Monday, August 12, 2019

Retro Review: TOO SCARED TO SCREAM (1985)

(US - 1985)

Directed by Tony Lo Bianco. Written by Neal Barbera and Glenn Leopold. Cast: Mike Connors, Anne Archer, Ian McShane, Leon Isaac Kennedy, Murray Hamilton, Ruth Ford, John Heard, Carrie Nye, Maureen O'Sullivan, Chet Doherty, Ken Norris, Sully Boyar, Karen Rushmore, Val Avery, Rony Clanton, Beeson Carroll, Victoria Bass, Adrienne Howard, Harry Madsen. (R, 99 mins)

The sole feature directing effort to date from veteran character actor Tony Lo Bianco (THE FRENCH CONNECTION), TOO SCARED TO SCREAM is an obscure oddity in the '80s slasher craze in that it skews much older than expected. Sure, there's the requisite splatter and some gratuitous nudity, but in a genre focused on dead teenagers, this has an overqualified cast on the mature side, headed by Mike Connors--TV's MANNIX--who also produced with his buddy, co-star Ken Norris, and A. Kitman Ho, the latter going on to be Oliver Stone's producing partner during the director's glory days from 1986's PLATOON through 1993's HEAVEN & EARTH. At times, TOO SCARED TO SCREAM (shot in NYC in 1982 as THE DOORMAN, but shelved until the short-lived B outfit The Movie Store got it into a few theaters in early 1985) feels less like a slasher film and more like a pilot for a Connors cop show that's been spruced up with enough violence, F-bombs, and T&A to qualify for an R rating. When a high-class call girl (Victoria Bass) is stabbed to death in her Manhattan high-rise apartment, Lt. DiNardo (Connors) and his partner Frank (PENITENTIARY's Leon Isaac Kennedy, his middle name misspelled "Issac" in the credits) zero in on their prime suspect: weirdo night doorman Vincent Hardwick (Ian McShane). Hardwick certainly seems the guilty type--he's evasive with questions, randomly spouts Shakespeare like a pompous asshole, and lives with and dotes obsessively on his paralyzed, wheelchair-bound mother (Maureen O'Sullivan, Mia Farrow's mother and the original Jane to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan, and who somehow chose this to end a long big-screen sabbatical), who can no longer speak but conveys with her eyes and worried looks that even she's creeped out by him.

A few more of the building's residents turn up dead, including a horny old woman (Ruth Ford, best known as the First Daughter opposite an Oscar-nominated Alexander Knox in 1944's WILSON) who keeps trying to booty call Hardwick in the wee hours when he's on duty; a lecherous fashion guru (Sully Boyar, of all people); and a model (Karen Rushmore) who takes the time to give herself a long, lingering nude oil rubdown before being offed (Lo Bianco had a few episodic TV directing credits under his belt, but he's definitely relishing the freedom he has here). Even though all of the murders happen on Hardwick's shifts, the evidence against him barely even qualifies as circumstantial, so DiNardo decides to take a break from busting the chops of ambitious female cop Kate Bridges (Anne Archer) by sending her in undercover as a new tenant (one of a few plot points that echo PIECES, along with one victim being dismembered and the remains compared to a jigsaw puzzle). Lo Bianco's direction is serviceable as he manages to create a few moderately tense moments and captures some vintage Times Square location shots (E.T., FIRST BLOOD, THE BURNING, and the porno I LIKE TO WATCH are on various theater marquees). He also leaves a blown Connors line in the finished film, when the star refers to McShane's Vincent Hardwick as "Mike Hardwick." Already a busy actress but still a few years from breaking out with her Oscar-nominated turn in 1987's FATAL ATTRACTION, Archer brings some charm to her role, even if her dancing skills land more on the side of Elaine Benes than FLASHDANCE. Connors more or less reprises his MANNIX persona, albeit with a few bizarre moments like when DiNardo finds the first victim's S&M-enthusiast john from the night before (Beeson Carroll) naked, hog-tied, and burned, slapping him on the ass and telling him "Don't catch cold," later quipping to Frank that "his butt looked like an ashtray at a Lucky Strike convention." Kennedy has next to nothing do, like many of the name actors who pop up in brief cameos, presumably as a result of Lo Bianco and Connors calling in some favors from friends who maybe stuck around just long enough to hit craft services: in addition to O'Sullivan and Ford, there's Carrie Nye just killing it in her one scene as a sardonic fashion designer; Murray Hamilton is a drunk, disgraced ex-cop and the older sugar daddy ex-husband of the first victim; Val Avery plays a coroner with a morbid sense of humor; and John Heard drops by as a forensic lab tech, perhaps because it was on his way to the set of C.H.U.D. They even managed to get legendary French singer Charles Aznavour to contribute the incongruous opening credits song "I'll Be There,"which also gets a more contemporary take at the end by Phyllis Hyman.

On VHS from Vestron back in the day, and just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion (because physical media is dead), TOO SCARED TO SCREAM is of little interest to anyone other than '80s slasher completists and Ian McShane superfans. Written by Neal Barbera and Glenn Leopold, a pair of '70s and '80s Saturday morning cartoon vets who also scripted Joseph Zito's much nastier 1981 cult classic THE PROWLER (Barbera's father was Hanna-Barbera's Joseph Barbera), the movie isn't very good, but the climactic plot twist does take things into an admittedly unexpected direction for the time, and is probably one of several things throughout that wouldn't fly in today's cancellation culture. As far as McShane is concerned, the future DEADWOOD star goes all in here, obviously patterning his performance on Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO. He gets to do some crazy and deranged shit, like putting on makeup, smiling at himself in the mirror, picking fights in an Irish bar, acting all twitchy, having meltdowns, and, in a scene that's worth the price of admission, force-feeding heaping forkfuls of cake to a game O'Sullivan. The Blu-ray has a couple of decent bonus features, with 82-year-old Lo Bianco and 70-year-old Kennedy on hand for newly-shot interviews, mainly reminiscing about cast members but never addressing why it took three years for the movie to be released or why no one behind the scenes knew how to spell "Isaac."

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