Spellbinder

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.


Mischief

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.

 


Secret Admirer

May 8, 2012

The plot of Secret Admirer is much too complicated to synopsize—and that should be a fundamental recommendation. When a film that appears to be another teen sex comedy is too complicated to describe, it usually suggests something out of the ordinary.

Basically, the movie’s about the myriad repercussions of an anonymous love letter. The letter is intended for Michael (C. Thomas Howell), a graduating high-school senior. But the letter goes astray, and falls into the hands of most of the people surrounding Michael, including his parents (Cliff De Young and Dee Wallace Stone), his dream girl (Kelly Preston), and her parents (Fred Ward and Leigh Taylor-Young).

A few more letters get written, and that botches up everything, because as these letters get traded around, the reader usually assumes himself to be the target—when in fact, it’s only gotten into his hands by chance. If that’s not clear, let’s just say that before long everyone in the movie suspects at least one other person of being the “secret admirer” who sent the thing. They’re almost always wrong.

It’s the stuff of classic farce, reshaped to fit quite neatly into the mode of the current coming-of-age comedy. Secret Admirer is unusually well-played for that genre; some of the actors are recognizable from other teen films. Howell, of The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., makes a fine hero, just a bit on the dense side. Lori Laughlin is just right as the “nice” girl who steadfastly stands by him.

The object of his desire is played by Kelly Preston, who played a similar blond bombshell in Mischief. Her character is ripest for satire, and she’s got the pitch of the babbling, fashion-conscious debutante down to a T. And the parents, who are swept into their own whirl of sexual confusion by the stray letters, couldn’t be better—the actors communicate the illicit, spicy thrill of potential adultery invading their world of PTA meetings and bridge parties. Fred Ward is a standout as Preston’s father, the excitable cop.

Most of all, Secret Admirer reveals the sharp writing and directing talents of scenarists Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt (Greenwalt also directed), who collaborated on the screenplay for Class. They were in town for the premiere showing of Secret Admirer at the Seattle Film Festival, and proved to be as funny in person as the evidence of the film would suggest.

In the process of fielding questions from the audience, they revealed a crucial casting change: The blond-bombshell part was originally to be played by Julianne Phillips, who has become better known lately as Mrs. Bruce Springsteen. Preston replaced Phillips a few days into shooting, when, as Kouf and Greenwalt tell it, it became obvious that Phillips did not look young enough to fit in with the high-schoolers playing opposite her. In so doing, they dealt away an unforeseen commercial boost; but based on Phillips’ performance in the ditzy TV movie Summer Fantasy, they got the better of it in the long run.

First published in the Herald, June 13, 1985

Greenwalt and Kouf got into television and have flourished there. This was a very nicely-made picture, curiously underrated when people talk about good Eighties comedies, with likability all over the place. Uh…Summer Fantasy?