and a very nice one, by Richard Dreyfuss—who was the brightest, most imaginative of the boys. During the forest trek, he (played by Wil Wheaton) comes to terms with the recent death of his idealized older brother (John Cusack, star of The Sure Thing). In a weird way, seeing the body of a dead kid by the railroad tracks helps him.

The other boys are played by River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell, and all are fine. Kiefer Sutherland, Donald’s son, does good mean work as the leader of the toughs who found the body in the first place. The toughs, by the way, swig Rainier beer. Reiner gets the details right.

It’s not a perfect or great film; Reiner might have pruned some of the more touchy-feely dialogue, which 12-year-olds were probably not spouting in 1959. But it’s consistently good, and certain images—a deer in the night, the sound of a train that might just be approaching as the boys walk across a trestle—are for keeps. In short, this movie is really, really—no, I won’t say it again. But you know what I mean.

First published in the Herald, August 1986

The change probably helped the movie’s fortunes, but The Body would have been an excellent title. It’s got the plainness of a classic Ray Bradbury title, and the material is of course very Bradburyesque in its understanding of stuff that actually matters to children. I’m not sure how neat I would find this movie today, although it might be interesting to watch it  knowing how the lives of its young actors turned out.

American Ninja II and Creepshow 2

November 21, 2011

If you recall American Ninja, you’ll remember that our hero (Michael Dudikoff) is an American Army man, trained in the ways of the mysterious, black-hooded ninja. This makes him all but indestructible. If you think about it, this removes a considerable amount of suspense, since the guy can’t possibly be threatened by any conventional opposition.

Nevertheless, he’s back in American Ninja II, again victorious over insurmountable odds. Joined by his Ranger buddy (Steve James, who has become a kind of black Chuck Norris), Dudikoff travels to a tropical island to solve the mystery of disappearing Marines. As the plot unreels—or, rather, unravels—it turns out that a batch of the ninja are carting away American military men to be cloned in experiments to produce a race of “SuperNinjas.”

In other words, “Karate Theatre” meets The Island of Dr. Moreau. Very strange story. However, director Sam Firstenberg, who has made a lot of weird stuff for Cannon Films, keeps this one lively for at least its first two thirds (there’s a barroom brawl about every five minutes). Then the SuperNinja business gets out of hand, and the movie grinds down.

Creepshow 2 is another sequel, but this time spun off from an original film that was quite watchable. The first Creepshow had the indefatigable Stephen King writing a screenplay, directed by George Romero, that paid affectionate homage to pulpy horror comic books. It wasn’t too scary, but it was stylish and fun.

For the sequel, Romero has adapted a trio of King short stories, but the directing reins are held by Michael Gorlick. King’s actual participation is limited to an acting cameo, as a dimwitted truck driver, that is actually one of the sharpest performances in the movie.

The first story is called “Old Chief Wood’n Head,” and it’s a snoozer that wastes Dorothy Lamour and George Kennedy in a tale of Native American justice. The second, “The Raft,” is somewhat better, if only because King’s idea is basically scary. It’s about a quartet of teens trapped on a raft, in the middle of a lake, by a huge gloppy thing that slides across the surface of the water.

The film is rounded off by “The Hitchhiker,” about a woman (Lois Chiles) who runs over and kills a hitcher, only to have him disconcertingly return. It’s the best of the lot, directed and acted with some intensity and black humor, with some of the creepiness inherent in spooky stories about hitchhikers. But it’s not quite enough to justify sitting through the previous tales, brief though they are.

First published in the Herald, June 5, 1987

Creepshow 2 was a bum deal, even if “The Raft” sticks in the mind as one of King’s effective stories. I have forgotten AN II, but the plot sounds agreeably deranged. Firstenberg (I don’t need to tell you) managed a few outrageous Cannon titles, including the stupefying Ninja III: The Domination. The real title of this Firstenberg effort is apparently American Ninja 2: The Confrontation, but I guess I didn’t know that at the time.

The Running Man

January 13, 2011

Dawson and Arnold, together again

There’s some hard, mean fun to be had in The Running Man, the new Arnold Schwarzenegger film, in which he plays yet another version of the monosyllabic man. Much of the fun, no doubt, comes directly from the novel by Richard Bachman, a pseudonym for the appallingly prolific Stephen King.

The book and film propose a futuristic game show in which the contestants are criminals who are hunted down and killed by professional stalkers. And it all happens live, in living color, on nationwide television. The most dangerous game indeed.

The show doesn’t merely generate rating points, it also pacifies the population, which suits the shadowy totalitarian government just fine. They supply the criminals, the cartoonish stalkers provide the bloodshed.

Schwarzenegger stumbles into all this when he’s falsely convicted of mass murder. Now known as the “Butcher of Bakersfield,” he’s delivered into the diabolical hands of the creator-host of the “Running Man” show (played by former “Family Feud” host Richard Dawson with all the evil unctuousness he can muster, which is a lot).

So, of course, the better part of the movie is taken up with Arnold’s battles against the stalkers, who have names such as Fireball, Buzzsaw and Dynamo. As expected, this makes for some punchy action sequences set in a war-zone vision of Los Angeles.

Also expected in Schwarzenegger films are the terrible puns that the actor spouts with alarming regularity; after cleaving Buzzsaw in two, he reports that the stalker “had to split.” There’s a bit of love interest, too, with Maria Conchita Alonso coming along for the run. (Arnold’s most charming line to her, before they become friends: “Remember, I could snap your neck like a chicken’s.”)

But the film’s at its best in the realm of nightmare fantasy. We see commercials for shows such as “Climbing for Dollars,” in which contestants must scrap for cash in a room full of bloodthirsty Dobermans. And any time Dawson is holding forth to his rabid studio audience, the movie really falls into its black-humored groove.

Directing is Paul Michael Glaser, who used to be Starsky in “Starsky and Hutch,” and thus knows something about violence and television. Glaser herds all the action effectively, but someday some director is going to have to work up the nerve to tell Arnold: Please, no more puns, no more puns.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

This opened a few months after Predator, and in both reviews I make a cute little oblique reference to the classic short story, The Most Dangerous Game. Well, sue me. I blame the movies for having a limited imaginative spectrum. Also, I think this was about the last time you could use the phrase “in living color” and assume your audience took it as a reference to the Sixties slogan about color television programs rather than the Wayans brothers’ TV series (not that either would register today). All in all, this has to be counted another shrewd outing for Arnold, blending pure action with the hip irony that tries to distance itself from that action. And the casting of Richard Dawson really does make the picture—why don’t people think of stuff like that more often?

Haunted Honeymoon/Maximum Overdrive

January 4, 2011

Here are a pair of chillers with only one thing in common: They’re not scary.

The less said about Haunted Honeymoon the better. If you’re a fan of Gene Wilder’s, as I am, you’ll probably come away from his latest film (he stars, directs, and co-scripts) terribly depressed.

Wilder has a few funny moments as an actor, but he clearly doesn’t know how to make movies. This 80-minute trifle is shockingly inept in the simplest business of storytelling; you’re never even quite sure who the characters are supposed to be, let alone why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Wilder and Gilda Radner play radio actors from the heyday of radio drama who spend an evening in Wilder’s family home, a brooding old mansion straight out of the Universal horror films of the early 1930s. Some lame explanation about Wilder’s uncle (Paul L. Smith) wanting to scare Wilder for medical reasons is given, but it makes no sense.

Once inside, the scares aren’t scary—except perhaps for Wilder’s aunt, played by Dom DeLuise, who isn’t supposed to be scary—and the jokes aren’t funny. Some good actors are wasted, especially the brilliant Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) and Bryan Pringle, who takes the Marty Feldman butler role.

Now to someone who knows how to scare: Stephen King. Having seen a raft of movies released under his name—and reportedly growing increasingly upset about the rock-bottom quality of most—King has finally gotten a chance to direct a movie.

It’s Maximum Overdrive, based on an early King story called “Trucks.” And it’s all about the Earth going crazy when it passes through some kind of force field (possibly a comet’s tail) and all the machines becoming malevolent. Especially these trucks, which descend on a North Carolina truck stop called the Dixie Boy and scare the bewhoozis out of the people inside.

All right, so it doesn’t sound that scary. But Steven Spielberg proved once and for all that a truck could be a very frightening thing, in Duel, so surely Stephen King can do it—right?

No, not really. I’ve not read the story, so I don’t know if King made it work there. But Maximum Overdrive, after a burst of inspiration in its opening sequences, soon becomes mired in the dull situation at the Dixie Boy.

Some of the ingenious and sick touches in the early going suggest a nutty promise. A drawbridge goes haywire and dumps it riders all over the road. A Coke machine goes berserk—all that caffeine, probably—and kills by spitting out cans. A driverless ice cream truck prowls suburban streets looking for human prey, while “King of the Road” tinkles from its bell.

But then King’s well of inspiration runs dry. Back at the Dixie Boy, we watch as the short-order cook (Emilio Estevez) haggles with the redneck owner (Pat Hingle) and romances a hitchhiker (Laura Harrington).

The possessed trucks circle the place endlessly, in a curiously unfrightening way. One good moment: A waitress, distraught, hysterically shouts at the machines, “We made you! Where’s your sense of loyalty?”

King does manage a few gross, effective, perverse touches. What he doesn’t manage to do is to make a particularly scary movie. To give King the benefit of the doubt, I’d like to believe this has more to do with the simple choice of poor material than with his talents as a director. Next time, no trucks. How about an old, dilapidated mansion on a rainy night full of weird people with a lunatic in the cellar….

First published in the Herald, July 1986

It doesn’t seem that a movie with Dom DeLuise in drag could be entirely awful, but there you go. If anybody deserved to make good movies together, surely Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner did, but it didn’t go that way (I have a review ready to go of Hanky Panky here, too, and it’s hard to know which movie is worse).

According to, Stephen King has said he was coked out of his mind while making Maximum Overdrive. I still think it would be interesting to see him direct something, although his “author approved” TV version of The Shining suggests he doesn’t grasp certain things about how scary movies succeed vs. how scary books succeed. Not that I’m questioning his expertise in the latter, but…let’s see how he directs again.