Summer Heat

January 16, 2020

summerheatTerrence Malick’s Days of Heaven was one of the singular American films of the 1970s. It was poetic, photographically lush, yet it told a story that is as old as the land: a classic triangle of love, lust and death.

One of his assistants on that movie was a UCLA film school graduate named Michie Gleason. She is now a writer-director in her own right, and has made a film that shares a very similar subject with Malick’s Llke Days of Heaven, Summer Heat is a stark tale set in the heartland, a triangle that ends in death.

But Days of Heaven safely retains its singular status. Aside from the resemblance in plot, Summer Heat can’t compare with the earlier film; fact is, it’s barely competent in its own terms.

Gleason adapted the movie from Louise Shivers’ novel, Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail. In this story, set in North Carolina in 1937, the angles of the triangle are embodied by Roxy (Lori Singer), a lanky farmwife, her dullard farmer husband Aaron (Anthony Edwards), and a chiseled drifter (Bruce Abbott) who blows into town, lands a job as Aaron’s farmhand, and quickly slides into Roxy’s bed. As befits the Tobacco Row setting, there is much dust kicked around by bare feet on wooden floors, mandolins picked at night by the fire, and heavy heartland-America music swelling on the soundtrack. In short, all the usual cliches of the genre.

Nothing seems original here. Gleason goes neither for stylization (as Malick did in his film) nor realism – there’s no earthy, believable life. So the movie hangs in between, unsure of its approach. There’s a facile feminist message near the end, but it’s a cheap way to tie things up.

Lacking a distinct vision, Gleason might have let the actors make it interesting, but she barely allows them to perk. Lori Singer, of Footloose, is still a largely impassive  screen presence, although she looks convincingly wan, continually boxed within window frames as she is.

Anthony Edwards, the funny sidekick from Top Gun, barely registers in this somber role. Bruce Abbott looks his part, but isn’t required to do much more than smolder. All three of them remain children of the 1980s; you never quite buy the period. And the movie has no resonance, despite its grim subject, partly because these actors are so young. Their faces don’t register any past experiences.

Gleason does avoid having her cast assume heavy Southern accents, a tendency that usually makes the soundtracks of films such as this sound like a really painful high-school production of Tennessee Williams. Curiously, this bit of good taste has the effect of making Summer Heat even duller than it already is.

First published in the Herald, 1987

This one has slipped through the cracks. Kathy Bates was in it, too, three years  before Misery.  It’s narrated by Dorothy McGuire, which is sort of interesting (A Summer Place shout-out?), and shot by Eliot Davis. The IMDb comments say there’s a song by Kim Carnes, too.

 


Bad Dreams

October 31, 2012

Bad Dreams is an example of what is becoming a frequent form for the modern horror movie. It’s half straight, half put-on, all hip.

Movies such as The Terminator, The Evil Dead, and The Hidden have staked out similar territory, with some success.

In these films, the order of the day is outrageousness, and Bad Dreams has an abundance of that. The film’s prologue describes a Manson-like cult leader dousing his flock (a bunch of people who look like Squeaky Fromme) in gasoline and burning them all up in an isolate country house. One survives, a girl (Jennifer Rubin) who spends the next 13 years in a coma.

When she returns to the conscious world, she enters a group therapy session at a hospital, a collection of nervous patients described by their doctor (Bruce Abbott, a veteran of Re-Animator duty) as “The borderline personality group.” Rubin is convinced the cult leader is still pursuing her, a conviction that gains credence in the way the other patients keep dying off in mysterious ways.

This section of the movie indulges in mucho sick humor, as a trysting couple falls into the turbine ventilation system and the air ducts flow with human blood; and a young patient works off his excess energy by mutilating himself to the tune of Sid Vicious’s “My Way.” Among other things.

Well, maybe that doesn’t sound all that funny. But a lot of Bad Dreams is irreverently hilarious, thanks to the swift touch of director/co-writer Andrew Fleming and producer Gale Ann Hurd (she produced Gremlins). They keep the punchlines (and the graphic bloodletting) coming, and it may not be until after the movie is over that you realize how little has actually happened.

The way Bad Dreams finally comes up short is in failing to exploit the whole cult-family subject. There are a lot of possibilities, horrific and darkly comic, in the milieu. Fleming and Hurd obviously chose not to pursue those aspects, which is their right, and as it is Bad Dreams is high-energy wackiness. It’s also disposable and forgettable, and not even very scary.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

Fleming later made Dick, which is a movie I happen to like a whole lot, so whatever it took to get him there is fine by me.


Re-Animator

October 26, 2012

Based loosely on an H.P. Lovecraft tale, Re-Animator brings us another variation on the Frankensteinian desire to bring the dead back to life.

This time it’s set in a New England hospital, where an intense young intern, Herbert (Jeffrey Combs), arrives bearing a strange new potion. He’s fresh from studying with a disturbed genius in Switzerland, and he believes his serum can re-animate dead tissue.

He moves in with a fellow student, David (Bruce Abbott), and promptly “borrows” his friend’s cat for an experiment. The dead cat is injected with the serum, but the dosage is too high; the crazy kitty starts bouncing off the walls and screeching its lungs out.

This gets David’s attention: he’s initially horrified but then fascinated by the process. But when he tells the dean of the medical school (whose daughter he is dating) about it, he gets himself expelled.

Hoping for a dramatic demonstration of the re-animation process, the two lads sneak into the hospital morgue and inject a corpse. It—he—springs into life, unwieldy and insane. Unfortunately, the dean picks that moment to walk in on the experiment, and the re-animated corpse kills him.

But, as our heroes have proven, death is not necessarily forever, and …well, you get the picture.

Lots of things get re-animated after this, including a nutty professor who’s been lusting after David’s girlfriend Meg (Barbara Crampton). This professor had discovered Herbert’s secret formula, so the young genius decapitated him; but then, in a gory sequence, his parts are re-animated with such skill that he walks around, escapes from the lab, and even manages to kidnap Meg.

The professor’s corpse then brings her back to the laboratory—stay with me here—and when Herbert finds them there, it sets him up for one of the funniest lines of dialogue heard all year: “So, professor—you discover the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed co-ed?”

I hope these descriptions impart some of the flavor of the film. Its subject matter is thoroughly gross and repulsive, and it’s made with a considerable amount of wit and skill. It’s not a comedy, although there are some sly bits thrown in, straight-faced.

Nope, this one just wants to make audiences jump, and that they do—when they’re not groaning from the explicit examinations of autopsies and decaying corpses, that is. Bleccch.

Stuart Gordon, who also worked on the screenplay, directed with a healthy sense of what will make an audience squirm. He shouldn’t be pardoned for the rip-off of Bernard Herrmann’s music from Psycho, though; it’s blatant.

But then, it’s a blatant film—it doesn’t hold much back. If you’re queasy about such things, don’t go. You won’t last.

First published in the Herald, December 10, 1985

The giddy high points of Re-Animator were a true breath of fresh air back then, especially in a horror field that had grown dismal with slashing. The movie seems to loom over everything Stuart Gordon and the actors have done since, and I guess there are worse things in life.