Cloak & Dagger

September 21, 2020

Cloak & Dagger reworks the Boy Who Cried Wolf story, but with a modern-day computer angle. In this case, little Davey Osborn is a video­ game buff; his favorite is one calied Cloak & Dagger. When he plays, he invents a fantasy world, including the spy hero of C&D, Captain Jack Flack. 

Davey’s imagination doesn’t turn off when he leaves the keyboard, however. He’s liable to consult Jack Flack about the intricate methods of retrieving a pack of Twinkies from the local junk-food outlet.

One day, while prowling around an office building with his companion in espionage (an 8-year-old girl named Kim), Davey walks smack dab into the middle of intrigue, murder and a secret super-valuable message encoded on a video cassette handed to him by a dying man falling down a stairwell.

Whew. Heady stuff for a little guy not yet out of grade school. Davey hightails it to the authorities and to his father, but nobody believes him. The spies, of course, will do anything to get that casette back.

We’ve got the makings of a good story here. It’s based, very loosely, on a crackerjack 1949 thriller called The Window, although not much is borrowed from that film. (This new film is no relation to the 1946 Gary Cooper movie titled Cloak and Dagger.)

The movie’s true influence comes from Alfred Hitchcock, who so frequently used the situation of the innocent man swept into danger. There are many Hitchcock elements here, including a suspense scene in a national landmark. Hitchcock used Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty, among others; here, it’s the Alamo. There’s a race to head off a ticking bomb, a nicely handled chase across the canals of San Antonio, and a kindly old couple who have the suspicious habit of always being in the right place at the right time.

The director is Australian Richard Franklin, who did time work last year with the unenviable task of making the sequel to Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho. His Psycho II showed respect for the master but a healthy sense of humor, too.

Those attributes show up in Cloak & Dagger, and it’s charming entertainment; but when Franklin invites comparison to Hitchcock, he’s bound to fall short. He does, in a lot of places, most notably in the film’s major theme, which involves the boy and his father establishing a friendship, through the adventure. It’s sweet, but a trifle obvious.

However, Henry Thomas, who was in E.T., carries the film easily. And Dabney Coleman, TV’s delightfully despicable Buffalo Bill, is fine as both the rakish Jack Flack and as Davey’s ineffectual father. In particular, Coleman invests Flack with an off-center, amoral humor that bounces well against the earnest hero.

One of the keys to enjoying the film is the immediate identification with the hero. Let’s face it, every 12-year-old has fantasized about a dangerous adventure like this. That feeling is captured. Despite its eventual shortcomings, Cloak & Dagger should please 12-year-olds of all ages.

First published in The Herald, August 9, 1984

Good of me to assure all those readers who might wonder about this film’s possible relation to an old Fritz Lang picture. Well, it was a different time. I failed to mention that the older couple is played by Jeanette Nolan and John McIntire, the married-in-real-life acting duo who also appeared in Psycho.

Link/Trick or Treat

November 1, 2019

link2Just in time for Halloween, here are two decently produced horror films, both of which go disappointingly awry from unusual premises.

Link attempts a Stephen King-ish story about some apes getting the better of their master, a scientist (Terence Stamp), at his lonely Cornwall mansion. Actually, it’s just one ape who goes bad, an orangutan named Link who’s been trained to outsmart humans. All too well, as it turns out.

Link gets the upper paw, dispenses with the professor, starts threatening the young house­keeper (Elisabeth Shue) who can’t seem to figure out a way to get out of the house.

The director here is the Australian Richard Franklin, who has made some good chillers (Road Games, Psycho II). And Franklin actually directs the film well – he mounts a few exciting sequences. But the basic idea finally seems so silly that even Franklin’s efforts can’t jerk the movie onto a higher evolutionary plane.

trickortreatTrick or Treat is even more disappointing. It springs from a potentially funny-scary Idea that a demonic rock ‘n’ roller might be raised from the dead by a coded backward message on one of his albums.

A teen-age misfit (Marc Price) is stunned when his hero, heavy metal monster Sammi Curr (Tony Fields), dies suddenly. A sympathetic DJ (Gene Simmons) gives the kid the acetate recording of Curr’s last, yet-to-be-released album: Songs in the Key of Death.

When played backward, the secret messages on the album form an incantation that brings Curr back. He’s as surly as ever, but now he has supernatural powers. When his music is played, it melts the ears of kids who listen to it. He must be stopped, and only our hero can do it.

The excesses and self-importance of heavy metal deserve satirizing, and so do the bluenose attitudes of those who would ban the music. Trick or Treat does some of both but blows most of the good opportunities. The script is all over the place, and doesn’t know what it wants to do. Charles Martin Smith directed the film; he’s the actor who played the nerd In American Graffiti and the lead in Never Cry Wolf. He gets off a few funny ideas – the villaincan reach into a TV set and yank out the person onscreen – but most of the movie is as thick and tortuous as Sammi Curr’s music.

First published in the Herald, October 1986

Charles Martin Smith continues to direct; his 1992 film Fifty-Fifty is an unusual picture that has some old-movie zest to it. Other than that, does anybody remember this film? Link has enjoyed some cult approval, I think, especially with that good cast (and Jerry Goldsmith did the music). Franklin had previously done the creditable Psycho II, and went on to make F/X 2, whereupon he went back to mostly Australian work.

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.