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.

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The Stepfather/Wanted Dead or Alive

October 13, 2011

The Stepfather is a genuinely creepy little suspense movie, with a very interesting villain at its center. In the film’s first scene, an ordinary-looking fellow in an ordinary suburban home shaves his beard off, cuts his hair and changes into classy clothing. Then he walks down the stairs of his cozy home, as the camera casually reveals the tableau of his wife and children lying dead in the living room—murdered at his hands.

It seems this fellow makes a habit of marrying widows with children, then killing the family. His psychopathology is particular, and bizarre: He kills them because they don’t measure up to his ideal of a perfect family.

A year after the opening scene, we find him (in an assumed identity) married to another widow (Shelley Hack) with a 16-year-old daughter (Jill Schoelen). It’s a happy home, except that the daughter catches the stepdad in one of his weird freak-out moods down in the cellar, and she starts catching on to his true colors.

The most interesting thing about the movie is the depiction of the stepfather. He’s a bland, milk-drinking All-American type, who spouts hokey clichés to end conversations (“Father knows best,” he smiles blandly), chuckles warmly when watching reruns of “Mr. Ed,” and uses such TV-commercial pieties as “Ah, this is as good as life gets.” He’s somewhat reminiscent of the protagonists in the ferocious pulp novels of Jim Thompson, whose people are often dull on the outside, insane on the inside.

He’s played by Terry O’Quinn, who does an impressive job of catching the character’s terrifying banality, as well as his suppressed violence (there are some echoes of the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining). O’Quinn is particularly good at avoiding the temptation to mug; he keeps the man a hale and hearty, backyard-barbecue guy, and doesn’t tip his hat with too much eyebrow-wiggling.

Director Joseph Ruben and screenwriter Donald E. Westlake deserve credit for this cool, almost analytical character study; and for keeping it suspenseful and crisp. This is a chilling little movie.

Not so chilling is Wanted Dead or Alive, an action flick featuring Dutch star Rutger Hauer. Hauer, a fine actor (he was the hero of Soldier of Orange and Harrison Ford’s snow-haired adversary in Blade Runner), has stated his desire to become a big American movie star. He seems to think that appearing in an Eastwood-style shoot-’em-up will further that end.

He plays a bounty hunter, irrelevantly the great-grandson of the character Steve McQueen played in the old TV series “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” who goes after an Arab terrorist (Gene Simmons). The terrorist blew up a theater playing Rambo, so it’s absolutely imperative he be stopped before he further damages our culture.

It’s the standard routine, with Hauer’s charisma slightly hampered by his uncomfortable American accent. The only unusual note is sounded at the end of the film, when, after Hauer has cleared out the bad guys, he avoids the clenched-fist heroics customary to these films. Instead, he settles down into melancholy, and seems even more existentially adrift than he was at the beginning.

First published in the Herald, January 22, 1987

The Stepfather remains a terrific one-off kind of picture, and O’Quinn’s performance is a gem. For some reason I have frequently missed the subsequent work of Joseph Ruben (never saw Money Train or The Good Son or The Forgotten), so I can’t really speak with authority about the work of the former director of Gorp. A lot of people liked Ruben’s Dreamscape, including Pauline Kael, who did a handstand or two about it, although it didn’t grab me. Surely the gifted Donald Westlake had something to do with the movie’s dry, even power. Wanted was directed by Gary Sherman, the guy who did Raw Meat and Dead & Buried; he’s still in the business. I really have no explanation about why I said so little about Gene Simmons as an Arab terrorist.


Road Games/Dead and Buried/Hell Night

November 28, 2010

Horror-film fans, weary of the numbing dreck that quick-buck artists have cranked out in recent years, may be in for a modest surprise when they see Road Games. This intelligent thriller, shot in Australia, relies almost entirely on suggested rather than explicit violence.

A lonely truck driver (Stacy Keach) is carting a load of slaughtered pork across the Australian desert. He recites poetry, plays the mandolin, and shares bad puns with his pet dingo, Boswell. Gradually he begins to suspect that a fellow highway traveler is the perpetrator of a series of brutal hitchhiker murders.

Keach picks up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) out of protectiveness and personal curiosity, and they proceed to carry on a duel of wits and wheels with the presumptive killer.

An intriguing element in these road games is that we’re clued in early that Keach is exhausted, and as the suspect becomes increasingly devious, we begin to wonder (along with Keach) whether Keach is losing his sanity. Director Richard Franklin (of the award-winning Australian horror film Patrick) underscores this by having Keach’s usually cheery soliloquies answered in voice-over by his own fevered words.

The movie takes on the quality of a dream, with peripheral characters reappearing in the unlikeliest circumstances. There’s one scene that is like a classic frustration dream: The killer abducts a victim and drives off while Keach watches helplessly a few hundred feet away, where he’s been forced to stop his truck. Another good suspense scene involves—no kidding—a walk down rows of hanging pork in the back of a refrigerated truck.

The case doesn’t need overstating; Road Games is no masterpiece. But don’t let the lurid ad campaign fool you—it’s a cut above today’s average horror fare.

Dead and Buried is pretty much today’s average horror fare, but it benefits from a wild central plot that sets it apart from a basic adolescent-slasher flick: Horrible murders are performed (and recorded on film) so that a madman may artfully reconstruct the disfigured dead and build his own army of zombies. All this fun takes plays in a sleepy resort town, Potter’s Bluff, where the town motto is “A New Way of Life.”

It’s become obvious that a subgenre of horror films mainly exists as an excuse to invent spectacularly grotesque makeup effects, like those in Maniac and Friday the 13th. Dead and Buried is explicitly about the process of makeup—making the dead look alive—so it’s very frank about lingering over some of the more grisly moments. The quality of the makeup ranges from gross-but-pretty-good to plain lousy.

The film also gives clench-jawed James Farentino the chance to let loose a couple of healthy screams, and the presence of the late Jack Albertson lends an eerie tone to speeches about the living dead.

The title Hell Night unwittingly, but conveniently, describes sitting through this grade-Z shocker. It’s the tale of an initiation ceremony that requires four fraternity/sorority pledges to spend the night in an abandoned spooky mansion. Seems that some years before, the family crazies that lived in the house had been massacred by one of their own, and legend has it the surviving lunatic may still be lurking around the place.

Of course he’s still lurking around the place, and soon the kids are dropping like flies, which corresponds to the level of humanity they’re treated with by the filmmakers. One of the boys (whom we have been led to believe is smart) suddenly decides he should go after the hulking maniac in the dark cellar with a pitchfork. It’s the beginning of about five minutes of the dullest would-be suspense in cinema history.

Poor Linda Blair is still being preyed upon, though rather than being possessed, as she was in The Exorcist, she seems bored for the duration of Hell Night. There is no reason whatsoever to blame her for this.

First published in the Seattle Times, May 18, 1982.

This was my first review for the Seattle Times, which means I’ll never forget my excitement at buying some copies on the day it came out. Won’t forget the disappointment, either: an editor had done what some editors do, which is tinker just enough with word choice and rhythm to muck up my stuff. I recall only one specific change, which was my word “dreck” being replaced by “junk” in the first sentence. So I restore the original here: nyah-nyah. (You don’t forget these kinds of things, folks.) I did a few reviews when Times reviewer John Hartl would go on vacation, and then I started writing reviews at the Herald, a Washington Post-owned daily in Everett, Washington. I did a summer on the TV desk at the Times, too, after which they contracted amnesia about me. As for the movies, Road Games is the real deal, Dead and Buried seems to have an appreciative following today, and Hell Night is still to be avoided.