Soul Man

November 15, 2012

By now, you’re probably familiar with the high-concept idea behind Soul Man, but just in case you missed it, we’ll recap: A jerky white kid (C.Thomas Howell) gets accepted at Harvard Law School and sees a fat future in front of him. Then his rich daddy (James B. Sikking) cuts off the boy’s allowance, which means the kid must find his own method of finance.

Every possibility is painstakingly explored, and darned if it doesn’t turn out that the best idea is for Howell to blacken his skin and apply for a full scholarship awarded to the outstanding black student from California. (Interestingly enough, nowhere in the film’s litany of money schemes is it suggested that this little creep might work to earn his tuition.)

So Howell takes these handy extra-strength tanning tablets that turn his skin deep brown, and he perms his hair. And he’s in Harvard.

This concept may sound distasteful, and, well, that’s about how it plays. The makers of the film, writer Carol Black and director Steve Miner, clearly mean it to be taken as an anti-racist film. Howell sees the racial prejudice directed at him, grows up a little bit, and falls in love with a fellow student (Rae Dawn Chong) who happens to be black.

Most of that doesn’t wash. The intentions may be right, but most of the film is callous buffoonery, and a trivialization of its subject.

Admittedly in some of this callous buffoonery are a few laughs. Howell meets a vixenish student (Melora Harden) who’s looking for the obligatory multiracial college affair. After they sleep together, she sighs, “I felt 400 years of anger and oppression in every pelvic thrust.”

Late in the film there’s a farcical scene in which Howell’s parents come to visit from Los Angeles the same time his two girlfriends show up. It’s a well-managed scene; too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t have the same snap.

James Earl Jones does a John Houseman number as the tough law professor; it’s an unbearably hammy performance that culminates, in the film’s queasiest scene, with Jones admitting that Howell might really have learned a lot about the black experience. This is a little hard to believe.

The only notable performance, outside of Chong’s appealing professionalism, is given in a very small role by Ron Reagan (not to be confused with the other actor who has that name). Young Reagan is as relaxed and convincing here as in his occasional TV appearances, and gives every indication that he might be a likable future player.

That small bright spot aside, Soul Man is a pretty negligible affair—and the title is the essence of irony. This is a film that might have a few laughs, but it’s certainly got no soul.

First published in the Herald, October 30, 1986

I completely forgot that Ron Reagan ever took a stab at acting, let alone that I wrote of his work approvingly. Howell and Chong later married. Carol Black was one of the key people behind “The Wonder Years,” which leads me to suspect there might be more going on in this movie than it seemed at the time, although I clearly didn’t hate it.

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House

June 24, 2011

House should at least have provided some dumb fun, given its basic premise of a haunted house and the horror-novel writer who comes to live in it. You’d think there’d be some rich ideas there—the writer whose fantasies come true, whose characters becomes flesh, whose calm approach to fear gets jumbled.

Naaah. Producer Sean Cunningham and director Steve Miner, two of the boys instrumental in bringing the Friday the 13th series to the screen, prove themselves utterly vapid when it comes to conjuring the dark dreams that inform the best horror films.

They’ve got a somewhat ambitious idea. The writer (William Katt) is a Vietnam vet who’s trying to work through an extended writer’s block when it comes to recounting his war duty. He’s also distraught about the disappearance of his young son, and the recent breakup of his marriage.

Then his aunt hangs herself in her old house, and he decides to move in. Naturally, he’s broken a cardinal rule of horror films, to wit: when a relative hangs herself in the upstairs bedroom, always sell the place immediately.

Instead, he moves in and starts hearing creepy sounds at midnight, and then a big ugly thing comes out of a closet and scratches him. Then his neighbor from across the street comes over, also big but not as ugly (George Wendt, of “Cheers”), carrying a six-pack and offering help.

Katt has a lot of warnings, but he remains in the house. It’s got something to do with solving his Vietnam problem, and also with finding his son. This doesn’t make much sense at first, but it will be explained at the end of the film, at which time it still doesn’t make much sense.

The beasts in the house are an inadequate lot. Except, perhaps, for the one that impersonates Katt’s wife (Kay Lenz), then mutates into a gray squishy thing with red fingernails. When Katt kills this monster, and is distributing the chopped-up pieces in Glad garbage bags, the soundtrack plays “You’re No Good,” an inexplicable touch.

But when Miner resorts to revivifying a mounted marlin, which flaps menacingly on the wall (if such a sight can be said to be menacing), and a bunch of farm tools come to life in Katt’s garage, you know the director is in trouble. This stuff isn’t scary, it’s dorky.

The only genuinely strange business involves Katt’s final descent into the Vietnam mystery, when he travels through the medicine cabinet into a black hole that leads him to a Southeast Asia swamp, and to the location of his lost son. But this big emotional payoff doesn’t come through, because the rest of the film is so stupid.

First published in the Herald, March 5, 1986

It has fans; of course it does, it had a long life on cable-TV and VHS. And it’s better than any Friday the 13th movie, and it has a few laughs, and it has Kay Lenz. But the mounted marlin on the wall lost me, and I never went back.