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.

The Hit

June 13, 2011

In the first scene of The Hit, we see a criminal (Terence Stamp) turning informant on his partners. They swear vengeance in a novel way: by breaking into a chorus of “We’ll Meet Again” as Stamp is led away to freedom.

Ten years pass. Stamp is leading a new life, in a village in Spain, when he is suddenly kidnapped and thrown into a car with two hired gunmen (John Hurt, as a cool professional, and Tim Roth, as a young hothead). Clearly, his old pals have finally caught up with him; as it turns out, he’s being transported to Paris to see his former boss before being executed.

Okay, the ingredients for a good crime movie are there. But at this point The Hit—which recently premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival—takes a decidedly nontraditional turn. That’s because Stamp is a criminal-turned-existentialist. His attitude toward his impending death is just as sunny and unperturbed as the Spanish countryside through which they travel. His philosophical acceptance of fate starts to get on the nerves of the two hit men.

The tone established by British director Stephen Frears and his superb cast is a weird mix of comedy and suspense. To my mind, it works brilliantly. If Jean-Paul Sartre had adapted Hemingway’s The Killers, it might play like this.

And in fact, The Hit does resemble the 1964 version of The Killers, directed by Don Siegel, which is known today primarily as the last movie of the actor who played the villain—Ronald Reagan. In that film, the victim’s calm acceptance of death sends the hit man into a search for some kind of explanation.

But the droll, bizarre approach of The Hit is completely new. The men pick up a girl (Laura del Sol) in Madrid. When she’s alone with Hurt, he tries to shut her up by sticking his hand over her mouth, and she bites him. When the other hit man returns, he wonders if they should get some food—maybe the girl is hungry. “She’s already eaten,” Hurt says dryly—allowing himself a small, private smile.

Hurt is good as always, but the acting honors truly belong to Terence Stamp. I’m not exactly sure how Stamp has kept himself busy the last few years—he seemed to disappear into a long period of low profile during the ’70s. But his face is now lined with character, and he projects exactly the kind of unruffled calm of the man who is at peace with himself.

Director Frears, whose previous claim to fame was a quirky Albert Finney movie called Gumshoe, in 1971, has also been out of sight for years—apparently, he’s been directing extensively for British television. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another decade before these men decide to do something worthy of their talents.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

Not only did Stamp and Frears go into gear after this movie, but newcomer Tim Roth managed pretty well too. There’s something slightly dreamy about The Hit, and Terence Stamp floats along in that mood just perfectly. The moment he realizes the jig is up, and pauses in resignation to look around the countryside before he is taken, is a wonderful piece of acting, and captures the general vibe of the film very nicely. Over the years I had chances to interview Stamp and Frears, and they are both engagingly odd: Stamp very kind, ultra-sensitive, and with a sort of zen air about him, and Frears padding around barefoot in his hotel room, a director content to reside in the form of a bus driver.