May 21, 2020

mischiefThere’s nothing new about the situations essayed in Michief: You have your basic high-school high jinks, 1950s vintage, in a small Ohio town.

You have the class virgin. You have the class beauty. You have the perfect couple. And, just when everything seems hunky-dory, you get the class outsider – the kid from the big city who wheels in on a motorcycle.

Nothing fresh there, but the makers of Mischief have taken those elements and fashioned something – well, if not exactly world-beating, then at least rather nice. They’ve succeeded in this despite a screenplay that seems terribly undernourished in inspiration.

That’s funny, because screenwriter Noel Black (he’s also executive producer) directed a very interesting movie called Pretty Poison once upon a time. But Black’s script, which recalls his days as an Ohio youth, resorts to some disappointingly standard adolescent crises.

This is salvaged somewhat by director Mel Damski (he used to direct for Lou Grant), who has a feeling for the atmosphere of the small town – in this case, Nelsonville, Ohio. He also captures a few moments that have truth about them: a guy playing a solitary game of basketball on a slow spring day, or a very evocative malt-shop dance, with some swaying bodies seen from outside a window through the rain, that hits absolutely the right note.

The main attraction of Mischief is its cast of up-and-comers. Doug McKeon, the kid from On Golden Pond, is likable as the youth desperate for deflowering; Catherine Mary Stewart, who cut a very fine figure indeed in Night of the Comet, is half of the perfect couple (the other half, a bully preppy, is played with precision by D. W. Brown); Kelly Preston is very believable as McKeon’s object of desire; and Chris Nash makes an impressive debut as the bike-riding loner.

Stewart, Preston, and Nash were in town recently to promote the film, and they were enthusiastic about the project, which had been a long time in being realized. It had gone through various directors and name changes (Heart and Soul, one of the many ‘50s tunes that dot the soundtrack, was the original title). Nash insists that he must have been involved in the project “for like eight years” before it came time to actually shoot the film.

Once on location, however, things were just swell among the cast members, who rave about the good spirits (and occasional under-water kung-fu bouts) in Nelsonville. In fact, the town barely needed refurbishing to give it that ‘50s look: “It almost looked too precious” at first, says Stewart, “they just made it a little more colorful.” Nash paid it the ultimate movie person’s compliment: When they first got to town, “It looked just like the backlot of 20th Century Fox.” An odd observation, perhaps, until you remember that what we know of small-town values and feelings has come in large part from the movies.

Mischief can’t quite sustain that brand of backlot, small-town charm, and one too many jokes are stale. It works up some good feeling, but, as with the recent Flamingo Kid, the pleasant company can’t quite disguise the fact that we’ve seen all this sort of thing before.

First published in The Herald, February 1985

You’d think this movie would be a little better known, if only for the saucy presence of Kelly Preston, John Travolta’s wife. I left Jami Gertz and Terry O’Quinn out of the cast list. I remember meeting this trio in the lobby/bar of a Seattle hotel (I can picture it, but can’t actually remember which one), and thinking how these Hollywood people certainly were capable of being attractive.


The Last Starfighter

November 14, 2019

laststarfighterThis is one marvelous idea for a movie: A kid who lives in a trailer park just outside of Nowheresville, U.S.A., is a champion at the community’s one and only video game. Un­beknownst to him, when he breaks the game record, a signal is loosed that travels across the galaxy, to a planet that needs rocket pilots – or “star­ fighters.”

The lad is promptly picked up by his interstellar recruiter and whisked away to another world, where bad aliens are threatening the defense system of good aliens.

Since he’s already a master of the control board, he just needs to be plunked down at the helm of a rocket ship and he’s on his way to save the universe. Maybe.

When the other recruits are wiped out, he becomes The Last Starfighter, which is also the name of the movie. It’s a friendly, good-hearted film that’s rather too slim to support itself. It also provides a good portion of inoffensive fun along the way.

It begins with some wonderfully low-key exposition in this trailer park, which turns out to be the proper setting for the stuck-in-low-gear characters: they’re portable people who never go anywhere. All except Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), who dreams of going away to college and making something great of himself – and taking his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) along with him.

Shades of It’s a Wonderful Life, in which the hero is also trapped in a small town. When Alex’s college loan doesn’t come through, things look bad for his escape.

To blow off a little steam, he has a go at the “Starfighter” video game, and breaks the record. This precipitates a visit from the alien emissary (Robert Preston, doing perhaps a bit too much Robert Preston).

Oddly enough, for all of the perfectly adequate special effects on display once we get into outer space, the small-town sequences are the most memorable. I found myself wanting to stay with the run-down rural landscape more than the high-tech other world. Happily, there is cross-cutting between the two arenas, since a robot double of Alex has been left in his place so no one will notice his absence (this leads to some amusing shtick when Maggie becomes overly affectionate and almost corrodes Alex II’s inner workings).

The big disappointment is in the blah nature of the space-age stuff. Director Nick Castle, who has a friendly feeling for his characters, seems to be working from an under­ nourished script.

One influence on The Last Star­ fighter – without having any actual involvement in it – is that of John (Halloween) Carpenter, who went to film school and wrote the screenplay of Escape From New York with Castle. Lance Guest played in Carpenter’s Halloween II, and Dan O’Herlihy, who plays a humanoid who resembles a lizard in The Last Starfighter, had a juicy role in Halloween III. Here, he plays it overly cuddly – too cuddly for a 6-foot iguana, in my opinion.

Castle, however, seems to have his own distinctive style. I’d like to see him tackle something less fantastic next time. Maybe The Last Starfighter never quite blasts off because Castle’s talents are more down­-to-earth.

First published in the Herald, July 1984

At the time I had my eye on Castle as a guy who might be an interesting auteur-in-the-making, and I enjoyed interviewing him on his next picture, The Boy Who Could Fly. Mary Catherine Stewart was having her 80s moment at this point (I interviewed her, too, for Mischief), and Lance Guest is still working. I am going to guess this movie has a following.

Night of the Comet

August 1, 2011

Night of the Comet is one of those weird Day After movies in which a few earthlings have to re-construct the trappings of civilization following a world-wide disaster. This sort of scenario had a heyday in the 1950s, when the world trembled in the shadow of the Bomb. Cheap science-fiction movies stepped in to offer their versions of post-apocalypse life.

As the title suggests, Night of the Comet presents a disaster of natural, not nuclear, causes. A hitherto unrecorded comet veers by the Earth and turns 99 percent of the population into little piles of red dust. The only people spared are those who happened to pass the time within steel enclosures.

Our heroine (Catherine Mary Stewart), for instance, spend the evening cuddling up to the projectionist at the local movie house. They camped inside the projection booth itself, and because the booth is made of steel (to comply with fire regulations), they survive.

For the projectionist, it’s a short-lived stay of execution. He’s waylaid at the theater door by a skuzzy semi-human. It seems the people who weren’t turned into dust became zombies who try to kill normal survivors. It doesn’t really make much sense, but you’ve got to give the survivors some challenges.

The girl gets back home, where her sister also made it through the night (some coincidence) by sleeping in the tool shed, or something. So the two of them roam about the city raiding the shopping malls and taking a little target practice on parked cars; they’ve stocked up on guns so they can dispose of the bothersome zombies.

Somewhere, buried out in the desert, is a think tank of scientists who expected the disaster. They start scrounging around for survivors, but not for humanitarian reasons; some bonehead left the ventilation system on during the comet’s appearance, and the scientists know they are about to turn into zombies, too. Unless, that is, they can find an antidote in the blood of the survivors.

All of this nonsense is delivered in an utterly loopy fashion, stuffed with jokes and bizarre behavioral detail, as though the filmmakers knew perfectly well how absurd this all was. In a way, Night of the Comet reminded me a little of that outrageously violent Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, The Terminator. Both try to combine humor with action, and both are proud of their exploitation-film status.

Also, while neither film is any great work of art by itself, both promise much from their young directors. The man who wrote and directed Night of the Comet, Thom Eberhardt, has barely made a mark even in cheapie cinema, but he may yet put it all together. What he tries to do here is get a blend of comedy and horror much in the spirit of Gremlins. It doesn’t all come off, and sometimes the combination of tones is jarring. But it’s a promising effort.

First published in the Herald, November 22, 1984

Those of you who put your money on James Cameron rather than Thom Eberhardt, collect your winnings. Eberhardt’s IMDb “trivia” says he worked in public-TV documentaries before turning to features, and he’s listed as a production assistant on Steven Spielberg’s Amblin’. Whatever goodwill Eberhardt built up with this movie definitively ended for me with the dismal Captain Ron, a really terrible experience. This movie was near the beginning of the Eighties run of Catherine Mary Stewart, one of the tri-named starlets of the era (I interviewed her around the time of Mischief, another review I must dig up). By the way, the projection-booth apocalypse-survival gag was recently used in Brad Anderson’s Vanishing on 7th Street, a movie far less fun than this one.